Wednesday 20 March 2019

Sleep well: how to get more than 40 winks

One in five of us will suffer from insomnia, but why and what can we do to cure it? By Chrissie Russell

Clock ticking on a missed night's sleep
Clock ticking on a missed night's sleep

Chrissie Russell

The red glow of your radio alarm clock reads 3.45am as you turn your pillow over, hoping the cool side will help you sleep. By 4.30am, you can hear the birds begin to chirp. As you lie, worrying that you've to get up in an hour and a half, a door slams as your fitness fanatic neighbour downstairs heads out for their early morning run.

Eventually you doze off only to have your brief sleep broken by the shriek of the alarm and you drag yourself out of bed, ready to face the day, feeling absolutely shattered.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you could be among the one in five Irish people suffering from insomnia at some point in their lives. Most of us have had the misfortune of suffering a sleepless night, but new figures show that for for an increasing number of people, the frustration of lying awake all night is a regular occurrence.

"Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder seen by physicians," says Breege Leddy, of The Insomnia Clinic at Bon Secours Hospital Dublin. It was set up in 2013 and has seen client numbers swell since a GP referral system was introduced five months ago. "It affects up to 15pc of the population on a chronic basis (lasting months) and presents itself in different ways with people either finding it hard to get off to sleep, stay or maintain sleep, having early morning awakenings or getting restless sleep."

Duration is what defines insomnia, with sufferers dealing with a lack of sleep several nights a week for more than six months. You only have to look at the booming sleep aids industry to see what a widespread issue it is. From sleeping sprays, lavender pillows and hi-tech goggles to relaxation apps and cherry juice, there are a multitude of remedies on the market.

Most recently YouTube has seen a rising number of videos featuring 'sleep whisperers', who speak softly, tap cardboard and rustle plastic – all of which supposedly helps viewers drift off.

Insomnia is, of course, not a new problem. Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon and Churchill were some of history's most famous insomniacs. But according to experts, the problem is becoming more prevalent thanks to our fast-paced, digital lifestyle.

"I think life is far more demanding now and the pace is constantly accelerating thanks to technology," says Brian Colbert, a master trainer of neuro-linguistic programming and author of The Happiness Habit (

"The conscious brain isn't capable of handling the amount of information it's subjected to and gets overloaded. We're literally being driven to distraction, forever plugging in and emotionally forgetting to plug out, with the result that we're always on high alert."

The amount of time spent staring at brightly lit computer and phone screens also disrupts the brain's production of melatonin, keeping the brain awake.

But it's not just technology that is to blame. "Our day-to-day lives have become a lot more stressful," says Breege Leddy. "We commute longer, get up earlier and arrive home later, more of us are also facing financial worries."

In her experience insomniacs tend to be females, shift workers and inpatients with medical and psychiatric disorders. Older people also tend to suffer more. Untreated, the problem can lead to a higher risk of strokes, poorer overall health, absenteeism, depression and anxiety.

It's one of the main conditions treated in Shen clinics, which use a range of alternative therapies. "As acupuncturists we don't just treat the symptoms but work on treating the root cause of disharmony in the body which is causing the condition," explains Johanne Farrelly from Shen Acupuncture and Naturopathy clinic (

There's a growing appreciation for this approach that seeks to treat not just the obvious problem – insomnia – but tackle the possible causes behind it.

"Traditionally, treatment for insomnia involved medication, and although that can be effective it may also induce effects such as tolerance or even rebound insomnia when discontinued," says Leddy, whose clinic uses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia (CBTi) to tackle the dysfunctional thoughts and behaviours behind sleeplessness.

She explains: "There have been over 85 international studies on CBTi and success rates show that 70pc of individuals have improved their sleep post-CBTi therapy."

Brian Colbert's app, Digipill ( has ranked as the number one health app in over 20 countries since its release last year and also deals with the mental aspect of sleep difficulties.

But all the experts agree – if think you're suffering from insomnia, seek help. Otherwise worrying about sleep is just another thing keeping you awake at night.

Famous insomniacs

* George Clooney can't sleep without the TV on. He says: "I have a very tough time getting to sleep. Without question I wake every night five times."

* Margaret Thatcher famously survived on four hours a night; quoted as saying 'sleep is for wimps'.

* Simon Cowell recently had to ask celeb hypnotist, Paul McKenna, to help cure his problems sleeping.

* Madonna's brother revealed in his book that the singer is an insomniac who "rarely sleeps more than three hours a night".

* Tennis ace Serena Williams has suffered from insomnia. "I'm kind of like my dad," she says, "he never slept much."

Irish Independent

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