The Life Doctor

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Indy Lifestyle Online
AT THE launch of London Fashion Week yesterday, British Airways showed off its new first-class overnight bag. New to the bag is an Aroma Therapeutics Sleep Enhancer pillow spray. It contains a potent mix of essential oils including Lavender, Ylang Ylang, Petitgrain and sandalwood. You spray it on the pillow and smell the supposedly soporific and relaxing fumes all night.

When an insomnia cure becomes a British Airways staple, you beginning to realise how common sleeping problems are. Up to one in five of us suffer frequently. As a long-term insomniac going through a bad patch, I am shamelessly promiscuous with remedies. Naturally I was desperate to try the pillow spray - I'll sleep with anything (or at least try to), however lacking in scientific evidence.

Question: which of the following has been suggested as an insomnia cure?

1) slicing an onion and putting it in a jar by the bed;

2) keeping a noisy fan on in the bedroom;

3) leaving a pebble by the door to welcome in Morphus;

Answer: all of the above - as you can discover if you find yourself, as I frequently do, with a spare four hours in the middle of the night and access to the Internet. I have tried most things. Acupressure pads which are attached by a plaster to your wrist. Didn't work. Similar disappointment with homeopathic treatment. Noise therapy had limited effect. Melatonin gave me deeper sleep for a few hours but its long-term safety has not been established.

The sensible advice comes from the country's leading sleep expert, Professor Jim Horne, head of the Sleep Research Unit at Loughborough University. "You need something that distracts the mind from the job of going to sleep, however silly it is, as long as the body's physiology slows down. Don't get hyped up about lack of sleep, you may need less than you think."

Weird remedies are at least less irritating than the smug advice that generally appears in newspaper articles. Relaxing bath before bedtime? I get clean, not sleepy. A cup of hot milk? Pah - extra washing-up. Going to bed at the same time every night just prohibits my social life. Relaxing muscles one by one fills me with a growing tension - as I panic: "I'm up to my hips already and I'm not sleepy!"

Drugs are only a temporary crisis intervention. The body soon acclimatises and needs more and more. Doctors should not prescribe for more than two weeks and you should not exceed recommended doses of over-the-counter drugs.

Chronic insomnia is a miserable and potentially dangerous state. The sleep-deprived are more likely to have car accidents, develop depression, have an accident at work, suffer drug or alcohol dependency or - in my case - develop an alarmingly detailed knowledge of Enid Blyton's school stories through re-reading in the lonely hours of the night. And the worst of it is that you would be cured if you could stop worrying about it.

After 10 years of intensive fieldwork, this is my insomnia stategy.

1) Never "try" to go to sleep.

2) Take no caffeine of any kind after 4 pm.

3) Never go to bed until you are nodding off (note: exhaustion is not enough - you need to be sleepy).

4) If you can't sleep, always get up. That stops the feelings of panic and racing thoughts. I often get through three different beds in a night.

5) Avoid looking at the clock once the sleep attempt is under way - don't think about how you're going to feel in the morning.

6) Have a collection of familiar films that you can fall asleep in front of, happy in the knowledge that you know what happens next. Personal favourite: The Big Chill.

Aroma Therapeutics Sleep Enhancer costs pounds 18.50 for 50ml. Available from Liberty. Expensive but don't lose any sleep over it

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