It’s nine o’clock in the evening, and just when everyone else is settling down, glass in hand, to a good drama on telly, I am getting ready to do battle with the night ahead. My stomach is already in knots, my sleep-inducing food and alcohol-free evening meal eaten at no later than 7pm churning in my guts. I have gulped down a magnesium supplement, popped my zen pills, drunk a half a pint of camomile tea, unplugged my computer, switched off my phone, and donned my amber-tinted glasses, just in case a glimmer of forbidden blue light (screens, LED lighting etc.) winks at me from a neglected device. In the next hour, I will take a hot bath with deep-relax bath oil, listen to a guided meditation tape, put on my bedsocks, spray my pillows with lavender, hide my bedside clock, do a few recommended yoga moves, take my melatonin supplements and finally put on my eye mask and put in my earplugs. Let battle commence!
If this routine mystifies you, then I am very jealous because you can’t be one of the vast and growing army of insomniacs in the western world for whom a good night’s sleep is the stuff of dreams. Every recent sleep survey in Britain and the U.S. concludes that about a third of us, including children, are sleep deprived with catastrophic consequences for everybody. Back in the day, the 1950s when I was growing up, people routinely slept for 9 hours a night. Now we consider ourselves fortunate to get six.
For society as a whole, it’s a disaster. Economically, billions of pounds are lost in productivity every year because people are either too tired to show up for work, or can’t concentrate when they get there. The NHS is groaning beneath the weight of people presenting with stress-related symptoms ramped up by lack of sleep. In 2010, British doctors issued more than 15 million prescriptions for sleeping pills and around one in ten adults now regularly take sleep medication.
For us as individuals it’s extremely bad news too. Poor sleeping habits are associated with cancer, diabetes, strokes, heart problems, high blood pressure, obesity, depression, all kinds of mental health issues and early death to name a few. They reduce productivity, sap energy, lower mood, prevent learning, disrupt relationships, and just generally cause untold misery. Governments should be terrified – Sending Britain to Sleep (in a good way) should be every political party’s slogan!
Why has this happened? According to psychology professor Richard Wiseman, it’s because we live in a 24-hour world with 24-hour media and permanent internet access. There’s that, and then there’s all the other features of modern life: juggling the demands of work and family, relationships, finances, keeping up with new technology – it’s a treadmill of ever increasing pressures and responsibilities. The world doesn’t sleep, and neither do we. We have long ago lost touch with our circadian rhythms and a simpler way of life going to bed when it got dark and getting up when it got light. And none of this is going to change any time soon.
So, what to do? Insomnia has ruled, or should I say almost ruined my life on and off for years. It seems to go in stages but is terrible at the moment – and for no obvious reason which somehow makes it more unbearable. At one point or another, I have tried most of the well-known remedies with no real success. Prescription drugs work for a time but if you’re lucky enough not to suffer side effects, then eventually the efficacy of the drug will wear thin and you have to wean yourself off them. Natural remedies like valerian, melatonin and 5 HTP, a supplement made from the seeds of the African plant Griffonia Simplicifolia, are probably a safer option, but for many people they simply don’t seem to work.
Last month, I was offered the chance to go to the opening of the new VIVAMAYR medical clinic at Altaussee, Austria, which I jumped at. I knew that if anybody could give me at least a reason for my insomnia so that I could work at a cure, then that would surely be progress. Modern Mayr medicine is world-famous and based on a rather brutal but effective detoxification and rebalancing programme developed by Dr Franz Xaver Mayr in Austria almost 100 years ago.
To summarise, Mayr believed that our health stemmed from the gut – the seat of our digestion and some say our second brain. Recent research backs him up. Embedded in the wall of the gut is an entirely separate nervous system – the enteric nervous system – which has long been known to control digestion. What’s new is that it also plays an important role in our physical and mental wellbeing. It can work both independently and in conjunction with the brain in your head, although you are not conscious of your gut ‘thinking’. So, when I get ‘butterflies in my stomach’ at the thought of the night ahead, it’s my stomach brain talking to my head brain!
What’s more, the enteric system produces a wide range of hormones and around 40 neurotransmitters – more than in your brain. In fact, neurons in the gut are thought to generate as much dopamine (a molecule associated with pleasure and reward – think chocolate) as those in the head. Amazingly, about 95 per cent of the serotonin (the feel-good molecule involved in preventing depression and regulating sleep) present in the body at any time is in the enteric system.
We pay a lot of attention to our first brains in our heads, but astonishingly little to our second brain. At the VIVAMAYR clinic, the gut is king. What Mayr sensed a century ago – that digestive problems wreak havoc in the entire body – is now scientifically proven. The health of your gut determines what nutrients are absorbed and what toxins, allergens and microbes are kept out. Too many of the wrong bacteria, like parasites and yeasts, or not enough of the good ones have serious health consequences.
I was comprehensively tested for any metabolic imbalances and chronic inflammation in the gut and wired up to electrodes for 24 hours in a stress level test. The results were terrifying: even when I was asleep (obviously not for long), I remained in my sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, dipping for only seconds at a time into the healing relaxed parasympathetic nervous system which is generally activated through sleep and meditation and is vital to good health. No wonder I suffered from insomnia – my stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline were working overtime.
Dr. Sepp Fegerl, the medical director of the clinic, explained that stress prevents the production of serotonin in the gut which in turn leads to a lack of melatonin, the vital hormone which regulates our sleep and wake cycles. In most people, the digestive system is highly stressed owing to metabolic imbalances and chronic inflammation. Almost everyone nowadays suffers from candida in the digestive system and inflammation caused by food intolerances. A vast range of modern problems from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Leaky Gut Syndrome, migraines, depression, anxiety and insomnia may have their origins in the gut and our nutritional choices. We know that our ancestors did not suffer from obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, depression, cancer, osteoporosis and inflammatory conditions. High sugar, low-fibre, nutrient-poor processed food simply wasn’t available to them.
From the VIVAMAYR Altaussee clinic, I took home a range of supplements to heal my digestive system, but, just as importantly, the message that being stuck in a stress loop of insomnia, depression and poor digestive function needed to be addressed urgently before I descended into burnout. I had to press the Re-Set button for both mind and body.
With the help of an excellent book, The De-Stress Effect, by nutritional therapist Charlotte Watts, which presents the latest research on how we can best heal the damaging stress cycles that so many of us inhabit, I have begun what therapists love to call ‘the journey’ which I’m sure will be long, possibly difficult, but ultimately rewarding. Charlotte is clear that the solution lies in healthy nutrition, various mindfulness practices, and easy de-stress yoga sequences. It all makes perfect sense and I particularly love her mantra which is not ‘How Do I Look?’ but ‘How Do I Feel?’ – a question that we would all do well to ask ourselves.