MY students recently asked me, “what’s the commonest thing you see as a GP?”

I had to really think because we see such a huge variety of health problems every day, it’s hard to rank them. After common ailments like coughs, colds, tummy bugs, and infections, high up in the problem list has to be sleep!

As a junior doctor in training, I recall I used to see the odd patient come in to talk about insomnia as being the main complaint however on a typical day now, where I see between 30-40 patients, sleep-related issues feature in almost a quarter of the cases.

On average, toddlers and babies should be getting somewhere between 12 to 17 hours, children nine to 13 and adults seven to nine hours of sleep. However, this is not what I see and hear. The groups largely suffering from sleep deprivation tend to be children and adults. Why is this?

We are riddled with pressures and deadlines and, for many, they feel inescapable. That all important e-mail could come in at 3am and you couldn’t afford to miss that opportunity, could you?! I see this a lot with those working in the corporate world, the media, shift workers, healthcare workers and also in those who have social media existences.

Understanding that environment plays a big part in sleep hygiene often comes as a surprise to people but ensuring that lights are kept dim, screen-time is limited, the room is not too hot or too cold, the bed is comfortable, the room is decluttered and cosy all helps prep the mind and body to unwind. We are creatures designed to thrive only if we give ourselves the opportunity to rest, restore and repair. All this happens when we sleep.

Sleep deprivation drives you crazy, there is no denying it. I suffered from short bouts of insomnia when I was studying. I remember drinking a lot of caffeine to stay up so I could study more ahead of my exams. It wasn’t healthy but I get it, sometimes you feel helpless. I now look back and think how silly that was, I just needed to learn how to work smarter. Perhaps the most debilitating insomnia I experienced was after the birth of my son. We both didn’t keep well at the start but he was also a terrible sleeper. As a result, I struggled every day to get through life because I was chronically exhausted. It took me a long time to learn how to sleep again so I have huge empathy for people who suffer with tiredness and fatigue due to insomnia. There is hope though as I learned and no, it doesn’t always require pills.

Insomnia means you regularly have problems sleeping. It usually gets better by changing your sleeping habits.

I often talk to my patients about developing a good evening routine which starts from the moment you enter the house at the end of the day. Quantity isn’t everything as you may be getting seven hours but tossing about in bed for four of them, which will still make you yawn a lot the next day.

Switch off all screens and devices at least one hour before the time you want to go to bed. Don’t get sucked into the consumer trap, for devices are designed to keep you hooked. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, set an alarm and train your body to comply. Keep your phones and devices out of the bedroom, they are a distraction, so why not learn to be distracted by the person next to you for a change and keep the rest of the world out of your personal and intimate space. Go old school and read a book, have a hot bath, do a crossword or whatever that chills you in that hour. Let your mind tire naturally.

Other culprits that hinder sleep are caffeine – I recommend avoiding any caffeine after 2pm and avoid alcohol close to bed time too. Do not nap if you can avoid it and if you do nap, restrict it to 10 minutes and no more. Lastly fresh air and exercise (even a short walk) does wonders for good sleep hygiene.

If, having tried all of this, sleep is an ongoing issue, my advice is to come see your GP. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with many long-term health problems and must be addressed ASAP. Short-term medication as well as other therapies such as CBT are options available on the NHS. Sadly, people are buying into all sorts of wellness brands and companies these days, spending a fortune with a promise to solve the sleep crisis, only to find themselves back at square one. There are countless NHS resources online and your GP will be more than happy to help you through this. Make 2020 a year where good quality sleep is your priority.