Expert chat: Feeling tired but can’t sleep

Sleep expert, Kathleen

Sleep expert, Kathleen

If you feel tired but can’t sleep, find yourself lying wide awake in bed and feel sleepy throughout the day, it won’t be long before it starts to wear you down. Sleep is vital for concentration, alertness and general good health, so not being able to get it is not ideal. So what can you do? Sleep expert Kathleen McGrath dropped in to answer your questions on nightmares, fear of sleep and disrupted sleep patterns. She offers advice on how to break the cycle and get some decent shut-eye, check out our sleep chat below.

Fliss: I have had a lot of nightmares that actually make me fear going to sleep the next night. I don’t really understand my nightmares and stay up all night thinking about them.

Kathleen: Hi Fliss, thanks for your question. All nightmares and dreams tend to relate very much to experiences that you may have had or that you’re worried about. The important thing to do when it comes to nightmares is to work out how you would like the nightmare to end. Also, have a think about what might be causing it.

Fliss: My nightmares are obscure though, and very scary.

Kathleen: As I said, do remember that all dreams are related to memories and things in your head, they’re not real. They’re sparked off by electricity moving through your brain so try not to be frightened by them. Approximately 15% of your sleeping time results in dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Your brain literally looks around your head trying to make sense of that electrical experience. Focusing on the science can sometimes help you not to feel so frightened. Keep reminding yourself that if you’re having nightmares they are purely based on electricity jumping around your brain!

Lucy: My nightmares tend to be about things from the past.

Erica: Lucy, have you tried counselling or therapy?

Kathleen: If they’re based on actual occurrences from the past I’d suggest going to the GP and you may be able to get something like hypnotherapy to get rid of some of those fears. It’s now available on the NHS. If it’s based on reality and experience then you need to work through that, but try to remember that when you’re asleep you are completely safe. Your brain will look around for memories and try to make sense of them in your dreams – it doesn’t mean it’s happening. You shouldn’t have to face them on your own so well done for coming and talking about it here.

Helen: We’ve got an article on The Mix about dreams and nightmares that you might want to have a look at too.

Kat: I’m in my twenties and constantly feel tired but can’t sleep. I often wake up in the middle of the night and I’ve been told I snore quite heavily. I am very sleepy during the day. I often sleep on the bus to/from work and sometimes fall asleep if I’m on my own at work. I’m worried that if I see the doctor, because I am overweight, they will fob me off with being told to lose weight. Whilst I understand that might help, I have various conditions that make it difficult to lose weight and I’ve had an eating disorder for a long time. I couldn’t bear that conversation and I’m not sure how to broach the subject? I’ve also got mental health difficulties, so I do keep on top of sleep hygiene, etc.

Kathleen: Hi Kat and thanks for your question. First of all, sleeping well is very much related to breathing well. If for any reason you find it difficult to sleep comfortably I would recommend that you do seek advice. One major problem is that with lots of lifestyle issues, GPs are not always the best people to talk things through with.

Kat: Who would you suggest I speak to? I do have difficulty breathing whilst I’m going to sleep.

Kathleen: You may find the practice nurse at your GP surgery helpful and I think it would be worth keeping a sleep diary. It’s also worth remembering that if you think back to 200 years ago, we would work outside and be physically active and physically tired. This helped us throughout the year in sleeping longer in the winter and less time in the summer. I don’t know what kind of job you do but I would suggest more physical activity and I would suggest a light meal in the evening. If you’re taking any medication that might affect your sleep or weight it’s also worth having a medicines review with your local pharmacist. You might also find it helpful to have a personal consultation with a sleep specialist nurse. You could also check out The Mix’s article on insomnia here.

Taylor: I have a thing about sleeping with the curtains shut, I just can’t. It’s a pretty big problem in the summer because it’s light so much, any suggestions?

Kathleen: Hi Taylor and thanks for your question. Years ago, we would have gone to bed when it was dark and got up when it was light, that’s how we regulate our cycle of wake and sleep. Now that we have almost constant lighting and heating 24 hours a day this does cause sleep problems. If sleeping with the curtains open doesn’t bother you too much then do your own thing. If it does, then possibly using an eye mask might be helpful. We have a thing called the pineal gland in the brain that regulates how we monitor light and dark and that’s really important in the sleep cycle. Creating dark in order to sleep, as well as a slightly cooler and quiet, restful environment is really key. If you’re not feeling too tired then it might not be a problem. Check out our article ‘how much sleep do I need’ here.

Sarah: I have always had problems with sleeping at night time but I can sleep fine during the day. The problem is that I work during the day! On the weekend I will sleep during the day. I don’t know why this is happening or how to get out of the cycle?

Kathleen: Hi Sarah, that makes sense. I’d suggest taking a look at some information on sleep hygiene – this is the process of helping you to get back into a decent rhythm or routine of sleep. The most important thing you can do is set up a routine. For example if you don’t sleep in the night, try not to sleep during the next day. Set your alarm clock for the same time every day – whether you’re working or not working. It’s very common for people to not sleep at night during the week and often the worst night’s sleep we get is Sunday night as we have disrupted our sleep routine over the weekend. Sleep hygiene involves a pattern of getting ready for bed, it involves sleeping in a cooler room and it involves preparation for sleep. The main thing is plenty of fresh air, a reasonably healthy diet and plenty of exercise so that you go to bed physically and not mentally tired. It’s also very important that you create your bedroom as a perfect sleep environment – no gadgets, no bright lights, no computers, no rubbish. Your bedroom should be a place where you sleep, a haven designed for that purpose!

Erica: Personally, I make sure that I do lots of physical activity throughout the day and by the time it’s bed time I’m really tired and sleepy. I never used to sleep early before but I tried this 21 day habit-forming formula. I put on an alarm clock and went to sleep every day by 11pm and woke up at 6am. I also avoided taking books or my laptop to bed. I’d switch off WiFi on my phone and relax before sleeping. I also made sure the room wasn’t too hot.

Kathleen: That’s great Erica. Thanks for your questions everyone, sleep well.

Share your tips for getting better sleep on our discussion boards or check out our article on how to sleep better here.

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By The Mix Staff

Updated on 08-Nov-2022