It’s time to take insomnia seriously

Timothy Barber
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LYING in bed and grimly watching the hours tick by as your body and mind refuse to shut off is a horrible sensation, but one most people will have experienced on occasion. However, a new report published by the Mental Health Foundation has revealed just how pervasive a force insomnia can be, suggesting that over 30 per cent of the population suffers from sleeplessness or a sleep disorder.

The Sleep Matters report, which surveyed 5,300 people and is believed to be the largest of its type in the UK, blows away the notion that insomnia is merely a symptom of other problems like stress. Instead, says Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Foundation, it’s a primary ailment in itself, and needs to be recognised as such in the way it’s treated.

“People are not really aware about sleep and sleep disorders, and it’s not really built into mental health promotion or physical health promotion,” he says. “GPs will often say that factors like depression or alcoholism are behind it, but often this sleep disturbance is part of the initial pattern that led to the problem in the first place.”

The report also suggests that sufferers of insomnia are more likely to suffer relationship difficulties, depression and other health problems. It can also be linked to diabetes and cardiovascular problems, since the failure to sleep can put extra stresses on the heart.

Of course, sleeplessness can be just a symptom – and it is important to manage one’s life and sleeping patterns sensibly to avoid it (see below) – but McCulloch’s point is that this is not always the case.

For some people, a psychological barrier to sleep – which may be inspired by genetic issues, by early learning, life traumas or other factors – can in itself bring about other physical and mental disorders due to the sleep deprivation. It’s a medical chicken-and-egg situation, frequently involving a complex network of causes and symptoms. McCulloch argues that a more therapeutic approach to treatment, involving cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can be the key to untangling this.

“This can look at how you think and feel about sleep, at whether you’re anxious about it, and about what kind of sleep pattern you need,” he says. “A lot of CBT is about self-acceptance – some people need to go to bed earlier than others, some people are naturally larks, but you need to understand yourself and embrace it.”

Keep regular hours: It sounds obvious but very few of us manage to stick to a regular daily pattern. If we did, it would help prevent insomnia, says Jessica Alexander of not-for-profit group the Sleep Council. “Sleep is a habitual thing, which is why changing sleep patterns is not an instant thing and takes time.” If you can get into a regular pattern, it helps the habit of sleep bed in (if you’ll forgive the pun).

Create a restful environment: Take the TV out of the bedroom, leave the iPad and iPhones downstairs and don’t even think about having a computer there. Shimmering screens, visual movement and the constant drip drip of emails and social network communiqués stimulate the brain rather than help it relax. Instead, read a book to help you settle and become drowsy. “It helps you switch out those thoughts that keep you awake and calm you,” says Alexander.

Consider separate beds: If your fidgety or snoring partner is keeping you awake, consider separate rooms. “Your relationship will be far better for you being well slept and rested than if you’re irritable and stressed out as a result,” says Alexander. Don’t, however, forego sex in the process. “It releases endorphins, makes you feel relaxed and content and helps you wind down physically and mentally.”

Cut down on caffeine and booze: It stands to reason that anyone who spends their day downing several cups of coffee may well find it harder to get to sleep. However alcohol is also a stimulant, and the idea that a little boozy nightcap helps one drift off is bogus. If you’re drinking enough of it to knock you out, then you really have problems and need help.

Mind your temperature: A hot room will keep you awake, so have the window ajar. The body’s temperature falling a bit can help it to fall asleep, which is one reason why eating a big meal immediately before bed can keep you awake – digesting a lot of food can keep the temperature up. Instead, Alexander recommends a hot bath to raise the body temperature – as you cool, you’ll become drowsy.