Iain Murray: There are yawning gaps in most ‘cures’ for insomnia

Marketers never tire of finding ways to persuade us to part with our money, and purveyors of tiresome ‘remedies’ for insomnia are no exception. By Iain Murray

Suddenly insomnia is all the rage. It’s the new combination skin, the new jogger’s knee, the must thing to have.

It is, of course, rife among marketing folk – sleepless people described in one report as “highly motivated [people], still in their 30s and 40s, who take work home with them and live charged, metropolitan lives”.

A female advertising executive aged 33 was quoted as saying: “I used to sleep like a baby. But I have a challenging new job and recently moved flat. At the same time, a long-standing relationship fell apart. Now I am obsessed by trying to sleep.”

She’s tried everything: old-fashioned milky drinks, no coffee, no alcohol, a relaxing bath with aromatherapy oils, playing her favourite music, all to no avail – she still can’t sleep a wink.

Fortunately, help is at hand. Unfortunately, there’s so much of it the insomniac is spoilt for choice. Worse, much of the advice is conflicting. For example, Ian Marber, author of a book with the unlikely title In Bed With The Food Doctor, recommends caviar washed down with some fine champagne. Caviar, he explains, is a rich source of magnesium, which is known to be a relaxation mineral, while the bubbles in the champagne help you wind down.

Nutritionist Nathalie Savona disagrees. Alcohol, she concedes, may make you go to sleep faster, but it usually means broken sleep as it disturbs chemicals in the brain that help with deeper patterns of sleep. It is also a diuretic, so you’re likely to get up in the night and wake up feeling dehydrated.

Insomniacs who can afford Beluga caviar and Dom Perignon champagne but incline to Savona’s view of the likely effects on their bladder and head might prefer to spend &£175 on a unique service provided by Amanda Birch. She is described as the ultimate masseuse: “She will come to your home, massage you to sleep using aromatherapy oils, which she blends to suit your needs, and after the treatment she will see herself out.” Well, I should hope so. There’s not much point in going to all that trouble and expense, what with her mixing bespoke oils and gently easing you into the arms of Morpheus, only to have your ribs dug with a bill for 175 jimmy-o-goblins and a request to be seen to her carriage. And what if your insomnia should prove stubborn? Does Amanda charge overtime? Would it aid sleep to picture a taximeter ticking over in the mind’s eye?

Rhythmic, repetitive counting is, of course, the oldest remedy of all, and one endorsed by the British Sleep Foundation. The aim, it says, is to put out the lights in the mind. Try counting sheep or repeating a mantra such as “Om, Om, Om.”

Do no such thing, say two scientists at Oxford University. Counting sheep can actually keep you awake longer than usual. Dr Allison Harvey, one of the researchers, recommends thinking of a tranquil image such as a waterfall. “Picturing an engaging scene takes up more brain space than the same dirty old sheep. Counting sheep is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away.”

That split infinitive is enough to keep a pedant like me awake all night. And what makes Dr Harvey imagine that our sheep are dirty? I have never tried to count sheep but, if I were to, I am sure they would be white and fluffy and not in the least bit soiled. Her study – published in the New Scientist – makes no mention of “Om, Om, Om”, but it seems safe to assume that if she finds sheep mundane, “Oms” are going to fare no better.

The most promising cure is called cognitive behavioural therapy. It involves analysing your sleeplessness and devising a way to deal with it. The disadvantage is that you will probably need professional help, which means engaging the services of a behavioural scientist. The advantage is that he or she will almost certainly bore you into unconsciousness.

But if tiresomeness is not your idea of the answer to tiredness, a nightcap may do the job. We know what Savona thinks of alcohol, but her view of some other night-time beverages is more encouraging. Hot milk, for example, gets nine out of ten for its sleep-inducing properties. Milk, she says, is rich in tryptophan, which the body converts into serotonin – a natural hormone that can make you sleepy. Unfortunately, she recommends skimmed milk, which to me is milk with the milk taken out and fit only for feeding back to the cow.

Better to go for her second nine-out-of-ten tip: Yogi Bhajan’s Calming Tea. It is, she says, a delicious blend of linden flowers, camomile, fennel, cardamom, liquorice, ginger and other ingredients aimed at calming you.

I suggest a combination of the various remedies on offer. A sizeable helping of caviar, a few champagnes, close your eyes and picture an engaging scene. With due deference to Dr Harvey, I don’t think a waterfall is a suitable image, not with a bladder half full of champagne. Picture instead Yogi Bhajan. He is in saffron robes below a sun-dappled linden tree, his kindly, nut brown face creased in a beatific smile as he slowly stirs liquorice and other ingredients in a brass cauldron. And there, fragrant in the background, is Birch, seeing herself out.

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