Although benzodiazephines, the drug most commonly prescribed, are addictive over the long-term, it is now generally accepted that there is no problem if they are taken for only a few nights. If the "short sharp shock" approach doesn't solve the problem, counselling can help.
If you are suffering from a long-term sleeping problem, it might just be that you need less sleep than you think. As we get older, for example, we often can't accept that we don't need so much rest. How much sleep we need as adults before old age sets in is partly a biological fluke, like height. Most of us chose between seven and eight hours, but three hours more or less, though extreme, is still normal. If, like Lady Thatcher, you need as little as four hours, evidence suggests you are a very efficient sleeper - able to compress the important, deep sleep into a shorter time.
Habit also plays a role, however. According to Dr Hanning, many of us could train ourselves to need four hours' sleep - the minimum required for a quality rest - putting up with feeling sleepy until we had adapted. But he adds: "We generally choose not to - for one thing, it's not much fun being awake when everyone else is asleep."
This is not to suggest that long-term insomnia (which is classed as lasting over a month) isn't a real problem. Around 6-7 per cent of the population suffer, but it is difficult to get an exact figure. Insomniacs tend to sleep much better in sleep labs, away from the environment that they associate with their problem - another reason for trivialising their complaint.
Its causes are incredibly varied: anything from "bad sleep hygiene" (a bed that is uncomfortable, too much caffeine in the evenings), to respiratory or other physical problems, to psychiatric disorders - and cures will vary accordingly. Stress, too, keeps us awake - but the profound effect our daytime behaviour has on our sleep has only recently been understood. Tackling these kinds of disorders throws up another problem altogether: if your lifestyle is stopping you from sleeping, are you able or willing to change it?
Anne Powers is an insomniac in her 40s. "When I got divorced 11 years ago, sleep went out of the window," she says. Since then she has woken up in the small hours every morning, unable to get back to sleep. She is sure her insomnia is stress-related: after the divorce she raised two children as a single parent, retrained as a psychotherapist and set up her own practice.
"I don't doubt that, if I unpacked my lifestyle, my sleep would come back," she says, "but I just don't know how." Instead, she puts up with feeling constantly anxious and below par. And she is not alone - long working hours, high unemployment and job insecurity are bound to swell the insomniacs' ranks.
CURES FOR SLEEPLESSNESS
There has never been a wider variety of products around claiming to help insomnia. For upwards of pounds 300, you can try electro-magnetic therapy; for pounds 5 you can buy isocones, acupressure bands that you wear on your wrists. But Ahmed, manager of the insomnia charity Sleep Matters, suggests caution. "You can spend a lot of money, but there is nothing that is generally recognised as a cure."
Much-hyped at the moment is melatonin, a hormone made at night whose primary role is to help time daily rhythms. It will shift the body clock backwards or forwards depending on when it's given; given at the right time, it will induce sleep. Josephine Arendt, professor of endocrinology at Surrey Universitysays there is evidence that it may also improve normal sleep although studies are not yet complete.
But you might find something in your kitchen cupboard which helps. Mike Terranova, an acupunturist with the British School of Complementary Medicine, has found that honey very often has an effect. "Take a teaspoon 20 minutes before going to bed, or if you wake up in the night," he says.
Richard Adams, a medical herbalist, suggests camomile tea - well known for its mildly sedative affect on the central nervous system. But another folk remedy, a lettuce sandwich, is less likely to work. "The effect of wild lettuce is well-proven," he says. "It is used in lots of herbal remedies. But it has to be prepared in a particular way; it's not a self- help remedy."
Warm milk spiced with nutmeg is recommended by Angela Hope-Murray, a nutritionist at the Hale Clinic. "Nutmeg has narcotic properties and milk triggers seratonian, a natural sedative."
You might find that a bath with lavender oil, or a massage, does the trick for you. Aromatherapist Julie Jack thinks getting up is the worst thing you can do. "It becomes a habit," she says. "If you are lying there, your body is relaxing. Breathe deeply and enjoy it."
8 Mike Terranova, the British School of Complementary Medicine, 140 Harley Street, London W1 (0171 224 2393); Richard Adams, the Clinic of Herbal Medicine, 26 Maidenstone Hill, London SE10 (0181 691 6938); Angela Hope- Murray, the Hale Clinic, 7 Park Crescent, London W1 (0171 631 0156); Julie Jack, aromatherapist (0171 700 3942).
the closest most of us get to a daring dream is the one where we suddenly realize we are standing stark naked in a crowded shopping centre. So it seems rather unjust that some people can apparently will themselves into Walter Mitty-style dreams of breathtaking, high adventure. The phenomenon is known as lucid dreaming and means the sleeper becomes aware he is dreaming and can consciously participate in and control his dream. It has been compared to having your very own virtual reality in your head.
