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Struggling to get a good night's sleep? Ditch those alarm apps for a start

Sleep hygiene is a priority for our tech-obsessed society in 2017.

AT THE BEST of times, a good night’s sleep can feel like the most elusive thing ever.

Getting enough sleep plays a vital role in ensuring a healthy lifestyle yet with busier lives, more distractions and the many stresses of day-to-day life, getting enough sleep can feel like an impossible task.

The good news is if you’re not suffering from a condition, it’s more than possible to get a regular sleep pattern again. The bad news is it will require you to change both your daytime and nighttime habits – but hey, that’s what New Year resolutions are for, right?

Sleep hygiene

According to sleep therapist Breege Leddy, outside of the serious sleep problems like sleep apnea, insomnia and restless leg syndrome, much of it comes down to forming good habits both during the day and night.

“The way I explain it is there is a thing called sleep hygiene, and these are good sleep habits we should all be doing, not just poor sleepers,” she explains. “Things like [switching off] electronic devices, not eating late or too close to bed, having wind-down time before bed, all of these things are really important for good sleepers”.

Naturally, there will be differences among people – for example, a parent of a newborn child faces a different situation to someone who lives alone – but many of the problems associated with not getting enough sleep, excluding serious problems like insomnia, come from habit or worries, according to Dr Liam Doherty of Bon Secours Hospitals in Cork.

He says that something small like having an early flight and worrying you miss the alarm clock is enough to disrupt a person’s sleep.

“Once you ruled out the food, the drink, the activities, then it’s usually psychological, it’s worries, he says. “You’re worried about something that happened that day or something that you think might happen the following day. And that’s always very hard.”

We’re creatures of habit. If you’re a poor sleeper, you’re likely to remain a poor sleeper and it’s very hard to break those habits. I’ve seen some people who’ve been on shift work all their life and it messes up their sleep routine so when they’re retired, they still don’t sleep properly. They still have a disordered sleep schedule.

Coffee Stock If you're a coffee (or tea) drinker, stick to drinking it in the morning instead of the afternoon or evening. Anthony Devlin / PA Images Anthony Devlin / PA Images / PA Images

Not so smart(phone)

Further complicating the issue is the prevalence of smartphones in our lives. A recent study from Delolitte found that over half of Irish smartphone users check their devices in the middle of the night. Add to that the blue light such devices emits and it’s no surprise that some studies show how smartphones screens can negatively affect sleep.

While smart alarm apps like Sleep Cycle claim to track your sleeping patterns and wake you up at the optimal time, they’re inaccurate as they only track movement, one part of the larger sleep puzzle.

These apps do little to help those with sleep problems, according to Leddy. In fact, they can make things worse.

“People that I see with insomnia, they have tried everything to help them sleep better but if you ask a good sleeper, what they do to get to sleep, they don’t do anything,” she said. “The harder you try to sleep, the less it’s going to happen”.

I find [smart alarm] apps make the problem with insomnia even worse because they’re already overthinking about sleep and when you introduce this device as well, it’s making them think even more. A lot of the time, the device isn’t even accurate so it just makes them think even [more].

Australia Brisbane International Tennis Smartphones: great for capturing events, bad for your sleep. Tertius Pickard / /Press Association Images Tertius Pickard / /Press Association Images / /Press Association Images

Turn off the blue light

The other problem is the blue light emitted from said devices and other places like energy-efficient bulbs. This light prevents the release of melatonin, which signals the body to go to sleep, and can mess up our body clocks and disrupt sleeping patterns.

While programs and apps like F.lux, Twilight and Night Shift try to reduce the effects of blue light, the stimulation caused by our devices – checking messages, Facebook or watching videos – will keep you wired and prevent you from sleeping.

Creating a cutoff point for checking any devices two hours before bed is a start but people should also consider how much light they’re getting throughout the day.

“Light is the biggest cue to when we should be awake so for our sleep, it should be dim light in the evening and no blue light two hours before bed,’ says Leddy. “We also need to get good natural light… so bright light in the morning, dim light in the evening”.

Screen Shot 2016-12-07 at 10.57.00 Programs like F.lux can help reduce blue light but shouldn't be viewed as the solution to your sleeping problems. F.lux F.lux

Getting a good night’s sleep

So what are the things you need to do to feel rested? Between Leddy and Dr Doherty recommend the following:

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Wake up at the same time every day and resist lie-ins on the weekend.
  • If you didn’t get much sleep the night before, don’t try sleeping for longer as your body doesn’t work that way. You’re a human, not a Sim.
  • Switch off or keep away from devices emitting blue light two hours before bed.
  • Avoid exercising close to bedtime.
  • Don’t eat, drink or consume alcohol two hours before bedtime. Likewise, avoid sleeping tablets as they can also mess up your sleeping patterns.
  • Keep your bedroom as dark as possible.
  • Don’t use any devices or read when in bed. Use your bed for sleep only.
  • Don’t consume caffeine (tea or coffee) before 2pm as it takes a long time to leave your system.
  • While it’s easier said than done, try not to be worried when you’re going to bed. Practicing relaxation techniques like mindfulness and breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 technique (breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for seven and release for eight) can help.
  • If you don’t fall asleep within 20 minutes of getting into bed, get up and stay up until you feel tired.
  • If your problems persist despite taking these measures, then you should visit your G.P. and see if it’s a more serious problem.

Dr. Doherty says the ultimate aim is for your body to associate your bed with sleep. The ideal situation is when your head hits the pillow, that will be “a signal to your body to fall asleep”.

Forming that habit is easier said than done but the goal is to make the process simple.

“The famous quote is if you ask a good sleeper what do you do to get to sleep, they’ll say ‘well, I don’t do anything. I just lie down,’” says Dr. Doherty. “If you ask a bad sleeper what do they do, they’ll say ‘Well, I set the alarm, I have this book, I have this’ and they’re making such a huge deal about sleep that you can predict it’s not going to happen”.

Don’t put sleep on a pedestal, If you can’t get to sleep, don’t worry. You’re not going to drop dead.

Read: Are you looking? Half of Irish people check their phones in the middle of the night >

Read: Don’t sleep on it: Going to bed angry makes it worse >

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