We spend about a third of our lives sleeping, but it is by no means a waste of time. Without nightly rest, a healthy and active life is impossible.
Sleep boosts the immune system. The brain processes the day’s stimuli. The muscles relax and the skin has time to regenerate. Intensive and adequate recovery requires uninterrupted sleep.
“The discussion of insomnia is never-ending. I experience this daily in my seminars,” says Susanne Grohs-von Reichenbach, a Relaxation Therapist in Germany. She cites a recent survey by a large German health insurer that found one in two women and one in four men suffer disturbed sleep, ranging from problems with falling asleep to staying asleep.
“The number one cause of insomnia is stress - be it work- or family-related or because of health problems.” Before bedtime, absolute relaxation is essential. “One has to consciously provide for a period of rest,” says Juergen Zulley of the sleep centre at the University of Regensburg. “This should start at least half an hour before bedtime.” He recommends time spent on a hobby, listening to quiet, relaxing music or an evening stroll.
“Movement is generally the quickest way to de-stress,” says Grohs-von Reichenbach. She also recommends conscious relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or autogenic training. Such activities should ideally become daily rituals. “Thereby, the body is conditioned: It learns to switch to ’relaxation’ mode,” explains Zulley.
A ritual can also simply be a warm beverage. “Many can’t bear the much-feted glass of warm milk and honey though,” Grohs-von Reichenbach observes. She recommends a glass of water, consumed in even sips, instead. “The relaxation reflex can be triggered in the brain in this manner.” A not too hot bath, to which for example lavender or lemon balm has been added, can offer a pleasant conclusion to a particularly stressful day.
Letting go of the day works best in a room where one feels comfortable. Bedroom furnishing is primarily a matter of taste, but “it is important that chaos does not reign,” says Susanne Moosmann of a Berlin consumer initiative. “Moreover, it is sensible for everything that has to do with work - from computers to the ironing board - to be placed out of range or partitioned off.” The laptop and the complicated notes for the next day’s meeting have equally little reason to be on the bedside table.
A relaxing bedroom temperature also facilitates sleep. “Sixteen to 18 degrees is ideal,” says Moosmann. “It is preferable to air the room before one goes to sleep, rather than leave a window ajar all night, especially in winter.” That way, noise from the street can also be blocked out. Other noise factors must be eliminated as soon as they are judged to be disruptive. This would apply to the incessant ticking of the alarm clock, as well as the rattling of window shutters. In emergencies, earplugs help.
Then there is also the foundation for sleep: the bed. “The mattress has to adjust to the person, not the other way around,” says Moosmann. Test it thoroughly before buying. Your body should not sink too deeply into the mattress and it should provide sufficient room for movement. “As a rule of thumb, bigger and heavier people need a firmer base than those who are smaller and lighter.” An agreeable temperature in bed is also necessary. Dry and not too warm is recommended. “The fibre of the mattress, the bedding and sleepwear must essentially be able to absorb and release moisture so that dry conditions are created,” says sleep researcher Zulley. In addition, the bed covers should not smother either with weight or a build-up of heat.
Having problems falling asleep or waking at night, from time to time, is entirely normal. Frequent contributing factors to sleep disruption include a stomach that is too full or too empty, and caffeine or nicotine consumption before bedtime. These can easily be avoided.
However, if sleep disruption significantly impairs one’s well-being or performance in the daytime and, additionally, occurs practically every night for at least four weeks, visit your doctor.
Chronic insomnia can be symptomatic of hormonal problems or a physical illness.