The bad sleep epidemic: Forget insomnia, are you a victim of 'semi-somnia' Triggered by stress and computer use, this low-quality sleep is wrecking millions of lives…
02:01 GMT, 26 November 2012
Jemma Harrison sighs. 'The night before last I had two hours sleep,' says the 31-year-old who runs a hat business. 'That's extreme, but I'll often wake in the middle of the night, thinking of something work-related.
'Because I usually take work into my bedroom, I often find myself turning the computer back on to check things are ok. Some nights it can take me four hours to get back to sleep.'
A shocking one-in-three Britons now suffer sleep problems, and hormonal issues mean women are plagued by insomnia more than men. But experts are beginning to put special focus on a newly identified sleep disorder called 'semi-somnia', which is claiming growing numbers of sufferers.
A shocking one-in-three Britons now suffer sleep problems, and hormonal issues mean women are plagued by insomnia more than men
It's been called insomnia's irritating little sister, but despite not sharing the full agonising symptoms of acute sleeplessness – which has been linked to weakened immune systems, depression, high blood pressure and even heart disease – semi-somnia is far from harmless.
Rather than totally sleepless nights, sufferers experience short bouts of sleep disruption – perhaps on particularly busy or stressful days. They may wake every night for 30 minutes, or find it impossible to sleep for an hour because their minds are racing.
Semi-somnia has been called insomnia's irritating little sister, but despite not sharing the full agonising symptoms of acute sleeplessness, it is far from harmless
Then there's 'fizzy sleep', a phrase coined by Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep coach at London's Capio Nightingale hospital, and author of the book Tired But Wired.
'It's not a scientific term, but clients say that's what their head feels like,' she explains. 'They are asleep but it's not restful. It's a jangly, information-filled sleep where the brain is still highly active.'
Lisa Myers, 34, CEO of an internet search company, knows this feeling only too well. She used to suffer appalling semi-somnia until she realised how much her work was suffering.
Experts believe the reason our mind goes into information overload is not just the sheer amount of material we're taking in, but that we've stopped taking any downtime
'Most mornings, I'd wake-up completely wired, as if I'd already drunk too much coffee,' she says. 'My head felt swollen from all the issues I had to deal with. I need eight hours sleep at night to function but sometimes I got as little as four. It left me not just tired, but agitated and unable to focus.'
A new baby typically results in between 400 and 750 hours of lost sleep for parents in the first year
So why has semi-somnia started plaguing us now 'We've spent five years researching this with 30,000 sufferers and technology is probably the main cause,' says Jean Gomes, chairman of The Energy Project – a consultancy dedicated to helping people counteract tiredness issues.
'Humans have always had stress and that does interfere with sleep, but work and home used to be separated by time and space: leaving the office meant you had to switch off.
'You may have had a stressful day, but your mind could process problems overnight and you'd wake the next day refreshed. Now the ways we relax – shopping online, tweeting while watching television and checking Facebook- mean our brains are in a permanent state of arousal.' When bedtime comes around, this can cause big problems.
Take information 'mini-breaks', and instead of looking at your mobile phone while waiting for the train, allow your mind to wander
For us to sleep, three main things happen: the decline in light triggers the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, our temperature starts to fall and our mind and body relax, allowing our nervous system to switch off. Using technology interferes with each of those steps.
Sleep is when the mind processes the
information we've taken in throughout the day, but the huge amount of
material we now consume online can simply be too much to deal with
Studies have found bright screens can reduce melatonin levels by almost a quarter, while research has shown that people exposed to the radiation given out by mobile phones before bed take longer to enter the deepest stages of sleep – and spend less time there.
Then there's the fact that what you read online could keep your mind whirring. 'If I check my company's Twitter or Facebook accounts before bed or in the middle of the night, there's always something to respond to,' says Jemma, who lives in Scunthorpe. 'Dealing with it is the only way to get back to sleep – otherwise I'll just worry about it.'
For us to sleep, the decline in light triggers the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin…but using technology late at night interferes with this
Sleep is when the mind processes the information we've taken in throughout the day, but the huge amount of material we now consume online can simply be too much to deal with.
'The part of the brain that deals with information processing is relatively small – and it can't cope with the sheer amount of input it's getting now,' says Dr Ramlakhan.
