It’s estimated that more than a third of adults don’t get enough sleep (‘enough’ depends on the individual) but is believed to be around seven hours of sleep according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Looking specifically at a chronic disease group, such as those living with arthritis, however, and those numbers jump to probably half or three-quarters, depending on whether someone is experiencing a flare or going through a period of stress where their sleep is badly affected. 

Why is it worth looking at (again)? 

You may think you have tried everything regarding sleep, and almost feel like giving up in trying to ‘control’ your sleep, but it’s worth looking at again. Why? Because we know that improving the quality of your sleep can help you to manage your symptoms better. 

Although simple, these tips have been proven to work and, even if you’ve tried them before, they are worth another go as the evidence backs them up. Sometimes all we need is a little guidance when it comes to our own self-management, and we are back on the right path again. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so be patient with this. Try to take on just one or two changes per day over the next few and, hopefully soon, you’ll be enjoying an improvement in either the quality or the quantity of your sleep later this month.  

Changing sleep habits step-by-step 

These are not ‘quick fixes’ but, rather, changes that are likely to positively impact your sleep in the longer term so it may take a full two weeks to start noticing the benefits.  

  1. Stick to the same schedule: 

You’ve heard it before, but we know it works. Aim to go to bed and wake up at around the same time each day, even at the weekends if possible. Many people are tempted to ‘catch up’ on sleep at the weekend, but the research shows that this only makes it harder to then wake up on Monday morning. Instead, sticking to a very regular pattern stimulates your body’s ‘internal clock’, and trains you to sleep when you should. This tip is known as probably one of the most important things to do for better sleep. It should get to the point, ideally, when you naturally wake when you need to, without an alarm clock, and naturally feel sleepy when it’s time for bed – of course, everyone is different and you may never find this works for you, but still stick to the routine and, in time, your brain and body should follow. 

  1. Consult your healthcare team: 

It should go without saying but, if you’re struggling to sleep due to pain or frustrating symptoms, then it’s important to address these with your healthcare team. They may need to adjust your medication again so that you get on top of pain and other symptoms, which will affect your sleep in a positive way. Self-managing your own condition is important, but you can’t do this alone. You need your healthcare team to be involved along your journey. The same goes for family members and loved ones – if you are struggling with sleep and fatigue, don’t expect them to know without you communicating as openly as possible about your challenges. It can be hard to ask for help, but if you need extra support, it’s important to say something. Chores can be divided up and short-cuts can be taken (such as doing online shopping or buying vegetables pre-chopped etc) to make things a little easier until your sleep hopefully improves. Communication is key in order for you to get through a bout of insomnia or a flare-up of your condition. Have a read of our blogs about how to manage pain here: part 1 and part 2. You may also get lots of useful insights from the experts by watching our ‘Breaking the Pain’ webinar series here.  

  1. Exercise earlier in the day, especially outdoors if you can: 

Although this is not possible for everyone, it’s worth a try if you can fit it in, even if that means getting up a bit earlier each morning. We know that exercising too close to bedtime is not a good idea as it stimulates hormones that can keep you awake. However, just twenty to thirty minutes of walking each morning is a great habit to get into if you want to improve your sleep. As well as getting fresh air and moving your body for health benefits, getting out into the light each morning is important in order to send the signal to your body that morning is for waking, and evening time is for sleep. This is not always easy in the modern environment, where our brains and bodies can become easily confused – for instance, by the interference of LED lights or screens at night, which makes our brains think it’s actually time to stay awake (see point 7 below).  

