NHS Lothian

An overview of sleep

2 min read

Why is sleep important?

Sleep is vital for our minds and bodies. While we sleep, our brains process memories and sort out things that have happened in the day. Sleep also gives our muscles much needed rest and helps our bodies restore, heal and grow. The harder our bodies work, the more rest they need.


What is insomnia?

When people experience sleep problems for a long period of time, this is sometimes called insomnia. Insomnia is a condition that doctors define as: ‘difficulty initiating and maintaining sleep which has become persistent and occurs at least four out of seven days per week, and carries on for at least six months.’


What’s it like to have a problem with sleep?

People who have trouble sleeping often describe waking up feeling unrefreshed, feeling very restless throughout the night and feeling that the sleep they do get is not enough. Long periods of poor sleep can affect how you function during the day, often leaving you feeling tired, irritable, and unable to concentrate. For some people, poor sleep affects their work and their relationships, and generally has a negative effect on quality of life.


What causes sleep problems?

All sorts of things can disrupt our sleep including diet, lifestyle, our sleep environment and shift work. Stress and strain can lead to sleep problems in the short term, but your sleep should go back to normal once the stress has resolved. If you continue to have difficulty sleeping, this is usually because bad sleeping habits have developed, or worries about sleeping have started to take over. You can read more about the causes of sleep problems here.


How common are sleep problems?

People of all ages can have trouble with their sleep but it’s more common in people who are middle-aged or older. Women are more likely to develop sleep problems than men, but men do also experience these problems. At least 1 in 10 people suffer from sleep problems on a regular basis and it’s estimated that one quarter of the population occasionally have sleep problems.


Can a lack of sleep be harmful?

Although it can be distressing and can lower your mood, your body is designed to handle sleeplessness to some extent.  For example, sleep deprivation is common in new parents in the months after childbirth or as a result of looking after a new-born baby.  While short-term sleep deprivation can be difficult to cope with, our bodies usually bounce back quite quickly from this once we go back to a regular sleep pattern. However, there is some evidence that long-term sleep deprivation can eventually damage our health, which is why it’s important to deal with any problems straight away and regain a healthy sleeping pattern.


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