How to know it’s time to go to sleep school

You’ve tried every last trick in the book to get a full night’s sleep and nothing is close to working. So at what stage should you call in reinforcements?

We have naturopaths, psychologists, acupuncturists, podiatrists and a host of other specialists on speed dial when it comes to health and wellness, so why not those who can teach us how to sleep?

Clinical psychologist Dr Melissa Ree says there are sleep clinics across Australia designed to help everyone – from children and teens through to adults – fall in love with bedtime again.

“In Australia we have a major problem with one in three adults struggling with their sleep and 10 per cent suffering from chronic insomnia,” says Dr Ree, of Sleep Matters in Perth.

“Sleep is a fundamental need and one of the three pillars of health, along with diet and exercise.”

Sleepless nights a risk to health

The federal government’s recent sleep health awareness inquiry found many Aussies are risking their health – and even lives – by failing to get the recommended nightly seven to nine hours of “good-quality sleep”.

The report warns that just five bad nights of slumber (or lack of it!) can disrupt hormones and put the body into a pre-diabetic state.

Science has long shown us that a lack of sleep reduces mental and physical performance and is also one of the strongest individual risk factors for weight gain and obesity.

Saying goodnight to insomnia

Dr Ree says if you have struggled with poor sleep for more than three months, or if the poor sleep is causing distress and interfering with daytime function, it’s probably time to pick up the phone.

“A sleep professional has specific training and experience in treating conditions like insomnia and related conditions like chronic nightmares, excessive daytime tiredness and circadian rhythm disruptions,” she says.

“Despite insomnia being so common and advances in the understanding of treatments, sufferers are often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all and very few people access treatment, other than medication in the form of sleeping pills.

“We’ve helped thousands of people with long-term sleep problems, including those who’ve been dependent on sleeping pills for a long time.”

Getting to the heart of sleep problems

Dr Ree says one of the most effective treatments for those suffering sleep deprivation isn’t a medication, but rather cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia (CBT-I).

“Sleeping medication prescribed by your GP often has a role in the treatment of insomnia but it’s recommended as a short term only,” she says.

Research has shown that CBT-I, where sufferers are helped to change behaviours and thoughts that impact on their ability to sleep well, is more effective than sleeping pills in the long term.

“People are sometimes surprised to be referred to a psychologist for their sleep, as it’s not well known that the recommended treatment for insomnia is a speciality of psychology!”

She says as few as four consultations with an expert can get you back to a better sleep and feeling more energised.

Short-term sleep problems may resolve themselves

“It’s important for people to remember too, that it is normal to experience short term bouts of poor sleep every so often, for example in the context of illness, travel, or work stress,” she says.

“These will often resolve with no professional intervention – it’s when the sleep disturbance becomes chronic that consulting a health professional might be important.

“Your GP should be people’s first port of call – they will be able to refer to the appropriate sleep professional, be it a psychologist for insomnia, or a sleep physician for sleep apnoea.”

Written by Liz McGrath.