Friday 26 May 2017

Dr Ciara Kelly's top tips to get a good night's sleep

Dr Ciara Kelly Photo: David Conachy
Dr Ciara Kelly Photo: David Conachy
Insomnia: Not sleeping affects your physical and mental well-being

Dr Ciara Kelly

It's January. So if, like me, you're feeling knackered, it's easy to put it down to the time of year - but it might just be that like 45pc of the population, you are sleep deprived.

Sleep is one of the commonest things I get asked about. And it's something that really stresses people - sometimes they come into my surgery almost pleading for sleeping tablets because it can feel like no matter what we do, eight hours of good quality sleep simply evades us.

Sleep deprivation in its extreme form is literally torture. It causes chronic fatigue, irritability, memory loss and impaired cognition and judgment.

It leads to decreased productivity at work, relationship difficulties and plays a role in many road traffic accidents. It increases your risk of depression by 25pc and also increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and other mental health problems.

And it's a silent epidemic with people often complaining of all those symptoms but not recognising lack of sleep as the cause. Getting an adequate amount of sleep is more closely associated with health and longevity than either diet or exercise - which is remarkable considering how little we hear about it.

Sleep isn't merely the off button - important stuff happens in your sleep that allows for the repair and regeneration of your mind and the body. So we need to sleep if we're going to remain in good health.

Eight hours is what most - particularly young - adults require but loads of us get much less.

In 1960 the average adolescent slept for nine and a half hours. In 2017 that's down to six and a half hours, and it's wearing us out.

There are many factors that affect sleep: how tired we are - which in turn depends on how long we've been up and how much sleep we had before that; use of stimulants like tea or coffee - or drugs; use of sleeping tablets; anxiety or stress; excess alcohol. All of these can undermine our ability to get a full night's sleep.

But what can you do if something is coming between you and your rest?

First, regulate your circadian rhythm. Your body has an internal, 24-hour body clock that wants you to sleep and wake at the same time every day. But if you get up Monday to Friday at one time and get up at the weekend four hours later - you completely disrupt your body clock causing you to lie awake all night Sunday night and get up shattered on Monday, only to repeat the cycle again the following week. In effect it's like changing time zones every weekend and it messes up your sleep just like long haul travel. Naps, travel, shift work, exercise late in the day and visible light - including light from electronic screens - all affect your circadian rhythm and your sleep.

So try to sleep and wake at the same time every day. Try to avoid being awake much in bed. Use it only for sleep and sex. If you're trying to sleep and it's not happening after 20 minutes, get up and read a paper or book in a dimly-lit room until you feel sleepy. Don't watch TV, or use smartphones or other screens just before sleep as they stimulate you and prevent you dropping off. Social media is a particular issue for young insomniacs and another reason to avoid electronic devices at night.

Don't drink tea or coffee after midday. A small amount of alcohol may help you fall asleep but excess alcohol affects sleep quality and causes recurrent waking - so watch the booze. Also, avoid aerobic exercise in the evening.

Anxiety is often a factor in insomnia, so if you're feeling stressed write a to-do list before you go to bed - so you don't lie awake worrying about stuff. Also, avoid arguments late in the evening!

And just like with babies, a soothing bedtime routine works. Practice sleep hygiene: a warm bath, a milky drink and a bedtime book will set you up. Sleep in a cool, clutter-free room, in a warm bed with no visible light - and definitely no visible clock in the room. If that's not working, soothing white noise recordings may help.

Sleeping tablets are not a long-term solution - they're addictive and make you dopey the next day.

Sweet dreams lovelies.

@ciarakelly

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