Bad sleep seems to be an epidemic in Britain, and the stark results of a recent survey compound this suspicion. According to a poll by Direct Line, two-thirds of us spend around one month a year tossing and turning in our beds, trying to get to sleep.
Think of what you could do with an extra month! (Well, some extra sleep would be nice, for starters...)
The survey also revealed that the biggest reasons for sleeplessness include stressing about work (34%) and money (33%). One in five cannot get a good night’s sleep because of his or her partner’s snoring, added The Express.
HuffPost UK Lifestyle interviewed Penny Lewis, a neuroscientist at the University of Manchester and author of the Secret World of Sleep for her tips and theories as to why sleeplessness is such a problem in the UK.
Why do some people find it really difficult to get to sleep?
Everything from your state of mind, to the state of your bedroom and the weather can make it hard to sleep. There are literally hundreds of possible candidates.
If you are having trouble getting to sleep, I’d start by thinking about your room: is it quiet, dark and cool? Do you associate your bed mainly with sleep, or do you watch TV, play video games, talk on the phone, and generally hang out in it? Next, are you trying to sleep at night, or are you a shift worker?
Are you napping in the day (which can inhibit sleep at night)? Are you spending too much time in bed (more than around 7.5 hours is too much if you have trouble sleeping)? Are you doing enough exercise and getting outside (in bright light) during the day? Next, think about anxiety – if you are stressed or even concerned about your failure to sleep then this needs to be fixed.
Try writing down your worries and coming up with a plan that may work towards solving them. Finally, think about food – it is hard to sleep if you are hungry or if you are stuffed. Some foods such as milk, turkey, and tuna fish promote sleep, while others such as peppers, smoked meats, and fish will keep you awake. Try to have a small sleep promoting snack (half a banana, or a glass of warm milk) an hour before bedtime.
There are lots of theories about how much sleep we should get - what is your theory?
This really varies from person to person.
Margaret Thatcher is a famous example of someone who needed very little sleep (4-5 hours). Other people need 10 hours or more. In general, the best thing is to sleep just as much as you need – the amount that makes you feel alert and good during the day. For most people this is around 7 - 8 hours.
Do you think that the problem is that we try and squash ourselves into a 9-5 schedule when actually not all of us are suited to that?
That is certainly a problem for some people. Our sleep cycle is linked cyclical rhythms (called circadian rhythms) in body temperature and various hormones that are controlled by time of day and the sun’s light and dark phases as well other things like our activity levels and when we eat.
However, this link is slightly different in different people – so some people are pre-set to bounce out of bed at 6 am, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to irritate everyone around them…. while others really struggle to get out of bed at 9 or 10, and actually feel most awake at 3am.
For this latter group, which makes up about 40% of the population, the 9-5 workday can be a real struggle. Employers might get a lot more out of these people if they allowed them to work on their own schedule – and that probably means at night.
How does depression and anxiety affect sleep?
Alterations in sleep are actually one of the earliest warning signs of depression. It is hard to generalise, but many people will find they get more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and lese of the deep early night sleep we call slow wave sleep (SWS) if they are depressed. We are still unsure if or how this change in sleep makes the depression worse, but we do know that most antidepressant drugs counterract it.
Any advice on how to counteract it?
Yes – take antidepressants (as prescribed by your doctor, of course). Most of those classed as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) will suppress REM and allow for more SWS.
We think the NHS is pretty useless in helping insomniacs in terms of advice - what is your take on it?
As someone who suffered from insomnia for many years I completely agree with you. I remember going to my GP once and explaining that I hadn’t slept for 10 days – and she pretty much laughed at me. That was before I got interested in studying sleep – but was almost certainly one of the main causes.
On a serious note, the NHS may not tell you this, but there are now some very good websites that provide cognitive brain therapy (CBT) for insomnia. This allows you to treat yourself with a clinically proven drug free method from home, and without any need for support from the NHS. Take a look at Sleepio.com.
Why are dreams important? Can drugs and alcohol affect our ability to dream?
Dreams are one of the greatest mysteries of sleep. We simply don’t know what they are for or why they are important. Some scientists believe that dreams represent a conscious manifestation of memory replay (that is the replaying of recent experiences during sleep, which strengthens our memories for them), but this has yet to be proven. Drugs and alcohol can certainly affect dreams, sometimes making them more vivid.