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Becoming a sleep specialist

Medicine, Physiotherapy, Psychology, The Health Industry

Sleep is perplexing, complicated and poorly understood. It is compulsory for human health, yet people chronically underestimate its importance. There are many things that can interfere with proper sleep, and they can each have a basis in different medical disciplines. This situation makes it less than straightforward to become a sleep specialist. On a global basis, some sleep specialists are physicians, and others are psychologists.

Unfortunately, sleep disorders in Australia are often mis-diagnosed and treated as mental health disorders. This is because sleep disorders can manifest as depression. As a result, a patient’s depression may be treated, but the underlying sleep disorder remains and continues to cause problems.

Fixing this problematic situation would most likely require psychologists to acquire education about various sleep disorders – particularly how to recognize and diagnose them.

If psychology interests you, that is one possible career path you could consider. You could first train as a psychologist. To successfully pursue a career in psychology, you would typically need to either obtain a postgraduate degree in psychology or work under the supervision of a registered psychologist for at least 2 years.

The next step in becoming a psychologist with a sleep specialty would be to seek out additional professional training to better understand various sleep disorders. There are multiple ways you could obtain such training; one possibility would be to join the Australian Sleep Association, and then to sign up for their recommended courses. However, this is a relatively uncommon career path for an Australian medical professional to take.

More commonly in Australia, sleep specialists are trained respiratory physicians. It is respiratory physicians who are tasked with treating life-threatening sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea and similar breathing-related sleep disorders.

In Australia, a respiratory physician is considered to be a specialist physician. To become a practicing specialist physician in Australia, you would need to earn a bachelor’s degree in medicine. You would then need to satisfy some requirements for on-the-job training. Postgraduate studies would also be helpful; for example, some sleep specialists hold a PhD in sleep medicine.

Physiotherapists sometimes have involvement in treating insomnia. This can happen because, in some cases, a bad mattress or pillow is the culprit in keeping the insomniac patient awake at night. A physiotherapist can sometimes recognize when bad bedding is causing improper alignment of the head and spine, and recommend a solution.

Ideally, a sleep specialist would have at least some knowledge about how specialists from each of these disciplines can help patients who suffer with sleep disorders. It would be likely for a sleep specialist to need to refer some patients to other practitioners for better coordinated treatment.

Whichever approach you decide to pursue, there is one additional area of clinical research you need to know about if your goal is to become a sleep specialist in Australia. You need to be aware of the body of research regarding the effects of thermal environment on sleep. This is a crucial field of understanding for the Australian sleep specialist, because excessively hot weather often causes or contributes to insomnia problems down under.

The research is clear: Excessively hot temperatures can and do adversely affect sleep. There are times when a simple recommendation to turn on the air conditioning at night can solve an insomnia problem.

When it isn’t possible or practical for the patient to use air conditioning, the sleep specialist can recommend removing all blankets from the bed and sleeping on bamboo sheets. This is because bamboo fiber stays cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather. Some textile experts believe bamboo retains even less heat than cotton does.

In any case, insomniacs should avoid sleeping on synthetic sheets or synthetic fiber blends during the hottest months of the year. Polyester blend sheets, in particular, should be avoided. This is because polyester is hydrophobic, which is the opposite of absorbent. Polyester will trap heat and moisture, and can make for uncomfortable bedding that contributes to insomnia during heat waves.

There are many facets of life that can interfere with proper sleep — so sleep medicine is, of necessity, an interdisciplinary field of medicine. If you’re interested in helping others to solve their problems sleeping, these are all important considerations to understand. If you want to become a sleep specialist, it’s beneficial to choose the specialisation that’s most relevant to your interests, but to understand as much as possible about all the others.

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