Why is a sleeping disorder usually associated with middle age now rife among young urbanites?

Clare Conway has been an insomniac since she was just 15 and she's not alone.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Were you to meet Clare Conway on a night out, you might be inclined to think she had it all. Young, clever and pretty, she has a job at a top London actors' agency and a posse of close friends. Then again, the dream of having it all allied with the stresses that come with it are enough to keep you up at night. And that's just the problem: Clare is one of a rising number of young urbanites who simply can't get to sleep at night.

Though the likelihood of insomnia tends to increase with age, affecting about 30 per cent to 40 per cent of people, Conway, who is just 24, has been perennially sleepless since the age of 15. "It stressed me out a lot," she says. "I ended up having to take a few months off school."

Nowadays, her insomnia comes and goes. "It's worse during stressful times, such as when I'm breaking up with a boyfriend or having family problems."

Although the statistics in this area are wildly divergent, insomnia is generally agreed to be the most common of the sleeping disorders (ahead of snoring). Even so, the response to an email sent out to 30 twenty-somethings mostly educated and city-dwelling asking whether they or anyone they knew suffered from insomnia, elicited an unexpected, and unexpectedly prompt, reply. "I can't sleep either," seemed to be the general consensus.

Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, the medical director of the London Sleep Centre, is not at all surprised. "Insomnia is on the rise in all developed countries and fast-developing countries, because we're changing to a 24/7, urbanised lifestyle that promotes sleep deprivation," he says.

The signs of sleep-deprivation propaganda are everywhere. There is the Rimmel advert on TV, in which Kate Moss goes straight from nightclub to work, aided by just a smear of foundation. There are the gossip columns, which report the late-night revels of a host of glamorous celebrities. Margaret Thatcher famously got by on just four hours a night and it was a badge of honour, not a failure. The message is clear: sleeping is boring, "winners" don't need it.

Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in the late-19th century, it is estimated that the average person slept for 10 hours a night. Nowadays, we're lucky to get six or seven but many young professionals survive on much less.

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep and energy coach at London's Capio Nightingale hospital, is used to meeting young, high-flying insomniacs in fact, they are her bread and butter. "Twenty-somethings are my hardest group to work with, because they're at the foot of the career ladder and have to prove themselves," she says. "They are more likely to push themselves harder and also to drink too much caffeine and alcohol and eat all the wrong things."

For Conway, work and lifestyle has had a major impact on her sleep patterns. After starting a new job two years ago, she often found herself working long hours, sometimes on just one hour's sleep. "When I get insomnia, I know it's in my head, but I'm not good at controlling irrational thoughts," she admits.

That loss of control is something that 26-year-old medical student Leah Goldstein can relate to. "It's the threat of not being able to sleep that gets to me," she says. Goldstein's sleeplessness began when she was revising for her GCSEs. "My friend and I were both taking sleeping pills at the time. I just thought, 'What's going on? We're 16 and we're taking sleeping pills because we're so worried about exams. This is awful.'"

According to psychiatrist and psycho-analyst Dr David Taylor, it is extremely rare to encounter somebody who has never had a sleepless night. "To some extent, it's a normal reaction if someone has a particular issue to deal with," he says. "But there are also many psychiatric illnesses in which sleep becomes disturbed depression is the most common." While most people will shrug off a rough night, there are those who "will feel that they're not going to be able to cope, or that they'll go mad".

So what's the solution? Every insomniac I spoke to has experimented with sleeping pills of some sort, but these are a short-term fix and not a cure. As Conway explains: "One doctor prescribed me [the sedative] temazepam, but when I went to pick up the pills, the chemist was asking if I had a stressful job or family life. I said yes, and she said, 'Well those are your reasons you should address them.' I never took the pills."

In many ways, insomnia is not a condition as such, but more of a symptom. Some young people deal with anxiety by taking recreational drugs, and others by developing eating disorders. Insomnia and the obsession with sleep that comes with it can be an equally hard habit to break. For Michael Eisen, a 26-year-old writer, a habit is exactly what it has become: "The idea that you can go to bed and fall asleep for eight hours every night is completely alien to me."

A few years ago, many people would have laughed off the idea of anyone needing a sleep coach. But as our cities have transformed into hotbeds of celebrity obsession, consumerism, hedonism and competition, it is not entirely surprising that more and more young people now require help to teach them how to sleep.

For more information and for advice, call the London Sleep Centre (137 Harley Street, London W1) on 020 7725 0523

10 steps to sleep: Dr Nerina Ramlakhan's good-sleep guide

1. Follow a regular wind-down routine

Read a book, listen to relaxing music, have a bath and and use some relaxing essential oils such as lavender. Delay going to bed if you have to.

2. Take regular breaks during the day

Even a break of three to five minutes can be sufficient to enable the body to renew both physical and mental energy. Use the time to go for a walk, stretch or change channels mentally. Avoid checking emails or surfing the internet during this time.

3. Manage your work/home boundaries

Talking about work when you get home can be a good thing, but try to not let it take over your evening.

4. Exercise

Regular exercise helps to reduce stress-hormone levels (especially adrenaline).

5. Avoid stimulants

After you've had a cup of tea or coffee, it can take up to 10 hours to completely remove all of the caffeine from your body.

6. Avoid clock-watching

Try not to look at your clock in the middle of the night it will just make you worry about how little sleep you're getting.

7. Learn how to power-nap

Naps of five to 15 minutes during which you approach a near-sleep state have been proven very effective at promoting energy renewal and cognitive function.

8. Don't worry about getting your eight hours

The important thing is to achieve efficient deep sleep rather than a particular period of time.

9. Clean up your bedroom

Keeping your bedroom free of clutter will provide a calm environment conducive to sleep. And keep the laptop and BlackBerry out of your bed! The ideal temperature is slightly cool, so keep windows open or have a fan in the room.

10. Eat the right foods

Vitamin B6 and tryptophan found in chicken, cheese, tofu, tuna, eggs, nuts, seeds and milk boost serotonin and melatonin levels, which respectively help to regulate anger, aggression, mood and sleep, and cause the mind to feel drowsy.

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