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A good, uninterrupted night’s sleep is one of the most enjoyable and totally natural pleasures available to us. Yet for many people it is hard to come by. It has been estimated that at some time half the British population will be affected by insomnia. According to a Harris Poll commissioned by the Observer (published in February 1990), 16 per cent of us suffer from insomnia, although it rises to as many as 21 per cent in Scotland and the North. Some sources place the number of adult insomniacs as high as 35 per cent at any one time.
Insomnia not only causes stress; it is usually the result of stress. It is a sign that something in your life is out of balance: it may be emotional, environmental, or nutritional. It may be to do with your working life or lack of work, or to general un-happiness or depression. These are daytime problems, that need to be dealt with during the day.
Yet until recently the stock medical response has generally been to hand out a prescription for sleeping pills. In the Harris Poll, 12 per cent of those polled were taking sleeping pills, 9 per cent were taking tranquillizers and 7 per cent anti-depressants. In 1988 ?15.9 million’s worth of hypnotic drugs were prescribed, excluding those given directly by hospitals and doctors. This figure does not include the minor tranquillizers, which some people take to help them sleep.
GPs are becoming much less inclined to prescribe pills for insomnia; these days doctors as well as patients are concerned about the side-effects of drugs, in particular the long-term possibility of addiction. They know that drugs don’t solve the problems underlying insomnia, but many of them lack the time and facilities to help patients deal with these.
A variety of natural, drugless treatments have been found successful in restoring sleep. Many forms of natural medicine, including homoeopathy, acupuncture, and herbalism can help sufferers to regain physical and emotional harmony. Both orthodox and complementary practitioners recognize the value of relaxation techniques, counselling, nutritional advice, or simply helping people to train themselves into new sleeping habits. Unfortunately most of these methods require expert time and attention, of which NHS workers only have limited supplies.
Despite the fact that insomnia is so widespread and can be treated, there are very few specialist facilities for its treatment in Britain. Only two or three sleep disorders clinics are available within the Health Service (there are also some in the private sector), and the number of sleep research laboratories is diminishing. And although the 1980s have seen the rise of self-help groups for all kinds of problems I have not, in researching this book, found one for non-sleepers. (If any exist, it would be useful to know about them!)
There are doctors, scientists and psychologists who would like to see more attention paid to the problem and more and better services made available. Towards the end of 1989 a number of experts from a wide range of disciplines, including sociology and neurophysiology as well as medicine and psychology, joined forces to set up the British Sleep Society. Its general aim is to promote the study and treatment of sleep disorders, and to inform GPs and other physicians about what services are available. (The Society, composed of very busy professionals, cannot offer a direct service to the public.)
Meanwhile, there is a great deal that most insomniacs can do for themselves. I am going to be looking at the different types of insomnia, their possible causes, how you can help yourself, and where to go for help if you need it. Take heart: according to psychologist and sleep researcher Dr Jacob Empson, ‘the most intractable sleep disorders tend to be very rare’.
You can change your sleeping patterns, if you really want to. But because the quality of your sleep usually reflects the quality of your daily life, you may have to be willing to make some other changes, too. And it is within the power of most of us to make changes in our attitudes and habits to bring about not only a better night’s sleep but a happier daytime life.

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