More than 10 million prescriptions for sleeping pills were doled out in England in 2010. Yet drugs are not the answer to our insomnia epidemic, according to researchers writing in The Lancet. Their sometimes severe side effects mean they can create more problems than they solve.
The best treatment, the researchers argue, is with behavioural and psychological techniques – collectively known as cognitive behaviour therapy – to help people drop off at the appropriate time and stay asleep through the night. But a shortage of therapists able to provide the treatment means that many people are forced to rely on drugs, over-the-counter treatments and herbal remedies. Insomnia is now so common that doctors say the preoccupation with it is in itself a medical problem – the greatest enemy of sleep is worry about not getting enough of it.
Most people who lose sleep will be able to recover it the next night, and will be able to cope in the meantime. Prolonged sleeplessness, however, is crippling. Sufferers are more than five times as likely to be anxious and depressed, have double the incidence of heart failure and diabetes and a higher risk of dying early.
Insomnia also imposes a heavy economic and social burden on communities through lost productivity, absence from work and deterioration in quality of life.