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Insomnia is a Major Health Concern in Britain

Insomnia is a major health concern in Britain that harms all areas of life, including relationships and ability to function during the day, and should be addressed with public health campaigns at national and local level, including in schools and workplaces, according to a new report.

“Sleep Matters”, a new report from the Mental Health Foundation, launched to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week 2011, includes the results of the Great British Sleep Survey, designed to measure sleep quality in the UK population and believed to be the biggest ever done of its sleeping habits.

Professor Colin Espie, who has been researching sleep quality for 25 years and runs the Sleep Center at the University of Glasgow, also chairs the World Sleep Federation task force on Insomnia and designed the survey. The survey, which is still running, is sponsored by Boots and Sleepio, a new organization co-founded by Espie.

6,708 people (1,870 men and 4,838 women) had completed the survey by December 2010 and were included in the report.

The average age of respondents was 40 years for men and 37 years for women.

The results are expressed as average sleep scores, based on the answers respondents gave, such that 100% is excellent sleep quality and 0% is very poor sleep quality.

The survey runs online and may not be representative of the whole population because the respondents select themselves and are not chosen at random.

The results so far reveal that people reporting insomnia were four times more likely to have relationship problems (55% compared to 13% of good sleepers) and three times more likely to experience lack of concentration during the day (78% compared to 26% of good sleepers).

They were also three times more likely to struggle to get things done at work and elsewhere (68% compared to 23% of good sleepers), twice as likely to have energy slumps in the day (94% compared to 42%) and three times more likely to experience low mood (83% compared to 27%).

The results also reveal that:

  • Men had better sleep quality than women (average sleep score 61% versus 57% respectively).
  • Sleep was linked to health: people who rated their physical health as “poor” had an average sleep score of 47%, while those who rated is as “good” had an average sleep score of 63%.
  • While average sleep score tended to decrease with age, there was some inconsistency in the link between age and sleep (the bar graph shows 21-30 year olds had the highest average sleep score, higher than 16-20 and older groups).
  • 38% of respondents were “good” sleepers, and 36% were classed as possibly suffering from chronic insomnia.
  • Insomnia was slightly more common in women than in men (37% versus 32% of respondents).
  • 79% of people reporting insomnia had been suffering from it for at least 2 years.
  • 30% of those reporting insomnia had had it for 2 to 5 years, and over 25% had had it for more than 11 years.

One of the problems with researching insomnia is the criteria used to define it, but the report’s authors say that the total figure of people who suffer from it is around 30% according to most research, so their findings are reasonably consistent with that.

Overall the report concludes poor sleep increases the risk of poor mental health, and, in the same way that diet and exercise can improve mental health, so can good quality sleep.

“The consequences of poor sleep should be taken seriously in healthcare, education, family life, and society at large,” write the authors.

But the problem of tackling sleep quality is complex. For instance, take the vicious cycle that reinforces itself in the case of exercise, where poor sleep can worsen a person’s capacity to deal with the problem.

An interesting point the authors make in their conclusions is:

“There is no universal answer to the question of how much sleep a person needs. This varies from person to person.”

What is important, they stress, is that people find out how much they need and make sure they get it.

According to a Press Association news item, Dr. Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, told the media that while public health messages have quite rightly stressed the importance of diet and exercise, “sleep has for too long been neglected as a major influence on the physical and mental health of the nation”.

Espie said we can’t just ignore the impact of sleep problems, and that the results of the survey show the extent to which sleep disorders can “inhibit the very essence of who we are: our relationships, our mood, our ability to complete day-to-day tasks”.

The report recommends a number of actions to improve the quality of sleep in the UK, such as: training GPs in the latest research and ideas about sleep and the treatments available to improve it; adding reduction of sleep problems to the list of new national mental health indicators; and for the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) to issue new guidelines on tackling insomnia.

The authors also call for further research to find out how effective low-cost, non-intrusive interventions, based on cognitive behavioral methods, for sleep problems might be. These should include self-help books and online courses.



One Response to “Insomnia is a Major Health Concern in Britain”

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