It’s the night of the walking dead in my house. I’m sitting here again at 3am, unable to sleep.
Insomnia is a terrible thing that affects one-third of the population (and 50 per cent of us at some time in our lives). Women are three times more likely than men to suffer from it.
I’ve had it for a few weeks now, the result of a hormonal imbalance my doctor is trying to sort. What I get up to in the wee small hours is just a huge embarrassment. Infomercials. I like the documentary on the Roomba vacuum cleaner.
The history of how robotic vacuum cleaners developed makes me feel more intelligent than listening to the multiple uses for a blow-up couch (which I nearly bought in eggshell blue, god help me, in sleep-deprived derangement.) I already have a juicer, but it’s nice to see all the varieties of healthy juices I’m never going to make. I like watching people build their abs, and conveniently there’s always the back-brace on the next channel if I ever attempt it.
Of late, I have taken to watching The All Time Greatest Country Songs From The 60s, 70s, 80s & 90s. To my horror, I found myself weeping at Glen Campbell’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix, singing along to Johnny Cash and, worse, to Kenny Rodgers and Dolly Parton’s Islands in the Stream. Just shoot me.
I’ve joined the prestigious club of nocturnal zombie-vampires: breastfeeding mothers, worriers, depressives, menopausal women, shift workers, parents with sick children or a new puppy, jet-lagged souls, or those with flu, or with broken bones or hearts. And the ol’ regulars who’ve worn a path down their hall.
Insomnia is either transient (short-term, passing), acute (a longer bout but limited) or chronic (ongoing). It can also be secondary if due to another illness. Insomnia can be defined as: trouble falling asleep; trouble remaining asleep; waking too early. In all instances, it’s when you never feel refreshed or have enough hours of deep “quality” sleep.
A journalist at this newspaper told me that during a break-up he put out a “Hello is anyone out there?” on Facebook at 3am, and was surprised at how many people were awake. They started a chat group. His TV drug of choice was Air Crash Investigation. An aching heart and insomnia were better than falling out of the sky. But then again, lack of sleep can be just as lethal, with a plethora of diseases attributed to it.
In fact, the importance of not missing sleep is enough to give anyone nightmares. Recently a journalist from the Daily Mail, John Naish, conducted an experiment, reducing his sleep from eight hours a night to five, to see how it affected him — he sat up watching cop shows from the 70s to keep himself awake.
Apart from physical ailments starting to spring up — such as gout (insomnia can cause inflammatory diseases) and other nasties — his emotional world turned upside down. Insomnia interferes with levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and the amygdala, the centre of emotion. Studies have found those who sleep fewer than five hours each night are three times more likely than normal sleepers to become psychologically distressed. “I was suddenly gripped by the fact that my pet cat was at the end of his middle years and one day he wouldn’t be with us at all,” Naish writes.
“I was overtaken by despair, an intense desolation that quite destabilised my temperament. I felt utterly inconsolable … Everyday upsets could send my morale plummeting: the story of a vandalised bus shelter in my local paper, or finding that all the pens on my desk had dried up. Sometimes it took nothing at all to set me off, just … the question: ‘What’s the point of anything?’ ”
Incidents of mental illness increase in sleep-deprived people. We must not panic if we have a short bout of insomnia, but chronic lack of quality sleep can be associated with heart disease, diabetes and memory loss. People who sleep less than five hours a night for five years have a 300 per cent increased risk of hardened arteries, says Charles Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard. Less than six hours regularly can lead to inflammatory disease and compromised immune system, some cancers and obesity.
A study by the University of California, San Francisco, found an association between poor sleep quality and reduced grey matter volume in the brain’s frontal lobe, which helps control important processes such as working memory and executive function, and turning off mind-wandering.
It’s estimated that in the US billions of dollars are lost each year because of poor performance due to insomnia, but it isn’t all bad news for the economy. According to Business Insider, a small group of between 1 and 3 per cent of the population are among the “sleepless elite” who are able to thrive on just a few hours of sleep.
Donald Trump sleeps three to four hours, as do chief executives at corporations including Twitter, PepsiCo and Fiat.
Leaders who thrived on little sleep included Margaret Thatcher; Condoleezza Rice and Benjamin Franklin. And famous inventor Thomas Edison regarded sleep as “a heritage from our cave days”.
When I interviewed entrepreneurs for my business book The New Boy Network, I found most of them slept no more than five hours a night. One, a very successful corporate player I’m friendly with, has microsleeps and might even drop off for a minute during our conversations.
Research conducted by Britain’s Loughborough University shows that a timely and deep nap of less than 20 minutes can equate to an extra hour of night sleep. Meditation does the same due to the way it affects brainwaves.
But for the rest of us, seven to eight hours of restful sleep is optimal. In fact, there’s a risk in oversleeping, too. Regularly sleeping more than eight hours a night is associated with disease and increased risk of death. It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears — best to get it just right.
So how do we do that? According to the sleep experts, it’s mostly about fixing our natural circadian rhythms. The best medicine is having enough good light to help serotonin production in the day, and a darkened place to stimulate the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin at night.
A half-hour stroll at lunchtime can provide much of the light needed, but light-therapy with artificial boxes can also help. Melatonin supplements can be useful.
A no-no is exposure to computer screens and blue light before going to bed, which is known to suppress the release of melatonin. Avoid screens at least an hour before going to bed (which will also help switch off the busy brain). And catch the melatonin wave! Go to bed the minute you are drowsy. Sleeping tablets are OK temporarily but can interfere with the deeper sleep we need for memory consolidation. Exercise and good digestion are important.
Sydney therapist Jo-Anne Baker, who herself has struggled with insomnia, recommends writing a to-do list before bed, so as to empty the mind of such thoughts. She encourages creating comfort through meditation, relaxation, or a warm bath. Me? I’m just going to bore myself to sleep watching infomercials and bouncing on my new, plastic, blow-up couch.
Editor’s note: The author submitted this piece at 1.23am.