  1. Avoid caffeine (and other stimulants) after 2pm: 

It’s important to realise that caffeine is a stimulant that keeps us awake by stimulating the brain and central nervous system. It’s best to drink your coffee and tea in the morning and to cut off any caffeine after lunch. If you’re reliant on a daily afternoon coffee, remember that it’s just a habit and habits can be broken over time. Replacements are always a good idea – try a peppermint or chamomile tea, or if you enjoy a tea that has milk, then try decaffeinated tea or roiboos. Some people also enjoy de-caffeinated coffee which, of course, you can order in a local café now, as a cappuccino or flat white. Other stimulants to watch out for are certain medications such as Sudafed (non-drowsy formula) which people can use if they have a cold, without realising that it can affect their sleep if taken late at night (as it contains a stimulant). Talk to your healthcare team to see if any other medications you are taking could be contributing to your insomnia and whether they can be taken at other times of the day so as not to affect your sleep.  

  1. Avoid alcohol before bed:  

Many people think that drinking alcohol at night helps them to relax and sleep better but the truth is that alcohol disturbs your sleep cycle. Drinking alcohol even six hours before bedtime has been shown to lead to shallow sleep and more frequent wakening during the night, leaving you feeling more fatigued the following day. Start with replacing alcohol with an alternative such as a non or low-alcohol beer or wine, or a non-alcohol gin. Some people enjoy a soda with lime cordial (or sparkling water and lime) with lots of ice – it’s amazing how the brain can be ‘tricked’ into thinking you’re having alcohol when you’re not. Another tip is to get out and walk after your dinner, to avoid the temptation to drink at home, but also just to clear your mind and get some fresh air at the end of a busy day. Avoid large meals or drinks close to bedtime: 

  1. Dim the lights each evening: 

Even with Ireland’s latitude meaning less light in winter, we are often still getting too much light in the evening time – not natural light, but light from the LED lights that many of us have had installed to save energy, in addition to the blue light from the many screens we have in our homes. This is bad news for someone who struggles with sleep. To counteract this, it’s important to walk around your home dimming the lights in the evening time. Another good tip is to adjust the settings on your phone so that you are not being exposed to stimulating blue light in the evening time. Some people also find it useful to invest in blue-light blocking glasses that they wear from about 6pm onwards each evening. 

  1. Get your temperatures right: 

Room and body temperature seems to play an important role in helping with getting off to sleep. Taking a hot bath close to bedtime doesn’t just help you to relax (and will do so even more effectively if you put in half a cup of Epsom salts, which are full of magnesium, known to help relax the muscles and nervous system), but it appears that the drop in body temperature after you get out of the bath could actually help you to feel sleepy. When it comes to your bedroom, the research shows that we sleep better if the room temperature is on the cool side. If you need a hot water bottle to warm your feet, that’s fine, as long as the ambient temperature of the room is cool.  

  1. Get up and go downstairs if you can’t sleep: 

If you find yourself lying awake, with a racing mind, then staying in bed for too long can be counter-productive. After twenty minutes of trying to get to sleep, it’s important to get up and do something else. The anxiety around not being able to get to sleep can often be the source of the problem so some people find it hugely beneficial to go downstairs and distract themselves with a book, a meditation (try the Calm app), or a nature programme or funny TV show that helps you relax (but make sure you are not too close to the screen or, better still, wear blue-light blocking glasses – see point 5 above). 

  1. Ask for help when you need it: 

If your insomnia and/or fatigue are causing you anxiety or depression, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Sometimes difficulties getting to sleep (or staying asleep) is the thing that causes the anxiety/depression, or sometimes it’s the other way around. Either way, when mental health issues are addressed, including anxiety and depression, often the person’s sleep will improve. Frequently individuals don’t realise that they are depressed or anxious, as there is still some stigma or shame around those feelings. It’s hard to accept help but, if you are feeling hopeless, helpless or worthless, then it is likely to be clinical depression that needs attention and support as soon as possible. Similarly, if you are experiencing anxiety that significantly affects your daily life (for example, feeling restless, or on edge; being more irritable than usual; having trouble concentrating or having sleep issues due to excessive worrying), you should visit your GP to discuss treatment. Nobody should suffer in silence without adequate treatment. If you want to call our helpline to speak to someone who understands today, please ring 0818 252 846 or visit our website for support.  

For more great inspiration on things that you can do to help with sleep, watch sleep expert Matt Walker’s short video here.