Health

Solving the grinding politics of poor sleep

One in three of us suffers from insomnia. But what if we've misunderstood sleep for centuries? Sarah Reid speaks to psychoanalyst Darian Leader about the mysteries of this universal experience

Sleep helps to repair damaged DNA in neurons’ was last week’s insomnia news klaxon. We may not be quite sure what neurons do, but we take the point.

Sleep is a very big deal and not getting enough of it is bad for us. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental health disorders – there is a full house of undesirables linked to poor sleep.

And yet it’s estimated that around a third of Britons suffer from insomnia – the state of having the opportunity but not the ability to fall and stay asleep. It’s tempting to suggest that we’re sleepwalking into a major health emergency but that’s probably the wrong metaphor.

The finger for all this wakefulness has been pointed at blue light from screens, alcohol, caffeine and of course the stresses of life in the 21st-century. And while the noise around sleep grows, so too does the range of remedies and gadgets pushed our way.

From the humble camomile tea to insomnia mattresses, sleep trackers and cognitive therapies, there are more ways than ever to chase those elusive eight hours. But as the bleary-eyed will testify, it’s 3am and we’re still awake.

TV doctor and reluctant night owl Michael Mosley explored a link between gut health and insomnia for the BBC in 2017, taking dietary prebiotics to see if it made a difference to his sleep. The results were promising – after five days of taking prebiotics his time spent awake in bed dropped from 21 per cent to just eight per cent. But this line of thought is still at an early stage and while it’s giving sleep researchers a reason to get up in the morning, the science remains unproven.

Insomnia has been up there on the list of health concerns for centuries.

One observer who’s sceptical about the frenzy around sleep is London psychoanalyst Darian Leader. He spent years researching the history of slumber for his book Why Can’t We Sleep? and what he found was surprising. There is some evidence (unconvincing, he says) to suggest we’re sleeping less than we were a few decades ago but in fact, insomnia has been up there on the list of health concerns for centuries. And technology has always taken the rap.

“What I found fascinating is that 100 years ago and even before that people have constantly claimed there’s a new epidemic of insomnia,” he says. “You had this in the 1890s and it’s always blamed on technology.

“If you open a medical journal from then you’ll have an editorial saying no one can sleep and it’s because of the railroads. It’s because time and space have collapsed and you can go from London to Leeds in however many hours, or because with telegraphy you can learn about the markets at the other end of the country in a matter of minutes.”

Zip back another couple of hundred years, and Leader says you find people complaining that life had moved on from the good old days because of all the information available to them. To the 17th century mind, there was so much data being published that it was no longer possible for a scholar to know everything about their subject – and that was what was keeping them awake at night.

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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Why Can’t We Sleep? By Darian Leader is out now (Penguin, £6.99) 

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