The result is, we're spending longer in the part of sleep where we process information and less time in the deep restorative sleep we need to refresh us. Then we're waking up exhausted. Yet most of us don't realise this is what's happening unless we stop.
'The part of the brain that deals with information processing is relatively small – and it can't cope with the sheer amount of input it's getting now,' says Dr Ramlakhan
Marketing executive Engi Bally, 30, of Windsor, Berks, certainly didn't until she moved to a job with a strict 'no contact outside working hours' policy: workers were explicitly banned from looking at emails or work projects outside office hours. She found her energy levels changed dramatically.
'Now I drink a cup of coffee in the morning for pleasure – not four just to get me started,' she explains.'
My old company expected me to be available 24/7. I would sleep with my phone and laptop in the bed, so I could deal with things immediately.
'It would probably only happen twice a night – I'd be awake for an hour in total – and I didn't really think it was a problem. It was only once I stopped that I realised how tired it was making me.'
Thankfully, as Engi proves, it is possible to recapture your sleep, but the big question is how First, be aware that a perfect eight hours sleep doesn't begin when you climb into bed – it's a day-long process.
Experts believe the reason our mind goes into information overload is not just the sheer amount of material we're taking in, but that we've stopped taking any downtime. Once, if a friend was late to meet you in a cafe, you would spend the time gazing idly around the room, allowing your mind to wander.
That allowed your brain to process some of the information it had absorbed, reducing its late-night workload. Nowadays, it's more likely that you'll check your phone or look online, causing yet another influx of information for your mind to handle.
'Take information “minibreaks” every 90 minutes through the day to give your mind some space,' says Dr Ramlakhan. 'Drink lots of water. Your bladder will then force you to take a time out – and don't take your phone to the bathroom with you.'
Other good times to take an 'input break' are while on public transport and in queues. If you do use gadgets in the evening, set the screen brightness to low and confine sessions to less than an hour – short sessions have not been shown to affect significantly melatonin suppression. Enlarge the type size and keep the device as far from you as possible to decrease your light exposure.
The biggest tip of all is that an hour before bed you must turn all gadgets off – xperts call this the 'electronic sundown', which allows your natural sleep systems to switch on
When it comes to emails, don't check work ones or those from people who might leave you worried or anxious if at all possible. 'I found this really hard at first,' says Engi.
'You start to believe that disaster will occur if you don't reply immediately – it's also hard for your ego to realise you aren't needed 24-7.It took me two weeks to get used to switching off, but I didn't realise how much it affected me until I did.'
Information overloads before bedtime can lead to 'fizzy' sleep
If your issue is not so much falling or staying asleep, but feeling rested afterwards, Dr Ramlakhan says it's important to have an evening ban on Twitter or any other site where the content is updating at high speed.
'I'm not aware of any published science around this yet, but in my practice people tell me the greater the speed of information they read before bed, the more 'fizzy' their sleep is.'
But the biggest tip of all is that an hour before bed you must turn all gadgets off. Experts call this the 'electronic sundown', which allows your natural sleep systems to switch on.
'Clients know I have a 9pm cut-off and, unless it's an emergency, I won't deal with emails until the next morning,' says Lisa Myers. 'Doing this means I work better the next day.'
It's the type of development Jean Gomes is very happy to see.
He says: 'Feeling well and full of energy is a triumvirate of nutrition, exercise and sleep.
'For years now we've been focusing on the first two and letting poor sleep become the new norm. But finally, the tide is turning.'
WE PUT THE LATEST SLEEP AIDS TO THE TEST
Niagara Therapy Cyclopad, 354 (niagaratherapy.co.uk)
Jemma Harrison, 31 (right), from Scunthorpe, runs a hat company
PROBLEM: 'I lie awake in bed worrying.'
PRODUCT: Niagara Therapy Cyclopad, 354 (niagaratherapy.co.uk) is a vibrating pad you lie on which claims to reduce stress and tension
VERDICT: 'The idea is that you sit or lie on this for 30 minutes an hour before bedtime and it calms you down. Amazingly, it actually does – physically at least. I'd get off it completely floppy but my mind was still racing. Most nights I'd just sit on it thinking about what I should be doing instead.'
