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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

A recovering insomniac shares what she learnt on the road to getting better

A study shows that two-thirds of adults in developed countries fail to get a full eight hours of a sleep

Prolonged lack of sleep raises the risk of Alzheimer's, heart disease and cancer. Getty Images
Prolonged lack of sleep raises the risk of Alzheimer's, heart disease and cancer. Getty Images

Teetering once more on the edge of a bad sleep cycle, I am penning this on less than five hours of kip. Last night, on waking after two hours of sleep, I spent the following four hours just trying to nod off again. The bed felt like a furnace. I had to open two windows. Then sirens, birds and even the sound of my partner’s breathing, continued to keep me awake. I tried a podcast to drown it all out. Three podcasts later, I was adrift in a sea of restless dreams.

I am going to give myself the benefit of the doubt, on account of the full moon last week, but as someone who has suffered from clinical insomnia for six years now, just one bad night is enough to throw me off for months. However, I can console myself with the smug reasoning that I have finally found an antidote to my insomnia, as well as with the fact I’m not alone in the bedtime battle.

Apparently, two-thirds of adults in developed nations are failing to get a full eight hours of rest a night, according to Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the current international bestseller Why We Sleep.

An ode to the science of sleep, this book and Walker’s research will worry anyone (­apparently 1 in 10 of us) who is seriously sleep-deprived. We are likely to all have experienced the short-term symptoms of sleep deprivation at some point or other – irritability, headaches, increased anxiety, and difficulty maintaining focus and thinking clearly.

Frighteningly, the long-term effects of lack of sleep (less than six or seven hours a night over a period of months), are enough to put us at risk of depression and Alzheimer’s. Insomniacs are also more likely to develop heart disease and cancer, although the physiological links are not fully understood.

If that weren’t stressful enough, lack of sleep in itself is anxiety-inducing. Dubai-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) psychotherapist Ross Addison insists: “Many people with depression report sleep difficulties. Similarly, people experiencing anxiety often report difficulties with sleep, citing overthinking or worrying about something as the most common reason they can’t drift off to sleep.” Anxiety may lead to insomnia, which feeds the former in a miserable cycle.

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Read more:

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Shakespeare was right. Sleep is “the chief nourisher in life’s feast”. Walker puts it starkly in his book: “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life­span.” Well, that’s just great. To live longer lives, all we need to do is sleep. What then, if you’re like me? You adore sleep, want sleep, pine after a full night’s rest, where you wake eight, nine, ten hours later as fresh and sprightly as a cocker spaniel? And yet, after heading to bed for your early night at 10pm, you are still struggling to slip into slumber six hours later.

Rest (quite literally) ­assured, I have tried every single method out there – from the commonsensical to the slightly zany – to cure myself of insomnia. The answer came to me after trying every trick in the book. Six years ago, in my first months as an insomniac, counting sheep was a natural go-to. No luck. Next came a visit to the doctor. Sleeping pills along with anti­depressants were prescribed. I found the sleeping pills made me groggy. Plus, one of the side effects of the anti­depressants was insomnia.

Walker’s book also insists that no pills can induce natural sleep or the essential repair and self-care our bodies carry out during natural sleep. I replaced the pills with herbal sleeping aids, like valerian root extract. I drank special night-time teas. I drank cherry extract before bed. I dripped valerian formula into tea before bed. I drank milk before bed. I ate almonds before bed. I meditated daily and signed up for yoga to tackle the anxiety my sleeplessness was inducing. I saw a hypnotherapist. For six months, nothing helped. It took an eight-month break travelling around South America to lull my body and mind into sleep submission. Quite an expensive insomnia cure.

Since then, I have continued to battle with night demons; the endless chatter in my mind as soon as I lay my head down on the pillow to rest. Last year I saw a nutritionist and I saw a naturopath. One told me to give up sugar. The other told me to eat more protein. I did both. I slept less. I saw an acupuncturist and an osteopath. I even gave my bedroom a feng shui makeover in order to “drive negative energy out of my resting space”. Hopeless. The more I tried, the less I would sleep. Which makes sense, because sleep is meant to be one of the most natural of human functions.

Then I discovered CBT, which teaches a set of techniques to break bad sleep habits and address the anxieties we attach to sleep. The first step is forming new, healthy habits. Dr Rebecca Ferguson, at the Dubai Community Health Centre, calls this “sleep hygiene”, and insists that “teaching sleep hygiene must be the first thing in treating anyone with insomnia”.

Basic sleep hygiene includes everything you may already know about getting a good night of shut-eye. Don’t look at screens before bed. Don’t take screens into your bedroom. Sleep in darkness. Sleep in a cool room. Sleep in a tidy room. No caffeine. No sugar. No alcohol. No clock-watching. Exercise during the day. Establish a wind-down routine at night, one that signals “bedtime” to your brain.

Avoid screentime just before bed. Getty Images
Avoid screentime just before bed. Getty Images

Practising basic sleep hygiene as taught by CBT professionals has proven to be the most effective cure for insomnia. I, however, need an altogether more rigorous CBT technique to get me back into a good sleep cycle. It sounds counterintuitive, but the method I now swear by to get me to sleep is to restrict my sleep. Bear with me.

Based on the method outlined in This Book Will Make You Sleep by Jessamy Hibberd and Jo Usmar, I add up the average amount of hours I have spent asleep in bed each night over the course of a week. If the total is 5 hours, then instead of going to bed at 10pm and getting out of bed at 8am, I go to bed at midnight and force myself up at 5am. Walker maintains that “by keeping patients awake for longer, we build up a strong sleep pressure. Under this heavier weight of sleep pressure, patients fall asleep faster and achieve a more stable, solid form of sleep across the night.”

The benefits of this are twofold. I spend less time in bed awake, which means I begin to associate my bed only with sleeping. I also regain confidence in my ability to fall asleep. As soon as I manage a block of five, uninterrupted hours of sleep, I then increase my time in bed by an hour. I’m also obsessed with Deep Sleep Pillow Spray from This Works, and Sleepy body lotion from the Lush cosmetics brand. My new signature scent is dreamy lavender. I absolutely reek of it.

Tonight, I’ll be practising what I preach and hitting the hay an hour later than last night, setting my alarm for an hour earlier tomorrow morning. I have tried this method twice. It has worked both times and has taken me less than a week each time to get back to a full eight hours a night.