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Sleepless nights

Sleepless nights

It's estimated that as many as 50 percent of us suffer insomnia sometime over the span of a year. It affects our work, our relationships and our health. Peta Newbold reports.

Looking back, Anne can see that the pattern for her insomnia emerged ten years ago during her first pregnancy.

She lives on Sydney's North Shore and has two children.

"It got a grip during those long wakeful nights with a hungry baby and then became worse three years later with my second child." she said.

Six months ago it was out of control and became a problem that dominated her life.

"It was hell. I'd wake up at 2.30 every night and worry about getting back to sleep.

I was so desperate for some relief I took sleeping pills most nights. But you can't win. Because then of course I worried about becoming a pill popper."

It's a familiar story for many Australians. We're crying out for more sleep.

Insomnia - what is it?

The inability to fall asleep or to remain asleep for an adequate length of time. This can lead to feeling almost permanently tired.

There are two types of insomnia:

  • Transient. It lasts less than two weeks. It's probably related to a stressful situation that will pass.
  • Chronic. It lasts months or years. There may be an underlying health problem. Psychological, medical or both.

The first port of call for most people is their local GP. A fairly comprehensive history and possibly a physical examination could reveal the cause, and lead to the appropriate treatment. For instance:

  • Chronic pain. Can be managed more effectively.
  • Drugs such as caffeine or alcohol. Give them up, cut down or don't take them so close to bedtime.
  • Depression and anxiety. Can be treated with depression medication, talking therapy, or a combination of both.
  • Medical problems such as reflux, ulcers bowel disease asthma, angina pregnancy, menopause, arthritis or sleep apnoea all cause sleep problems.

Treat the condition and that should improve the insomnia.

That leaves one other group.

It's likely that these people have a psychological problem where bad habits they have learned are playing havoc with their sleep patterns.

And what's been learned can be unlearned according to clinical psychologist Dr Timothy Sharp.

His book The Good Sleep Guide is published this week and he runs the Good Sleep Program at the University of Sydney's Psychology Department.

It offers an effective alternative to the drugs commonly prescribed for insomnia... sedatives or antidepressants.

Change the way you think and act.

Dr Sharp says that one session a week for four to six weeks can make a dramatic difference.

It involves cognitive behaviour therapy where people learn new attitudes to sleep and different patterns of behaviour.

For example, new habits might be getting out of bed at the same time each day, going for a walk in natural light at lunchtime and learning relaxation techniques.

"It's often the pace of life and our modern environments that encourage us to pick up bad habits that lead to insomnia", said Dr Sharp.

For instance we work long hours, often in artificial light. That upsets our hormones, which can affect our circadian rhythms.

But we find that 80 percent of patients who attend the Good Sleep Program will see big improvements in their sleep patterns which can last for years."

For those of us who prefer self-help, firstly:

  • Buy a comfortable bed.
  • Make sure the bedroom is dark.
  • Turn your alarm clock to the wall.
  • If you sleep with a snorer put in a set of earplugs.

Now try:

  • Counting your breaths. Don't resist the thoughts that come into your head, but try not to follow them either.
  • Use an eye pillow Soft, weighted bags that place gentle pressure on your forehead and eyes. They help the facial muscles release tension.
  • Use your bed for sleeping. Don't eat, read, or study in your bed. Get into bed when you are ready to sleep and leave it when you wake. Otherwise you could be sending your body conflicting cues for sleep and awake time.
  • If you're tossing and turning, get out of bed and find a comfortable chair to relax in until you feel tired again.
  • Get some exercise. Physical activity releases pent-up stress, and natural stimulants. This reduces the need for caffeine or other external supports. You'll also be more tired at bedtime.
  • Cut back on late-night snacks and heavy dinners. These may keep your metabolism working overtime. Take your last food at least three hours before bedtime.
  • Cut back on chocolate and lollies. They create an imbalance of high- and low-blood sugar levels.
  • Be careful with naps. They can affect regular sleep patterns too.
  • Stop worrying about losing sleep.

After all, we've been managing with at least an hour less sleep ever since the electric light bulb was invented.

Since then we've learned a lot about sleep and how important it is to our health.

But it remains a mysterious event for most people.

Take Anne for instance.

She moved house a month ago and has slept well ever since.


It's Dr Sharp's guess that the change of environment may have done the trick.

Anne's not sure, but admits her new bedroom is much darker than the previous one.

She says: "My bed is also in a different direction, maybe it's Feng Shui, who knows?

What I do know for certain is that it's made a huge difference to my life. I now sleep for most of the night, I haven't taken a sleeping pill for weeks and I feel great".

Reprinted with permission from Editforce

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