Alpha-Stim SCS, 299 (alpha-stim.co.uk)
Sarah Ewing, 37, is a food producer who lives in Scottish Borders
PROBLEM: 'I need something to calm my busy mind.'
PRODUCT: Alpha-Stim SCS, 299 (alpha-stim.co.uk), an electronic device worn nightly for 20 minutes before bed. Clips attach to the earlobes and provide doses of micro-current which, when picked up by the brain, enable it to 'alter brainwaves' and create a more relaxed state, providing a better quality of sleep.
VERDICT: 'I expected this to be nonsense but after one night I fell asleep more easily and woke less tired. Every night my sleep has been getting better. When you first start the gadget, it makes you feel wobbly – as if you're on a boat – but that passes.'
Good Night Spray, 16 (loveursoul.co.uk)
Sarah Stirk, 34, from Oxfordshire, is a television presenter hosting golf coverage on Sky Sports.
PROBLEM: 'I work erratic hours which ruins my sleep patterns.'
PRODUCT: Melatonin is the hormone that helps you fall asleep. This Good Night Spray, 16 (loveursoul.co.uk) sprays a direct shot of the hormone onto the tongue before bed.
VERDICT: 'This tastes pleasant and to really works. As soon as I used it, I felt calm and relaxed. One night I didn't take it and noticed the difference. When I work a late shift I have to sleep in the afternoon and I normally struggle, but using the spray I managed.'
Sleepio, a six-week online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy tutorial aims to change the way you think about sleep by 'reprogramming your brain', 49.99 (Boots)
Karen Slupinski, 35, of Aberdeen, works in the petrochemical industry.
PROBLEM: 'For 15 years, I've had some weeks where I sleep perfectly and others where I suffer real problems'
PRODUCT: Sleepio, a six-week online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy tutorial aims to change the way you think about sleep by 'reprogramming your brain', 49.99 (Boots).
VERDICT: 'There wasn't going to be a quick fix for such an established problem. This programme offered lots of ideas to remove the anxiety that comes with sleeplessness.Overall, using it made me feel less helpless. I still have bad weeks, but I've learned tactics – visualisations for example – to stop my mind whirring, and help me fall asleep again.'
Vitabiotics Valerian capsules, 9.95 (Boots and health shops)
Katy Horan, 34, lives in Basildon and works as a payroll administrator.
PROBLEM: 'I can't get to sleep – and when I do, I wake a couple of times each night.'
PRODUCT: Vitabiotics Valerian capsules, 9.95 (Boots and health shops). Take two tablets every night 30 minutes before bed.
VERDICT: 'I've tried herbal tablets before, but they didn't work. You take these every night, not just when you can't sleep. I'm amazed to say I'm falling asleep easier and sleeping right through – something that hasn't happened for a long time.'
Aromatherapy Associates Relax Deep Bath and Shower Oil, 37 (aromatherapyassociates.com)
Anna Addison, 35, works in the hotel industry and lives in Middlesbrough.
PROBLEM: 'My normal sleep pattern is broken. Often I wake at 3am and clockwatch until the morning.'
PRODUCT: Aromatherapy Associates Relax Deep Bath and Shower Oil, 37 (aromatherapyassociates.com). Apply to skin or into a bath.
VERDICT: 'I was expecting this to be like other oils I've used – useless and bothersome to my husband who dislikes strong smells. But there's something different about it. I fall sleep much faster and when I wake around 3am, I dab the oil onto the pulse points behind my ears and on my wrists and I drop back off again. Although I have noticed I'm having really vivid dreams.'
Body Serenity, 30 (storeuk.bodyism.com)
Nicci Talbot, 38, is an author who lives in Hastings, East Sussex.
PROBLEM: I have problems getting to sleep and I also often wake in the night – it started when I developed rheumatoid arthritis.'
PRODUCT: Body Serenity, 30 (storeuk.bodyism.com), chocolate flavoured night-time powder that is added to either cow's milk or other milks. Contains camomile and hops.
VERDICT: 'It contains magnesium that helps with pain and it also tastes like milkshake. It is really helping me drop-off faster although I'm still waking in the night. I hope the effects will be cumulative and the longer I take it, the less that will happen.'