News analysis: The secrets of sleep

Still shattered, even after that extra hour in bed? You are not alone. Here is why
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Go on, have a good yawn. You know you want to. There should be no need, with an extra hour in bed from the clocks going back. And this is National Sleep-In Day (although try explaining that to anyone you live with aged under five, or neighbours who start drilling at dawn). So surely we should all feel refreshed today?

Not a chance. There are seven million insomniacs in this country, 3.5 million people said to suffer from excessive sleepiness during the day, and 770,000 people with sleeping disorders. Those are just the clinical figures. Ask almost anyone how they are and the answer will probably be "OK. Tired."

Britain is Tired All the Time - doctors say Tatt is one of the most common complaints they hear - and the research published over the past few days is exhausting. Twelve million of us think we never get a good night's sleep. Three million have sleep apnoea, which blocks the airways and causes snoring.

Lack of sleep is making us grumpy, irritable, dangerous, sick, slack, poor or fat, depending on which survey you read. All the best ones come out at this time of year when the days are gloomy and there seems nothing better to do than roll over.

But don't. Here's something really astonishing to jolt you into Sunday: whatever the reports insist - and your weary limbs say - Britain does not actually have a national sleep problem. So says Professor Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University: "I see no evidence to suggest that we are sleeping less now than we ever were before. In Victorian times, for example, people might easily have worked 14 hours a day and got very little sleep."

Instead of the workhouse we work our brains late into the night at home, at leisure pursuits such as watching TV or using the computer. Or even driving. Tiredness accounts for a fifth of all road accidents. Few of us have to deal with bed bugs, unheated homes and hunger caused by poverty. "From the point of view of sleeping arrangements," says Professor Horne, "we have never had it so good."

And yet there have also never been more sleep remedies in the shops. Which is something to ponder while sitting in a characterless bedroom waiting to be wired up. The Edinburgh Sleep Centre charges £850 for an overnight assessment that can identify and help to cure serious problems such as apnoea, narcolepsy, night terrors and sleepwalking. This means having electrodes attached to your legs, scalp, jaw, ears, forehead and eyelids. They are very uncomfortable. So are the microphone taped to your throat, the belts on the chest to monitor breathing, the tubes into the nose and the finger clip that measures oxygen levels.

Wires drag, tugging at skin and hair. Getting to sleep seems to take hours, but the report in the morning says it was just 13 minutes. Rapid eye movement sleep, when the eyes roll from side to side in their sockets and dreams happen, comes in spurts adding up to just under an hour. Uninterrupted sleep does not come until 3.50am, but lasts until 8.20am. "Your sleep was all over the place," says the sleep technician Marios Kittenis. But he finds nothing to worry about.

That is not too much of a surprise. The average night's sleep of about seven hours is usually enough. "The brain rests and recovers in about five hours," says Professor Horne. "Any more than that is nice, but it is a luxury, really."

Pills may knock the sleepless out, but do not address the root causes. "Often it is stress, working too hard or burning the candle at both ends that is putting people in that state."

In 1964, a 17-year-old American boy called Randy Gardner deliberately stayed awake for 11 days to take the world record. He suffered daydreams and delusions but cold showers, long walks and pinball helped him through. After that he slept longer than usual, but regained only about a quarter of the sleep he had lost. That seems to be the average for all of us.

In his new book Sleepfaring: The Science of Sleep (OUP) Professor Horne makes it clear he is unconvinced that sleep problems can be linked to heart disease, high blood pressure and other conditions. He is also concerned about claims by some scientists that they might "cure" the need for sleep. Last Wednesday the defence contractor Qinetiq told MPs it had tested a drug called Modafinil that could keep soldiers awake for days. "One is always looking for something that would give military personnel an extra edge," said a scientist. But use of amphetamines by US soldiers has been blamed for cases of friendly fire - the sleep-deprived can carry on doing what they are doing but find it hard to react to changes, such as when a target turns out to be an ally.

Clubbers, junior doctors and journalists on deadline may be keen on such a pill, but Professor Horne warns: "Elimination of sleep and sleepiness by a yet-to-be discovered wonder drug would probably turn us into automatons, creatures of meagre routine, soulless robots incapable of self-reflection, empathy, imagination, coping with change or meaningful dialogue."

There is, however, one question not even he can answer. Why does just reading the word "sleep" make us want to yawn? "Nobody has the faintest idea. There is no evidence that yawning has any physiological role other than for humans to communicate to each other that they are tired or bored."

Bored? Surely not. Why are your eyes shut? Hey! Did you know we sweat an average of half a pint a night into the bedclothes? Wake up! No? Oh well. Nighty night then. Sweet dreams.

Additional reporting by Renee Knight