Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Truth About Sleep

In recent years, I have had a troubled relationship with sleep. It isn't just because I have a young child, though that certainly doesn't help. She likes to get up at stupid o'clock, and still has illnesses and bad dreams often enough to keep us on semi-alert all the way through the night.

But I wasn't much good at sleeping before she came along, to be honest. I don't think I've slept through the night since I was about 21 years old. I am terrible at dealing with jetlag, not that there's much opportunity for long-haul flights at the moment. How I envy my daughter the way she sleeps when she finally - after a much protracted bedtime routine of toileting, baths, further toileting, toothbrushing, hairbrushing, saying goodnight to the cats, reading Harry Potter, non-stop chatter and clingy cuddles and us popping in and out of her room for what feels like hours - FINALLY drops off. I don't think there is a more beautiful, heartrending and peaceful sight than a sleeping child.

If I am in familiar surroundings, I can get to sleep fairly quickly. (Different story in a strange bed, when I seem to forget how to fall asleep at all.) But then after a couple of hours I will wake up, and then spend most of the rest of the night tossing and turning, having silly dreams where I am half-awake, half-asleep and trying desperately not to get up and go to the loo. At certain times if my thyroid is swollen, I develop sleep apnoea and wake up gasping for breath, my heart pounding. And then just as I finally settle and begin to nod off again, something will disturb me - a passing drunk or car on the street outside, an owl in the park, or the pigeon that lives on our roof and coos at the first break of dawn every sodding morning. Or the girl wakes up. Or the cats start taking lumps out of each other or knock something over downstairs. Then there is my husband, trying to reclaim his share of the duvet, or rolling onto his back and starting to snore, or having one of his nightmares which make him wail like he's being murdered. And so it goes on, with me getting more and more restless, my joints achier and achier, and my feet and hands full of pins and needles. Then I will pass out into proper unconsciousness about ten minutes before we have to get up for school and work.

With my own little foibles, I am very annoying to share a bed with. I hate noise, so sleep with ear plugs in. I like darkness, so want blackout blinds and sometimes even an eye mask. And I love lots of fresh air, so I will sleep with the window wide open even in the depths of winter, the duvet over my head so that all is exposed to the chill is my nose. (See husband's battle with the duvet in the previous paragraph.) To help ease the sleep apnoea I will smear myself in Vicks and stick a little plastic strip across my nose. Then I need the bed propped up on several books to relieve acid reflux, so it feels like I am lying on a cliff, regularly sliding down to the bottom of the bed until my toes hang over the end. This gives me backache, and makes me toss and turn even more.

Sometimes my husband and I just give up with each other and sleep in separate rooms. It's bliss. But we don't like to admit that to one another.

(And my husband would just like to point out that it is very hypocritical of me indeed to complain about anybody snoring.)

But I am by no means alone. The Truth About Sleep, presented by Michael Mosley, told us that insomnia is becoming a national, generational problem. None of us are getting enough sleep. And it's making us depressed, obese, and diabetic, and prone to all sorts of other health problems. But I really didn't need to know all that. It's enough to keep me awake at night.

You can measure how sleep-deprived you are by lying on your bed in the middle of the day. Hold a metal spoon over the edge of the bed above a metal tray. Make a note of the time. When you nod off, you will drop the spoon, and the clatter of the spoon hitting the tray will wake you up. See what time it is, and how long it took you to fall asleep. If it's less than 15 minutes, chances are you need more slumbertime.

So what can we do about it? GPs offer the quick fix of sleeping pills, although they are usually reluctant to prescribe these for long, as they are addictive and - if our bodies adjust to them - soon rendered useless. That said, some people end up swallowing them for years. There is only so much resistance a doctor will put up if they have a waiting room full of patients to see.

But what about more natural ways of reducing insomnia? Well, there's the obvious behavioural things like avoiding alcohol and caffeine and large meals just before you go to bed. Although apparently if you down a shot of espresso just before you take a nap, you will feel much more alert when you wake up. This is the recommended course of action if on a long car journey you find yourself too tired to drive. Pull into a service station, buy a coffee, and then have a snooze in your car. But who the hell can manage to have a decent nap in a car, other than a toddler? Not me, that's for sure.

Another thing you can do is to switch off all screens - laptops, smart phones, Kindles etc - at least an hour before bedtime. The light from them acts as a stimulant and upsets our body clocks. Proof that the darkness I crave is important. Our daughter still refuses to sleep in the absolute dark, but daylight certainly keeps her awake in summer. Michael Mosley goes to stay the night in a Danish greenhouse to investigate the healing effect of floods of natural light controlling our bodies.

Kiwi fruit and alcohol-free wine

Then there's a selection of what seem like kooky old wives' tale sleep aids to try out. Two kiwi fruits an hour before bedtime. A hot bath. A session of mindfulness. And taking pre-biotics, a white powder stirred into a drink to encourage gut bacteria to grow and thus improve the dynamic between our brain and digestive system. A group of insomniacs each trial one of them. Bizarrely, all seem to have some sort of beneficial effect. I think I'll have a go at the lot.

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