On any given night, many of us are desperate for sleep, unable to switch off. Richard Wiseman looks at some solutions
• Are you an insomniac? Share your experiences
By Richard Wiseman, The Guardian.
Picture - When you are sleep-deprived, you struggle to think straight. Photograph Tony Stone
Increased workloads and 24-hour access to the internet have created a world that rarely sleeps. The statistics are staggering. One 2011 survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than 30% of Britons suffer from insomnia or another serious sleep problem. You might think that not getting a good night's sleep simply leaves you a bit grumpy; in reality, the effects can be far more damaging.
When you are sleep-deprived, you struggle to think straight. Research by University College London Medical School revealed that people who fail to get a full night's sleep score significantly lower on tests of logic and vocabulary. Those who are sleep-deprived (which has been pegged at less than six hours a night) have slower reaction times, and experience blackouts known as "micro-sleeps". At the wheel of a car, this can be dangerous in the US, fatigue is believed to cause more than 1,500 deaths on the roads every year. Sleep deprivation can also affect your general health, by reducing levels of the hormone melatonin.
The good news is that researchers show a fair consensus about the best methods to combat sleeplessness. Here are eight of their top tips.
Avoid blue light
If you must use your smartphone, tablet or computer late in the evening, turn down the brightness. Although any type of light stops you feeling sleepy, light towards the blue end of the spectrum is especially potent. Computer screens, tablets, smartphones, flat-screen televisions and LED lighting all emit blue light. If you must use your smartphone, tablet or computer late in the evening, turn down the brightness and ensure the device is at least 30cm from your eyes. If you want to use a night light, choose one with a dim red bulb, because red light tends not to suppress the production of melatonin.
Don't be tempted by a nightcap. Although even a small amount of alcohol puts you to sleep more quickly, it also gives you a more disturbed night, makes you more likely to snore and disrupts dreaming. Instead, increase your chances of getting a good night's sleep by eating a small portion of food rich in carbohydrates, such as a slice of toast or a banana.
In 2008, psychologist Chris Alford, from the University of the West of England in Bristol, sprinkled either lavender or odourless almond oil on the bedclothes of female insomniacs, and discovered that the lavender helped improve the quality of their sleep. Try a lavender diffuser or oil to ensure that your room smells of sleep.
To maximise your chances of nodding off, you need to do at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate aerobic activity (fast walking, for example), or at least an hour-and-a-quarter of more vigorous exercise (such as running), each week. Research also shows that working out around six hours before your bedtime allows your body to calm down enough to be ready for rest. If you don't enjoy pounding the pavement, recent research suggests yoga and tai chi will help you get a good night's sleep.
People who fail to get a full night's sleep score significantly lower on tests of logic and vocabulary. Medical researcher Niall Broomfield from the University of Glasgow investigated whether reverse psychology could be used to help people sleep. He assembled two groups of volunteers and monitored their sleep for two weeks. One group was asked to spend each night trying to stay awake for as long as possible, while the other group didn't receive any special instructions. Those trying to stay awake felt less anxious at bedtime and reported falling asleep quicker. This may be due to a lifting of anxiety about getting off to sleep. If you try this, remember that you have to rely on the power of your mind. You may keep your eyes open, but no reading, watching television or moving about allowed.
Ensure your bedroom is not too hot or too cold most sleep scientists recommend just over 18C (65F). With a normal amount of bedclothes, your body remains thermally neutral at this temperature, so you don't have to create heat by shivering or cool down by sweating. But beware of cold feet. If you have bad circulation, your chilly extremities will keep you awake. If this is the case, wear a pair of socks to bed.
Tire your brain
Work by Stephen Haynes from Southern Illinois University suggests that making your brain tired will help you nod off. Haynes asked both insomniacs and good sleepers to carry out moderately difficult mental arithmetic tasks as they tried to fall asleep.
Those without any sleep-related problems took longer than usual to nod off, while the insomniacs did indeed get to sleep quicker. If you are not good with numbers, try a word game think of a category (eg "countries" or "fruit and vegetables") and come up with an example of that category for each letter of the alphabet.
alarm clock at night
If you wake for more than about 20 minutes during the night, most sleep scientists recommend getting out of bed. If you have suddenly woken up because you have remembered something that you need to do the next day, simply make a note of it and try to go back to sleep. However, if you wake for more than about 20 minutes during the night, most sleep scientists recommend getting out of bed and doing some form of non-stimulating activity. Whatever you decide to do, avoid bright lights and computer screens.
• Richard Wiseman is the author of Night School (Macmillan).
And here are some products, gadgets, techniques that could help
Products Bodyism Serenity This night-time milkshake is designed to send you straight off to sleep. About an hour before bed, whisk one scoop of this powdered blend of camomile, hops, oats, liquorice root and rosemary into a glass of milk and drink. The ingredients reduce the body's anxiety levels and increase your sense of calm. £50 for 30 days' supply, from uk.spacenk.com and bodyism.com
Aromatherapy Associates Deep Relax bath and shower oil Fragranced with vetivert, chamomile and sandalwood, this oil is often described as being "better than sleeping pills". Simply add to your bath or apply to the skin in the shower. Or add a few drops to a hanky and place inside your pillowcase. £40, from aromatherapyassociates.com
Valerian No one wants to become dependent on pills, but valerian is a herbal sedative that has been shown to help you get to sleep faster and enjoy a better quality of sleep. Avoid alcohol when taking valerian, and don't use it long-term. Ask your GP if you have any questions. Vitabiotics valerian root extract, £9.95 for 400mg (30 tablets), boots.com
Gadgets Hypnosleep A downloadable podcast to play when you're in bed and ready to sleep, Hypnosleep is the brainchild of hypnotherapist Tim Smale, who helped Alastair Campbell get into the right frame of mind to train for his long charity runs. £9.99, from mymindworks.co.uk
Sound Asleep pillow If you want to listen to your headphones but find them uncomfortable when you get your head down, this pillow contains a speaker that won't disturb anyone around you. Listen to a meditation track, an audiobook or white noise. £13.99, from amazon.co.uk
FitBit Flex This wristband not only measures how much activity you're doing over the day, but also tracks your sleep patterns at night by recording your movements and your pulse rate. It plugs into your computer's USB port to enable you to see how much shut-eye you're actually getting. The FitBit Flex also has a silent vibrate alarm, which means you can wake up without waking a dozing partner. From £69.99, amazon.co.uk
Techniques Combination therapy A mixture of acupuncture, massage and hypnotherapy designed to help lower the body's levels of cortisol – a hormone produced when the body is under stress. £100 for an hour-long treatment, twentytwotraining.com
Yoga There are at least 10 asanas (body positions) in yoga that tackle sleeplessness. Online tutorials show you everything from forward bends and gentle spinal twists to lying with your legs up the wall.
Meditation Many techniques for triumphing over sleeplessness revolve around quieting the mind and slowing the heart rate. Meditation is no different and asks us to bring our attention to our breath rather than obsessing about our lack of sleep.
• By Nicole Mowbray
Source - The Guardian, http//www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/apr/19/tips-to-combat-insomnia