This week: How can you get a good sleep?

It was Margaret Thatcher who famously said she needed only five hours' sleep a night - but lack of sleep shouldn't be a badge of honour. There can be some serious consequences of not getting enough shut-eye.

Sleep experts say you shouldn't abandon hope if you're an insomniac. There are steps you can take to get back on a well-rested track.

What are the consequences of not getting enough sleep?
It's not just tiredness, says US sleep expert Donna Arand. "Studies now are showing that if you are sleep-deprived, you have a tendency to gain weight."

Sleeping fewer than seven hours a night is associated with a higher body mass index and a higher likelihood of obesity, according to a study of more than 25,000 people in the journal Sleep.

Other researchers looked at the results of 23 studies and found 17 of them supported a link between insufficient sleep and increased weight. The findings were published in the journal Obesity.

Are the health risks limited to weight gain?
No. Cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure have been linked to a lack of sleep, according to Arand, who is director of the Sleep Disorders Centre at Kettering Medical Centre in Ohio. Too little sleep can also lead to an increased risk of diabetes and other problems such as depression and substance abuse.

But if it was good enough for Maggie ...
Some people may be able to function with only a few hours' sleep, but it can hinder attentiveness and make it tougher to remember new information. In fact, performance can be impaired after just four nights of five hours' sleep or less.

So now we know why sleep is important, what can we do to get a good night's rest?
First, work out why you're not sleeping well, then take steps to fix the problem, says Joyce Walsleben, associate professor at the New York University Sleep Disorders Centre. In women, the physical causes of sleep problems are often hormonal, so it's important to take care of the problem - be it hot flushes or other symptoms.

And worrying about not sleeping probably makes it worse?
Psychological forces can also play a role, yes. Worry is a big reason why many women don't sleep well. "Women tend to want to solve problems, and they tend to ruminate," says Walsleben. To sleep well, you have to turn off the worry. One worry-buster worth considering is meditation. "Breaking that worry habit is important," says Walsleben.

Is there anything else I can do?
Another tool recommended by Walsleben is writing in a "worry book". Every night, set aside about 15 minutes to jot down your concerns. Use one side of a piece of paper to list everything that worries you. On the other side, write solutions.

Sleep experts have got other basic steps you can take:

  • Exercise regularly. (It's best to complete a workout at least a few hours before bedtime.)
  • Finish eating at least two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime.
  • Maintain a regular bed and wake-time schedule, including at weekends.
  • Create a sleep-conducive environment that's dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
  • Sleep on a comfortable bed.