"People typically lucid dream about things that they always wanted to do as children, like flying," says Charles McCreery from the Psychophysical Institute in Oxford which has been researching lucid dreams for some 30 years.
Other favourite lucid dreams revealed to sleep researchers here and in other countries are having sex with a beautiful lover, or performing outrageous stunts such as leaping off cliffs for the thrill, safe in the knowledge they can come to no harm. Research from a Canadian university suggests 60 per cent of us have at least one of these dreams in our life and one in10 regularly experience them.
Aside from being secret, ripping recreation, some argue that lucid dreaming could have an impact in waking life. It is even creeping into therapists' work. The theory is that, trained to lucid dream, people who have self- confidence problems or phobias, can practise difficult situations in the safety of a lucid dream.
It is also being used to help alleviate nightmares, which plague one million people in Britain. Dr Delia Cushway, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Birmingham University recounts the case of one woman she saw who became lucid when she had a nightmare in which two ferocious, growling Doberman dogs barred her way and threatened to attack. "She simply said to herself 'This is OK, this is only a dream' and pushed past the dogs and let herself out of the door," she explains. "In a subsequent dream one of the dogs lay down beside her and put its head in her lap. In later dreams the same dog became a dream friend, helping her when she was in trouble."
Some psychotherapists warn that interfering with a dream narrative might rob you of the clues that dreams throw up about what or who is troubling you in your life. Dr Mark Blagrove, a psychologist at the University of Wales agrees with this and believes we could be conning ourselves if we think lucid dreams can offer anything more than good fun.
"There is no doubt lucid dreaming exists but there is a big argument about whether there is any carry-over in waking life," he says. "There's no scientific proof you can do things like improve your confidence by lucid dreaming and if someone thinks they have, it could just be the placebo effect. But then you could say if they feel better does it matter?"
Interest in lucid dreaming as a subject of research has started growing in the last 15 or 20 years and scientists have developing machines which allegedly trigger lucid dreams. Stanford University researcher Stephen LaBerge who has founded the Lucidity Institute in California has devised the Dreamlight Machine and its slimline, more affordable sister the Nova Dreamer. The latter has started being distributed in Britain by Macclesfield company Life Tools and director Chris Payne says top on his list of satisfied sleepers is a retired major who has been using the machine for something of a sleeping seance; he calls up his deceased and much-missed wife to talk.
The Nova Dreamer contains a microchip, a battery and two small lights encased within a soft, black Joan Collins-style beauty mask. Sensors detect rapid eye movement (a sign you are dreaming) and emit flashing lights which, in the same way your ringing alarm clock might get built into your dream, become incorporated in the dream as the flashing sun or traffic lights. With training you come to recognise these cues as showing you you're asleep and the next step is to take control. That is the theory, anyway.
After trying it for the minimum trial period of two weeks I didn't get a sniff of a lucid dream but I did start experiencing much richer recall of my dreams than I'd had in months which is, according to sleep researchers, a pre-requisite of lucid dreaming. The price is pounds 249 but if you want to buy British, stick around for the Dream Machine which has been developed by psychologist Dr Keith Hearne and goes on sale in a few months.
"I don't know how much it will cost. I'm leaving that to the exploiters of the idea, I'm just the mad inventor behind it," he says before going some way to confirming this by suddenly turning his hi-fi up full blast. Three minutes after the melodious tones of a woman's singing finish wafting down the telephone receiver he explains he is a part-time composer and has spent three years writing a requiem which was partly inspired by original music which came to him in his dreams.
Dr Hearne claims it is possible for some of the creative among us to tap into our reservoirs of creativity by lucid dreamingan unknown piece of music or conjuring up an original piece of architecture.
Lucid dreaming is, of course, much more likely to prove lucrative for the machine manufacturers than the dreamers, but given our fascination with dreams, it could just be possible we are on the brink of a burgeoning Dreams-R-Us industry.
But just when lucid dreaming looks interesting, Dr Hearne throws a more tantalising titbit in the arena. "In 15 or 20 years time we will be able to see our own dreams on a TV screen by monitoring the visual cortex," he predicts. "They'll be fed into a virtual reality system and you'll be able to relive them in the daytime and modify them. You'll be able to enjoy other people's dreams, too, which will be an eye opener. There will be a few divorce cases coming up then, I can tell you."
8 Nova Dreamer, tel 01625 502602Reuse content