Science of Slumber

A lack of sleep is no impediment to achievement in the short term, but most insomniacs would prefer a cure for the condition.

About a third of the population are insomniacs, according to researchers who define insomnia as trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep.

The funny thing about sleep – or the lack of it – is that it doesn't affect our performance as much as we think.

How do they get by on little or no sleep?

The research on this is very interesting. Dr Delwyn Bartlett of the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research says. "What it shows is that the time reaction of insomniacs on short-term tasks can actually be better than good sleepers." The hormone cortisol is the key – produced as a reaction to stress. Insomniacs can show a higher level of cortisol which can, in the short bursts, lift energy levels and enhance performance.

However, although insomniacs might be comforted in knowing their sleep patterns don't slow their responses, the research results are different when it comes to longer, more complex tasks. "On these types of tasks, the performance [of insomniacs] was worse," Bartlett says.

It there a solution for insomnia sufferers?

Sleeping tablets are not the answer, Bartlett says, arguing that while they can provide short-term relief – particularly for insomnia caused by a specific event such as bereavement – their long term use causes concern.

"If you use a sleeping tablet and then you sleep better, then you might feel that you can't sleep without it. That could destroy your confidence about your ability to get to sleep without them."

Sleep, Bartlett says, should be an automatic response. "The person who sleeps well doesn't know why; they just do it – and that's what it needs to be."

However, for readers who find this "automatic response" elusive, she does have other, more concrete advice.

"If you can't sleep, sit up and look at the opposite wall and try hard to stay awake," she says. "You might just find you fall asleep."

This is the paradox of sleep; the more you want it, the harder it can be to find.

Research takes two paths

Insomnia is generally treated by either behavioural therapy or pharmaceutical solutions, but there has been little research on combing the two methods.

Behavioural therapy treatment for insomnia

Behavioural therapy concentrates on relearning sleeping habits. A psychologist specialising in sleep disorders Dr Moira Junge, works with sleep restriction (where the insomniac gets out of bed when awake) and stimulus control (where the sleep environment is reserved solely for that purpose).

Pharmaceutical Solutions for Insomnia

Popular pharmaceutical solutions include the sleeping pill Stilnox.

Research at the Woolcock Institute centres around manipulating the neurotransmitter serotonin, and orexin, a natural hormone. The Institute will release results on these trials this year and next.

Published by: Therapeutic Pillow