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Shortcuts: How to get a good night's sleep

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(CNN) -- Do you dread the sound of your alarm clock? Stagger through the day bleary-eyed and yawning? You need the Briefing Room guide to getting a good night's sleep.

How much do I need? Sleep patterns vary, but a typical healthy adult can usually live comfortably on seven or eight hours a night. Children need longer, while babies sleep for 17 hours a day -- though most parents would dispute that. Some people can manage with much less though and we tend to sleep less at night as we age -- preferring instead to snore away under the soporific influence of the television. In fact, much of the important deep sleep -- which most benefits body and brain -- comes in the first three or four hours after your head hits the pillow. The rest is just for fun: sweet dreams, as they say.

Routine: Many psychologists consider this to be absolutely crucial to getting a good night's sleep. By going to bed and getting up at the same time each day you give your body the best possible chance of slipping into a regular nocturnal pattern. Of course that means resisting the urge to skimp on sleep in the week before binging at weekends and rules out late nights and crunch work all-nighters. Staying up all night watching an entire season of "24" and then sleeping for 18 hours the next night to compensate is the equivalent to binging on Big Macs and then starving yourself for a week.

Bedroom feng shui: It's no use going to bed unless you fall asleep when you get there so keep bedroom distractions to a minimum. That means no TV, telephones or anything else likely to spoil the mood of quiet reflection. Keep alarm clocks out of sight as they're likely to focus your mind on waking up rather than dropping off. The exception to the rule amid all this anti-techno babble is music. Experts believe the right soothing sounds can block out ambient noise (useful if you live next to a train line) and help you relax into unconsciousness. Traditionally that means the sound of waves lapping against a beach or whales mating but anything familiar is likely to so. Except Megadeth.

Stay cool -- but not too cool: Another factor crucial to a restful sleeping experience is room temperature. One survey released this week claimed Britons suffered the equivalent of 13 years of broken sleep in the course of a lifetime due to being too warm or too cold in bed. So sort your themostat out.

Avoid over-stimulation: There's no use turning your bedroom into an oasis of calm if your body thinks it's in the early stages of an all-night bender. Television, computer games or particularly gripping novels are all likely to distract you from the all-important activity of giving the non-life essential parts of your brain a few hours break. Pretty obviously, don't eat a big meal just before going to sleep. If you are susceptible to the late-night munchies, stick to carbohydrates such as bread and cereal which at least have the effect of releasing serotonin, a chemical crucial to healthy sleep. But it's alcohol and caffeine that are the true enemies of a restful night. Alcohol's depressive effect may make you drowsy but it prevents you reaching the key deep stage of sleep, which means you'll probably wake up earlier and feel all the worse for it. Caffeine stays in the blood stream for hours so if you're still awake at 3 a.m. you can curse that mid-afternoon cup of tea.

Take some exercise: This is one of the most reliable ways to ensure you sleep well at night. Even just half an hour of daily exercise can help you sleep better, though don't try it immediately before bed. Morning is best -- the exercise and fresh air will kick-start your day.

Take a siesta: If you find yourself dozing at your desk after lunch, perhaps you should consider an old-fashioned Spanish style work routine. The "power nap" may now be a staple of consultant speak but there's no denying the fundamental restorative qualities of a mid-afternoon kip. Even if that means resting your head against the side of a toilet cubicle for 15 minutes.

Have you got a sleep disorder? If you've tried all of the above and you still feel lousy then maybe you suffer one of these. There are some exotic ones to choose from beyond your basic sleep-walking, sleep-talking and snoring. Sufferers of sleep apnoea stop breathing sometimes while asleep before waking with a jerk. Night terror sufferers terrify their partners by waking up -- or rather not waking up -- screaming in the night. And last month New Scientist magazine reported that "sexsomnia" -- properly defined as "abnormal sexual behavior during sleep" -- was more common than previously thought. But the condition can do more damage than simply spoiling a night's sleep: among other symptoms reported by one male sufferer was "groin soreness."


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