Dreaming of the perfect night’s sleep
Is it every insomniac’s dream? Moving to the countryside to count sheep for real and escaping the stresses of city life which leave us too wired to sleep? Surely, if we could get away from the police sirens, the neighbours rowing and the foxes knocking over dustbins, we’d be chilled out enough to nod off naturally – after all, country folk probably never know a single night’s disturbance. Or do they? A fascinating survey has revealed that Sleepless in Sheffield shouldn’t jump to conclusions about Snoring in Suffolk. Insomnia caused by stress is a national problem, says the report commissioned by the Sleep Council, a sleep advice body run by our national bed manufacturers. And, perhaps surprisingly, location – while relevant – isn’t straightforward.
Overall, the survey found that 72 per cent of Britons suffer sleep problems when stressed – with the most sleepless areas located in Northern Ireland (88 per cent) and the Midlands (75 per cent). Densely populated areas such as London and the North West were average or above at 74 and 72 per cent respectively, but how to explain rural Wales with an agitated 73 per cent, or the 74 per cent in the somnolent South West? What’s keeping Devon farmers and Somerset cider-makers mulling all night?
The numbers only start to fall on the east coast: 69 per cent for Yorkshire, and 68 per cent across Northumberland and East Anglia.
Independent sleep consultant Dr Neil Stanley agrees that there might be a metropolitan bias against sleep for some: “People in cities will have more to disturb them – increased noise and light, or opportunities to go out. But where you live in the UK as a whole won’t matter: there are parts of Scotland where you are not getting light in winter until late in the morning and it’s dark six hours later. But there’s no real statistical difference in daylight: perhaps between Inverness and Southampton at extremes.”
So what exactly is making us such a stressed and sleepless nation?
“We are working harder than ever,” Dr Stanley says, “using our brains more than we ever did in the past. And yet – given that sleep is about repair and recuperation, we actually need more of it than before. This is the time for laying down new memories and processing information.” The problem, he says, is partly hormonal: “When you are stressed, you release the hormone cortisol – the same one which is implicated in waking us up in the morning; it causes cognitive arousal.”
It’s also the time of year: the Sleep Council’s survey identifies September as a particularly stressful – and sleepless – month. Neil Shah, director of the Stress Management Society, explains: “In our experience September is the beginning of the Stress Calendar: the kids are back at school, the summer holidays are officially over, the weather is starting to change and we have to wait until Christmas for the next public holiday.”
Further research into the complexities of sleep is ongoing, but there are a few life changes experts now suggest insomniacs can make, to maximise their chances of dropping off quickly.
Stop counting sheep, for one We’re all princesses frightened of sleeping on peas these days – how else to explain the rise in popularity of mattress toppers, that squidgy extra layer of comfort under your sheet, atop the bed. Memory foam is popular, but complaints include its sometimes strong smell, plus it can retain heat so well that the bed boils. As an alternative, natural fillings are growing in popularity and availability, so I decided to undertake a home trial:
Wool Sleeping with wool is said to provide up to 25 per cent more deep regenerative sleep (i.e. stage four REM sleep), over traditional down or synthetic bedding. I found it soft underneath and naturally warm. The accompanying duvet was super snugly, but the pillows too firm for my taste. (Complete wool bedding set, including an all-season duvet, mattress topper and pillows; £445; thewoolroom.com) Princess rating 3/5
Horsehair This could be the perfect topper: thick, firm, and unbelievably cushioning. Horsehair is very durable (hence its use in traditional upholstery), and as the strands of hair are open-celled (or hollow), moisture passes through easily, wicking sweat away. Plus the individual hairs never squash into a permanent shape, which I felt gave it the promised added “spring”. (Hastens BJ top mattress, 160cm x 200cm; £1,100; hastens.com) Princess rating 5/5
Silk Dust mites hate silk, making it the ideal choice for anyone suffering allergies, and you can get toppers, duvets, pillow cases and bedding for the full experience. It’s also lightweight, and stays cool – perfect for women of a certain age. (Ultimate microfibre topper with silk; £76; soakandsleep.com. Boutique silk duvet, 4.5 tog; £72.50; occahome.co.uk) Princess rating 4/5
Alpaca Fibre from alpacas is soft, luxurious and supremely comfy. Like silk, it moderates body temperature, and it is naturally hypoallergenic so great for allergy sufferers. My daughter found it heavy at first, but is now adjusted and sleeps like Rip van Winkle. What more can you want? (Single set containing topper, duvet and one pillow; £147.20; penroseproducts.com) Princess rating 3.5/5
Woolly headed: counting sheep will not remove the troubles that keep you awake. Inset: a map showing the percentage of people across the UK who say they suffer from sleep problems when stressed