AS a therapist, I always begin with two simple questions. First, how is your sleep? Secondly, do you eat breakfast?

In counselling, you can talk around all kinds of emotional and psychological problems, but if a person is running on empty fuel with poor sleep, they wont achieve very much.

Almost everyone, at some point in time experiences poor sleep. It might be because of a sick child, or an impeding interview or general life worries. We can downplay the role of sleep with our friends, but insomnia can cause daytime fatigue, mood disturbances, problems with attention and concentration. It can even make simple tasks difficult to achieve.

People experience recurring problems with sleep. It might be falling asleep watching the TV but the moment your head hits the pillow, you can’t get to sleep. Perhaps you don’t feel stressed all day but when you go to bed, your head just fills up with a million of things to worry about. Others fall quickly asleep, but wake up in the early hours and fail to get back asleep.

If these words sound familiar to you, then you are not alone. It is estimated that about one third of the population struggle with sleep at some point in their lives.

Sleep is divided into stages each associated with different brain waves. These stages make up a sleep cycle. On a typical night a person will go through several sleep cycles. This also varies according to your age.

But why do we sleep? There are various theories. Is it a period of maintenance of organic tissues, or allowing the brain to psychically process the past day, or a time of energy conservation, regulating body temperature, and immune functions? Could it be simply an evolutionary way of protecting ourselves from danger in periods of inactivity? No single theory accounts for the complexity of sleep. We do know that NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is involved with restoration of physical energy, while REM (rapid eye movement) sleep allows some resolution of emotional conflicts from the day and consolidating newly acquired memories.

You might hear a few myths about sleep such as ‘I have to have eight hours of sleep,’ or ‘a little nap wont affect a night's sleep,’ or ‘a few drinks won't affect my sleep’. Alas, sleep isn’t that simple.

In general, individuals without insomnia issues will sleep between seven to eight hours a night. However, some people function well on four or five hours while others require nine or ten hours. These patterns are usually stable over adulthood and may be genetically predetermined.

Due to the business of our lives, people have had to adapt with multi tasking and are now sleeping one to two hours less than 50 years ago.

However, humans are very adaptive, but there is a cost to the lack of physical restoration. Animals totally deprived of sleep during a prolonged period eventually die.

The good news is that even if you feel you are a poor sleeper, you will be resting your body and some restorative work will be taking place.

Like most things, overcoming insomnia doesn’t just happen overnight. But if you begin with a few basic suggestions and guidelines things should improve.

First, your sleeping environment should be very slightly colder than the rest of the house and as dark as possible. Secondly, try and remove any gadgets, light distractions in the bedroom. This may seem hard in a world where we are addicted to our mobile gadgets. But these screens activate the mind and are not conducive to rest and sleep. Finally try and spend as little time as possible in the bedroom. Best to keep the room for only sleep (and sex). This is giving a clear message that when you go to bed you will sleep. This is more complex for those living in studio flats or where you have to use the room for other functions. But anything you can do to separate the sleeping environment from the rest of your life will help. So don’t go to bed until you are really sleepy.

If you’re awake for more than 15 minutes, get up and do something boring and very tedious till you’re sleepy again. This tells the brain that it is not beneficial to wake in the night. If you do something pleasurable during the night, you are simply rewarding yourself to keep on waking up and enduring disturbed sleeps.

More practical sleep exercises next week.

Dr Bill Merrington is a therapist and a chartered psychologist working in the York district (