Insomniacs will try anything for a peaceful night. Our panel tested products from the plausible to the ridiculous
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The Independent Culture
INSOMNIA, a deeply intractable, subtle and debilitating problem, has as many causes as the millions of people it affects. We set out to find a treatment that works, testing products ranging from the highly sophisticated and plausible to the downright ridiculous. With insomnia, prevention is arguably simpler than cure. Common diagnoses for sleep disorders include stress, anxiety, inadequate exercise, dietary imbalances, tense personalities and irregular lifestyles - but sufferers are understandably irritated when people ascribe the problem to simple causes.


One thing our testers had in common was that they said they would "try anything" to establish a good sleeping pattern - so they set out with an open mind. They were Clare Fish, Mary Winter, Liz Hillsley, Nick Raffin, Carrie Donald and myself.


Panellists tried the products on separate nights over a two-week period, though most had experimented with several of the treatments before. The hypnotic message tapes, for example, had been used over a more extended period by a number of our testers.


pounds 4.99, Odyssey Video

To be fair, this 54-minute film of sheep jumping over a fence (billed as "The new, fast-acting video remedy for sleepless nights. No repeat prescription needed; no side effects; count yourself to sleep") is really a lighthearted response to insomnia. "This is a gag gift which you should think twice about giving someone who really is an insomniac," cautioned Nick Raffin. The rest of us were intrigued, however, and felt that it might work due to the soporific effects of the TV's flickering screen.

In the event, I found the bucolic soundtrack of birdsong and church bells - thought to be "more like a wake-up call" by some testers - most relaxing. Clare Fish said it was "far too interesting to fall asleep to. I kept wondering if anything would happen over at the farmhouse". (Nothing does.) Liz Hillsley was riveted by the different jumping styles of the sheep; the task of checking whether the same piece of film had been repeated kept her awake. Mary Winter complained, oddly, that it was "completely and utterly boring - I wanted to do anything to escape those damned sheep, so it just agitated me rather than soothed me". Ah well, I thought it was pretty funny.


pounds 2.99 for 32 tablets; English Grains Health Care

These herbal relaxation pills contain two traditional soporifics: Valeriana officinalis and Humulus lupulus (hops). They are billed as "encouraging refreshing, natural sleep", are not habit-forming and have no known side effects. Carrie Donald was not impressed by the "nasty-tasting lozenges", which sent her to sleep but may have caused her to wake later in the night, she felt, "pouring with sweat". Others reported an initial benefit which wore off with use, though several said they work well in tandem with other products, like tapes. "There's a definite psychological advantage in taking a pill," Liz Hillsley pointed out. Clare Fish kept asking herself, " `Am I tired yet? Are they working?' They're quite effective if you overdose: next morning I found it almost impossible to get up!"


pounds 4.35 for 10ml, Fleur Ltd

Lavender oil is said by aromatherapists to be the most relaxing essence available to the public. Valerian is more potent, but is not sold over the counter because it could apparently be dangerous if used too liberally - and yet the same substance is sold in pill form (see NatraSleep, above).

Fleur Ltd recommends adding drops of oil to your bath water or pillow, maintaining that it is very safe and can't do any harm even if it comes into direct contact with skin. Our testers awarded it a generous number of stars, even though it wasn't instrumental in getting them off to sleep. "It smells so nice," and "It's lovely in the bath," and "It doesn't cost very much, after all," they chorused. Carrie Donald said the pillow treatment was "a bit much - it made me feel slightly sick," and Nick Raffin said the smell of freshness and flowers made him think of waking up in the morning. But the pleasantness of the smell does encourage you to breathe deeply in the bath, which in itself aids relaxation. It was Clare Fish's favourite remedy: "Relaxing, if not sleep-inducing," she insisted.


pounds 279, Life Tools

By far the most expensive of the soporifics tested, this comprehensive "mind machine" is supposed to help you relax, sleep, learn, energise or visualise through its different programmes. It comes complete with a push- button control unit, headphones, goggles, mains charger, audio cassettes, instruction book and sheaf of impressive testimonial, but nobody on the panel would endorse it. While the synthetic "music" or sound was liked by some testers, the Mind Lab's least appealing feature was the spiralling flashes of light which shine into your (closed) eyes from the goggles. The sleep programme lasts 15 minutes, by which time you feel as if you've been imprisoned in a disco, bombarded by horrible stimuli on all sides. Liz Hillsley said it made her feel nauseous. Nick Raffin - a computer whizz who, we thought, should have taken to it - said it was unlikely to make anyone go to sleep. "It's more likely to make you go to the kitchen, grab the bread knife and murder the whole family." The kindest comment came from Clare Fish, who "liked the amazing energising programme. But I couldn't be bothered with all the trappings when I just wanted to try and sleep."


pounds 9.99, Paul McKenna Productions

This tape, by celebrity television hypnotist Paul McKenna, was our panel's most highly rated sleep-aiding product. It had already been recommended by one of the insomniacs, and was chosen from a plethora of (mainly American) hypnosis tapes currently on the market - despite our initial prejudice that a man known primarily for helping people make fools of themselves on stage would be hard to trust as a therapist.

McKenna's common-sense approach won most testers over. One side of his cassette is devoted to "ten golden rules" for achieving regular, uninterrupted sleep. These include getting up at the same time (preferably early) every morning, taking no catnaps during the day, getting plenty of physical exercise, cutting down on alcohol, and a handful of other sound or simplistic maxims, depending on your point of view. Nick Raffin thought the presentation "more appropriate to training a kitten to use a litter tray," but Mary Winter praised the advice of learning to worry during the day, not the night. The second side contains a hypnotic message, which Carrie Donald compared to "the voice of Roger Moore advertising Ferrero Rocher chocolates - it would be grating in the end". Most testers fell asleep to it, but the tape machine clicking off woke them up.


The Insomniacs Video is available by mail order on 0171 437 8251; Paul McKenna's Sleep Like A Log audio cassette is stocked by WH Smith; Lavender Aromatherapy Oil can be bought at most health food shops and pharmacies; NatraSleep pills are available over the counter from Boots and other chemists; Mind Lab, by mail order on 01625 502602. !