Insomnia: Are we sleepwalking into a crisis?

A quarter of us have problems sleeping – and our 10 million prescriptions for pills aren't helping

We are a nation of insomniacs. One in four people is dissatisfied with their sleep and one in 10 suffers from a sleep disorder. Yet despite decades of research we still do not understand why we sleep, and many insomniacs go unrecognised and untreated.

Click HERE to view insomnia graphic

More than 10 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were doled out in England in 2010. Yet drugs are not the answer to our insomnia epidemic, according to researchers writing in The Lancet. Their sometimes severe side effects mean they can create more problems than they solve.

The best treatment, the researchers argue, is with behavioural and psychological techniques – collectively known as cognitive behaviour therapy – to help people drop off at the appropriate time and stay asleep through the night. But a shortage of therapists able to provide the treatment means that many people are forced to rely on drugs, over-the-counter treatments and herbal remedies. Insomnia is now so common that doctors say the preoccupation with it is in itself a medical problem – the greatest enemy of sleep is worry about not getting enough of it.

Most people who lose sleep will be able to recover it the next night, and will be able to cope in the meantime. Prolonged sleeplessness, however, is crippling. Sufferers are more than five times as likely to be anxious and depressed, have double the incidence of heart failure and diabetes and a higher risk of dying early.

Insomnia also imposes a heavy economic and social burden on communities through lost productivity, absence from work and deterioration in quality of life.

The damaging effects of sleeplessness can be catastrophic. Tiredness is known to be a key cause of motorway accidents and has been been blamed for the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in Ukraine, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor breakdown in the US and the Challenger space shuttle accident that claimed the lives of its seven astronauts.

Successful treatments for insomnia begin with a warm drink before bedtime, that can soothe and relax – avoiding tea and coffee which contain caffeine. The herbs valerian, lemon balm and hops are all reputed to induce sleep and may hold more appeal than conventional sleeping pills. Alcohol helps people drift off but fragments sleep during the second half of the night.

Behavioural treatments include stimulus control (no working in bed), sleep restriction, relaxation techniques and education about "sleep hygiene" including diet and exercise.

The stuff of nightmares: Insomniacs' stories

Rhodri Marsden

My theory is that I didn't develop insomnia; I caught it. An ex-girlfriend of mine used to suffer terribly, and her continual problems with getting to sleep made me vividly aware of the process of nodding off – something which, up until that point, I'd never thought about. It just happened automatically. But about five years ago I started thinking about it every night.

In an attempt to cure her insomnia, she bought a relaxation CD featuring the whooshing sounds of a cheap synthesiser and a hypnotic voiceover informing her that, by the end of the CD, she'd be dreaming peacefully. The first night she put it on, she fell asleep within 10 minutes. I, however, listened attentively to the full 75-minute performance and then lay there, wide awake, pondering the mechanics of sleep. Subsequent nights were even worse; I became haunted by this voice telling me to focus on my breathing, when all I wanted was to focus on nothing.

It snowballed, thanks to that perennial question of the anxious mind: "What if?" What if I never get to sleep? What then? One night I failed to sleep a wink but completed a day's work without incident, and this helped to banish some of the demons. It's perfectly possible to function without sleeping; you just feel a bit tired. And these days I'm much better – but only because I've somehow managed to erase the memory of that supposedly hypnotic CD. Fingers crossed it doesn't start flooding back.

Nina Lakhani

The early signs were ominous. As a tiny baby my mum would put me down for an afternoon nap, hoping that she could get on with dinner. But the mere sound of onions sizzling in the pan would be enough to wake up the child who never wanted to sleep.

When I was little, I hated bedtime, convinced I'd be missing out on something interesting. I would fight sleep as long as I could and the first glint of sunlight or the sound of a toilet flushing would act like an alarm clock with no snooze button.

In those days I didn't want to sleep, but now as a grown up with a busy life I cannot sleep, even when I desperately need to. Sometimes I can't fall asleep for hours because my thoughts are racing, other times I suffer from what is known as early morning awakening. And then there are those nights, my least favourite, when I wake up in the night with my heart racing, worried about something I can't quite put my finger on. There are some nights, weeks even, that I sleep OK, and I guess that's when my body catches up. I use the occasional sleeping tablet when I'm desperate; and have even tried hypnosis, but insomnia has always been part of me.

Arifa Akbar

I can't pinpoint when or how my insomnia began, but I don't remember living without it. It was there in my childhood and carried on into my teenage years and beyond. It would take me four, five, sometimes six hours to get to sleep, if sleep came at all, but it didn't begin to affect my life until my mid-20s.

There is very little I didn't try when I still believed there to be a cure. Getting to bed early and at the same night each time, exercise, no exercise, yoga, ear plugs, eye masks, light-blocking curtains, no coffee, endless cups of camomile tea. They didn't even take the edge off.

I would find myself lying in bed, my head throbbing with life. At its worst, I felt as if I was taking part in some terrible thought experiment or trialling a new hallucinatory drug; there were random, repetitive images, conversations and lines from annoying 1980s pop songs ranging through my mind.

Still thinking I could beat it, I tried New Age remedies. They would work for a few nights, but ultimately, it was as if the insomnia was a superbug, mutating to overpower everything I tried. I felt rundown and prone to illness. The one thing that worked in my most traumatic years was a technique called Autogenic Training, a cross between meditation and self-hypnosis, which relaxed me, at least, and even sent me to sleep at times.

Nowadays, it comes and goes, and I've found that the greatest remedy of all is simply to give in, and let it takes it course.

Top tips: How to sleep better

Stimulus control

* Go to bed only when sleepy

* Get out of bed when unable to sleep (i.e. get up and read a book)

* Get up at the same time every morning, and avoid napping

Sleep restriction therapy

* Go to bed later and get up earlier

* Limit the time spent in bed to induce mild sleep deprivation

* Then expand the "sleep window" till the optimum duration is achieved

Cognitive therapy

* Don't worry about losing sleep – you will still be able to function next day

* Avoid watching the clock in the night

* Banish unrealistic expectations

Sleep hygiene

* Avoid caffeinated drinks – tea and coffee – and nicotine before bed

* Avoid alcohol – it fragments sleep in the second half of the night

* Exercise regularly

Relaxation training

* Practise progressive muscle relaxation

* Use imagery training or meditation to banish intrusive thoughts

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    English Teacher

    £4848 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Outstanding...

    Cover Supervisors/Teaching Assistants Secondary Schools in York

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors/Long Term Teaching Ass...

    Science Teacher

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher...

    Cover Supervisor

    £55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors needed for seco...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker