With St Patrick’s Day coming up on 17 March I was looking forward to a bit of a ceilidh at the local Irish pub. A lateish night, a few drinks and a lie in on Saturday morning. But fun isn’t really what we’re supposed to be having on March 17 which happens to coincide with World Sleep Day, a party-pooping call-to-action about better sleep which puts the kibosh on alcohol, and wags a disapproving finger at both changing the time you go to bed and getting up when you want to at the weekend.
My fury at the sleep police – who would no doubt prefer to be described as sleep gurus or at the very least sleep mentors – is part-fuelled by the fact that I am a truly terrible sleeper. It all started to go wrong when my son was born 35 years ago and I failed to recover from the normal disruption of night-time feeds.
I can wake up as many as eight times a night. Some nights I do get a decent seven hours with just a couple of mini-breaks. Others I’m awake for a good two hours in the middle of the night. As I write these words on just four hours of sleep, following an anxiety-inducing discovery at 11pm that my Amazon account had been hacked, I shouldn’t be making much sense as sleep deprivation slows down cognition and makes you forgetful.
While I am all for better sleep, and appreciate the impressive scientific research that’s going on to better understand the land of nod, there are three things I can’t abide. The first is the aforementioned zealots who bandy around phrases like “sleep hygiene” and “better sleep behaviours”, suggesting that somehow those who sleep well and obey the rules are morally superior to us grubby insubordinates who lie awake fuming about the fact that none of the advice on getting a good night’s sleep has actually worked for us.
My second beef is that as someone verging on being an insomniac I feel like the victim of a medical terror campaign, constantly assaulted by the dire consequences of my inability to get my REM and non-REM sleep into better balance. While I’m awake at 4am I am free, thanks to medical doom-mongering, to worry that my being awake is likely to cause heart disease, Alzheimer’s, obesity, infections, depression and bi-polar disorder. All of which, I am certain, contributes to making the sleep-deprived more likely to become unwell than if we didn’t have this knowledge in the first place.
Not forgetting of course what sleep deprivation does to your looks. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine the sleep-deprived were perceived as having more hanging eyelids, redder and more swollen eyes and darker circles under the eyes, plus paler skin, more wrinkles and droopy mouth corners. All I needed to do to get this information was look in the mirror this morning.
And then, thirdly, there’s the burgeoning power of the sleep industry. The extraordinary growth of sleep entrepreneurs peddling us everything from best-selling books to “life-changing” mattresses, from apps that promise to lull you into bedded bliss to sleep trackers to help you monitor how badly you’re doing (as if I didn’t already know), alongside pillow-sprays and endless unguents and even high-tech pyjamas to help you sleep deeper and longer. In 2019 the global sleep economy was valued at about £362bn. An industry that is forecast to be worth £490bn by next year.
Over-the-counter sleep aids are on a nice little trajectory, too, clocking up £61m in the UK alone in 2021. Pick and mix from valerian to anti-histamine based, from magnesium to glycine to passionflower. None are guaranteed to work.
Honestly, I’ve tried. My bedroom is cool and dark – I have both black-out blinds and shutters. I go to bed at approximately the same time of around half 11 most nights. No phones in bed at night, the only screen is my Kindle – I turn the back-light down low and it does help me to doze off mid-sentence even if I wake again shortly after. My partner doesn’t even snore, so I can hardly blame him for keeping me awake.
The truth is that unless I get lucky – and sometimes I do – the one thing that works is a prescription-only sleeping pill. Addiction is unlikely because of the measly amount my doctor will prescribe and because I am so worried about becoming addicted (you get dementia from taking sleeping pills just as you do from not sleeping, so no winners here) that I ration myself to half a pill no more than once a week.
The great irony for me is that my father, who happened to be born on St Patrick’s Day on 17 March 1915, died at the ripe old age of 93, and had been taking sleeping pills every single night for almost 50 years. Until almost the end he was healthy, spirited and with a fully-functioning brain. On that basis I’ve decided to ignore World Sleep Day and drink a toast in the pub that night to my pill-popping dad.