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Are you an insomniac?

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ShortList's Andrew Dickens hasn't had good night's sleep in 7 years. Here he props his eyelids open with matchsticks long enough to investigate what’s keeping him, and many other sufferers, awake at night

It’s quarter past 11 and I’m in bed. It’s seven hours and 45 minutes until I get up. I’ve got a lot to do tomorrow, but that’s plenty of sleep. Yes, lots to do tomorrow. I should probably think about that. Better email myself these thoughts. It’s good that I can email from my phone.

Half past 12. Six-and-half hours to go. As long as it doesn’t get under six hours, it’s OK. Half an hour to drop off. I’d better think about that now; I want to remember the exact moment my brain switches off.

It’s gone 1am. Oh, God. I’m going to be a wreck tomorrow. I’ll be slow, I’ll be ratty and I’ve got so much to do. My heart’s pounding a lot harder and faster now. I’d better think about that.

It’s half past two. I’m going to feel ill all day, my hands will shake, my voice will slur, my legs will feel like they’re being mildly electrocuted. Thinking about that, I feel like crying — but I’ll go to the bathroom instead.

That was the inside of my head last night. The ‘lots to do’, in an ironic boot to the groin, is ‘write this feature on insomnia’.

I have two types of night: those above and broken ones. I can’t remember the last time that I slept through a night — it may have been when I passed out on my 29th birthday — but I bet it was lovely.

Like whoever Michael Jackson was singing to, I am not alone. While, in this information age, we’re all conscious of what we eat, drink and inhale, one aspect of basic existence has been sidelined: sleep.

According to the Economic And Social Research Council, one in eight of us averages less than six hours sleep a night, and one-third of us suffer from some kind of sleep disorder.

“We live in a 25-hour society,” explains Dr Dev Banerjee of Birmingham’s BMI The Priory Hospital. “We’re travelling longer, working longer, we do more shift work. And as society is sleeping less, you’ll get more chronically sleep-deprived people.”

MORE THAN JUST TIRED

Most worrying are the potential health effects — these alone are enough to give you sleepless nights. “More people than we thought are having sleep problems,” says Dr Dan Robotham of the Mental Health Foundation, “and these are causing problems in everyday life. They affect concentration, memory, energy levels, your temper, relationships. A lack of sleep can lead to, or be a risk factor in, depression and anxiety and, likewise, it may be that insomnia is caused by underlying mental health issues.”

And that’s not the half of it. Sleep deprivation is also associated with weight gain, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and libido loss. It’s all a bit more serious than being narky with the bus driver.

Insomnia, of course, is nothing new — I’m pretty sure the Saxons had a king called Ethelred The Constantly Knackered — and the causes are many and varied. The figures, though, seem to suggest that more and more of us are undervaluing sleep, seeing it as a necessary inconvenience, like visiting a vile but hugely wealthy uncle. Clearly, this is not good.

So, tormented by a vision of a fat, chaste, even grumpier future, I sought answers to my own problems. Quicker than you can Google ‘sleep expert’, I found myself at the north London clinic of Sammy Margo, author of The Good Sleep Guide.

My first task was to describe my normal day. Normal is the word. Some people may find this strikingly familiar: alarm at seven, shower, muesli, in the office by half nine. Sit in front of computer, drown in emails and calls, eat lunch at desk, home about eight. Dinner, low-brow TV, bed by 11, check emails on phone, sleep badly.

She then asked about my office (strip lighting, window seat, easy target for snipers), what I do at lunch (call utility companies), how much I exercise (walk between trains and buildings), how much I drink (an occasional nip, a rare binge), and if I have any hobbies or interests (nope, I’m exceedingly dull).

“You’re the perfect case study,” Margo told me, which I took to be a compliment. “Like, I imagine, many ShortList readers, you’re physically underactive and mentally overactive. You’re not getting enough exercise, enough daylight exposure or any downtime for your brain.”

Slightly less complimentary, but I clung to the mentally overactive bit. The point that she was making is that our modern lives are not conducive to healthy sleep. So what to do about it?

THE SOLUTIONS

“You need to address three areas,” Margo said. “The first is your lifestyle. You need more exercise, so try getting off the train one stop earlier. You also need to get out at lunch. We need sunlight for our circadian rhythms. Why not have walking meetings with colleagues?”

The next area was my bedroom. This, she told me, should be purely for “sleeping and sex”. It’s not a place for non-sleepy things such as TVs, computers (neither of which I have) or phones (guilty). Digital alarm clocks should be turned away to avoid counting down the minutes.

“You need dark, quiet and cool,” she said. ”Whether that means blinds, an eye mask, earplugs, leaving a window open, you can work it out. The optimum temperature is 16-18C.

“Finally,” she told me, “people need a bedtime routine, like we had as kids.” This routine, she explained, is to slow your brain down before bed. Have some quiet time. Turn off the TV — listen to relaxing music or a soothing audiobook. Take a hot bath; this sends blood away from your overworked brain towards superficial tissue, while cooling down afterwards helps release melatonin, the sleep hormone.

“A bedtime snack can also be good,” she added. “Foods such as milk, honey, turkey and potatoes contain sleep inducing hormones and minerals, while bananas are a sleeping pill in peel.”

Reclining in a hot bath, dipping bananas into honey and listening to the liquid-gold tones of Stephen Fry? On doctor’s orders? And I thought this sleep lark was challenging…

“When you get into bed,” continued Margo, “try a progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) routine — a series of exercises to relax your whole body. You can download a free podcast at Sealy.co.uk. And never stay awake in bed for more than 20 minutes. Get up, do a low-level activity, such as watering the plants, and go back to bed afresh. Sleep isn’t about numbers, it’s all about quality.”

Margo was keen to point out that, while these suggestions may help someone improve the quality of their kip, a lack of sleep has myriad potential causes and solutions, and that, if you think your situation is chronic, a visit to your GP is a must. If your insomnia is, for example, due to its evil chicken-and-egg relationship with anxiety and depression, no amount of turkey is going to help.

And while bad sleep can lead to a lot more than baggy eyes and inadvertent snoring in cinemas, you also need to remember that it can be treated. So, in the immortal words of Nick Ross, please, don’t have nightmares.

(Images: Rex Features)

THE INSOMNIAC’S TV GUIDE

Twilight-hour TV gold to take you through until dawn all week

Saturday: 1.40am South Park, Comedy Central, Subtitled, Rpt, Stereo

Sunday: 4am, TJ Hooker, QUEST, Subtitled, Rpt, Stereo. Eighties action with William Shatner as the titular tubby cop.

Monday: 4.15am, The X Files, Sky Atlantic, Subtitled, Rpt, Stereo. Aliens, ghosts and thinly-veiled sexual tension.

Tuesday: 3.30am, Lost, Sky 1, Subtitled, Rpt, Stereo

Wednesday: 3am, Spaced, Dave Ja Vu, Subtitled, Rpt, Stereo. Sitcom that thrust Pegg, Frost and Wright into the spotlight.

Thursday: 4.10am, 24, Sky Atlantic, Subtitled, Rpt, Stereo. Jack Bauer continually redefines the meaning of ‘overtime’.

Friday:2am, Shameless, E4, Subtitled, Rpt, Stereo. Bafta-bagging series about a gloriously dysfunctional family.

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