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Learning the recipe for a better night's sleep

How did you sleep last night?

Were you snoring like a freight train as soon as the light went out? Or were you hijacked by your worries so that you lay awake until 4am? If so, sleep counsellor Nikki Cameron has good news: there are things you can do to get a better night's sleep.

Cameron, who is hosting a free "pop-up insomnia cafe" in Glasgow on Wednesday night offering advice on sleeping better, notes that at this time of year many of us experience disrupted sleep. We go out less due to the shorter days and colder weather, even though natural light is important for our body clocks.

Staying inside more, doing less exercise and even watching more TV and surfing the net has an impact on our sleep (it's thought the light from TVs and computers might adversely affect the production of the hormone melatonin that promotes sleep). Combine all that with stress and anxiety, and it's no wonder half of Britons have trouble sleeping.

Women are particularly susceptible. The Great British Sleep Survey, published last year by Sleepio, an online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sleep improvement course, found women were three times more likely than men to suffer from insomnia. This may partly be due to hormonal changes during pregnancy and the perimenopause that can disrupt sleep.

A frustrating feature of insomnia is that sleeplessness can quickly become a habit. After waking one night at 3.25am, the body may wake itself up again the following night, close to the same time. Why does this happen?

"Our bodies are astonishing," says Cameron. "They react very cleverly to the thoughts in our heads."

The classic time for people with worries to waken is between 3am and 4am, according to Cameron. The body cycles through different phases of sleep every night and at certain points we come close to waking. We are likely to reach that point at around the same time every night, but usually sink back into deeper sleep again. If we have subconscious anxieties, however, we're liable to wake up.

We don't have to put up with all this, though. "Assuming there's not an underlying health problem, it's something we can change," says Cameron.

To aid better sleep she recommends plenty of exercise and no caffeinated drinks after 3pm; no heavy meals for two hours before bed; a regular bedtime; and using the last hour before bed to wind down by switching off the TV, computer and phone, dimming the lights and perhaps having a bath. Read in bed, instead of texting or surfing the net.

That's all very well, but what if your sleeplessness arises from worries about debt or a loved one's illness? Surely it will only disappear when the debt is paid off or the patient recovers?

Not so, says Cameron: we can help ourselves to sleep better even if we are worried about something. Concentrating on one's breathing, doing CBT to challenge negative thought patterns or practising visualisation of a time and place when we felt completely at ease, can all help the body to relax and sleep.

And if all else fails, there's always the "sleep sandwich" – available at the insomnia cafe – though you'd have to be at your wits' end to try it. It consists of peanut butter, Marmite and lettuce, all of which contain the essential amino acid tryptophan, which may aid sleep. Or you could just have some camomile tea.

Insomnia Cafe, 6pm-midnight, November 21, Grianach at 38 Nithsdale Road, Pollokshields, Glasgow; entry free.

www.facebook.com/TheSleepCounsellor

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