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10 tips to send you back to blissful sleep

Insomnia adversely affects the health of about 15% of people in Northern Ireland, writes Isobel Hayes. But simple changes can improve the quality of your rest time

Most of us have woken up at 4am at one time or another and struggled to get back to sleep. But for about 15% of us, insomnia is adversely affecting our ability to function daily and their long-term health. Sleep disorders physiologist Breege Leddy runs an Insomnia Clinic - which is one of the first of its kind to offer cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for insomnia. She discusses ways to combat the condition.

1. Assess your risk

Insomnia - defined as sleeplessness that occurs at least three nights a week for at least three months - can occur at any time, but some of us are more prone to it than others, says Leddy. Women are twice as likely to get insomnia as men, for instance, while older people are also more at risk. Those who suffer from mental illness, retirees, the unemployed, shift workers and frequent international travellers are all more prone to bouts of sleeplessness.

2. No more napping

According to Leddy, insomniacs often develop ways of coping with sleeplessness - such as taking a nap the next day or drinking more coffee. But these are bad habits that will actually keep the insomnia going for longer, she warns.

Learned behaviour insomnia - or psychophysiological insomnia - is the most common form of insomnia Leddy comes across in the clinic. "If you keep doing something over and over again, the body recognises that as now being normal," she says.

"So when you're having a fragmented sleep or restless sleep, the body starts to recognise that as being the normal sleep. While naps may be tempting, they should be avoided," she says.

3. Lay off lie-ins

Getting up at the same time every morning from Monday to Friday and then sleeping late at weekends throws our body clocks out of sync, in much the same way jet lag does. "Sleep doesn't like change," warns Leddy. "It likes the same thing over and over again."

For every hour we travel across international time zones, it takes the body about a day to recover. Lying in has a similar effect. According to Leddy, even good sleepers should only allow themselves to sleep in for one extra hour.

4. Kick the caffeine habit

It's well-known that caffeine is a stimulant that can affect our sleep and Leddy recommends drinking no more than two cups of caffeinated drinks a day, including tea. It's best not to have caffeine after two or three o'clock in the day as it takes eight or nine hours to leave our system.

5. Switch it off

Many of us are glued to our smartphones and tablets for much of the day and - crucially - the evening. According to Leddy, smart devices emit a blue light that has been proven to reduce melatonin - the naturally-occurring hormone in the brain that promotes sleep. She recommends banning smart devices from the bedroom and avoiding them for at least two hours before bedtime.

6. Make the bedroom a sleep-only zone

Leddy teaches stimulus control therapy, where insomnia sufferers are taught how to strengthen the connection between bed and sleep. When people start to have trouble sleeping, they turn to books, TV and smart devices in bed. "We have to retrain the mind to think bed means sleep," says Leddy. As a result, TVs are banned from the bedroom, along with computers, phones and other smart devices.

7. Darken the bedroom

The sleeping environment should be as dark as possible, says Leddy. "We only produce melatonin when it's dark, so bedrooms need to be really dark," she says. An eye mask will usually do the trick, but most people find them uncomfortable, says Leddy. "Invest in black-out blinds instead," she advises.

8. Routine, routine, routine

Leddy sees a lot of retirees who suffer from insomnia, partly due to a lack of routine in their day. Getting up at the same time each morning and going to bed at the same time every night helps to train our minds to sleep, she says. "The most important thing is routine," says Leddy.

9. Sleep when you're sleepy

"People think they should be in bed at a certain time, which is a common misconception," she says. "They're going to bed because they think it's bedtime, but they're not really sleepy enough. The best bedtime is when you're sleepy."

10. Keep regular meals

Keeping to a routine includes eating your meals at the same time each day. "People don't realise this but mealtimes are time-givers," says Leddy. "They give the body a sense of time. When there's no routine there, the body gets confused."

Eating too late at night can also affect sleep. Leddy recommends eating the main meal by 7pm. "That's difficult for a lot of people," she says.

"We're getting up earlier in the mornings to commute and we're getting home later at night. Our day has become so much longer and sleep is being affected by that."

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