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

Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Programme Manager - Business Support Transformation, 1 year contract

    £550 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Walthamstow...

    Head Of Development

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This excitin...

    PHP Developer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: PHP Developer...


    £27,000-£34,000 per annum: US Embassy: An office of the US Embassy based in Be...

    Day In a Page

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor