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How to get better sleep

Insomnia is extremely common - at least one in three people have problems sleeping. But even simple changes could make a big difference to your ability to sleep well. So how do you and your pillow become friends again?

Sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture for a reason - sleep deprivation makes you grumpy and miserable. It can also affect your concentration and make you more prone to accidents. But importantly, long-term insomnia can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Create a space for sleeping

Your bedroom should be a sanctuary for sleep. All too many of us use our bedrooms as a second office or sitting room - watching TV, using smartphones, even eating. Your mind should subconsciously associate your bedroom with sleep. Blue light from electronic devices disrupts your sleep and an exciting late-night movie can set your mind whirring. Keep your bedroom quiet and really dark - ban pinging smartphones and ticking clocks - and develop a wind-down bedtime ritual that ends with you getting into bed. Reading a book for a few minutes before lights out is fine, but no horror novels!

Your bed makes a big difference to your quality of sleep too. An uncomfortable pillow or mattress can make it hard to drift off or wake you from sleep. And hot blankets or a duvet can leave you waking up sweating, especially around the menopause. Invest in new mattress and bedding if yours is old and consider layers of bedclothes to avoid getting too hot or cold.

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Look at your lifestyle

What you get up to during the day can have a big impact on how you sleep at night.

Curb caffeine

In moderate amounts (up to 400 mg a day - about four cups of brewed coffee or eight cups of tea), caffeine is safe, can count towards your daily fluid intake and may even reduce the risk of dementia. But it's often used by shift workers and students for a reason - it keeps you awake. If you're struggling to sleep, try decaff drinks from early afternoon. And remember energy drinks, colas and even chocolate contain caffeine.

Don't sleep on a full stomach

Stomach acid can reflux into your gullet much more easily when you're lying down, as it doesn't have to travel against gravity. If you suffer from heartburn, avoid eating for at least three hours before bed to avoid being troubled by burning pain behind the breastbone. If you do get heartburn, prop the head of your bed up on a couple of bricks.

Get active

Exercise is a great way to improve sleep, but avoid exercising too close to bedtime, when it can have the opposite effect.

Alcohol doesn't help

You may think alcohol helps you get to sleep but it leads to poor-quality sleep and early waking. Keep your alcohol intake down for better sleep.

Be realistic

Most people assume they 'need' eight hours of sleep a night. While the average is 7-9 hours, if you only sleep six hours a night but don't feel tired the next day, that could be normal for you.

Sleeping tablets are not the answer

Sleeping tablets only work in the short term and are highly addictive. What's more, they increase the risk of accidents and have been linked to a higher risk of death. If you're taking them regularly, speak with your GP about how to wean yourself off.

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Put worries to bed

It's easy for your mind to start working overtime when you turn off the light. You may start turning over the day's stresses, worrying about how you're going to solve them. Obviously you can't solve them from bed and they'll still be there in the morning. So make an active effort to put your worries to bed before you put yourself down.

If necessary, jot down a list of things you need to do the next day, an hour or two before bedtime. If your mind does turn to them, don't get cross with yourself - just stop and gently remind yourself they don't belong in the bedroom. It will take a while, but it's a good habit to get into.

Could there be a medical problem?

Obstructive sleep apnoea is a condition in which your airways close when you're asleep, temporarily blocking off air. Sufferers (who almost always snore) can go through hundreds of episodes a night where they stop breathing and jerk partly awake. You may not realise you're waking, but it often leads to sleepiness the next day. Pain can also disrupt sleep. Restless legs syndrome leads to fidgety, uncomfortable legs which mean you need to keep moving around. If you think you might have one of these conditions, see your GP.

With thanks to My Weekly magazine, where this article was originally published.

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