Does Britain need a sleep tsar?

ITV News' Rachel Townsend investigates UK's sleep crisis after one in 10 are now said to be suffering with insomnia

“Sleep is for the weak."

“You snooze, you lose.”

With negative phrases such as this, it’s little wonder that doctors believe Britain is in the middle of a sleep epidemic.

A survey* commissioned for ITV’s Tonight programme revealed that 74% of adults have trouble sleeping at least ‘sometimes’, with 39% saying this is often or always.

That makes for a lot of sleep deprived people.

Speaking to Tonight, Dr Sarah Jarvis said: “There’s no question there is a sleep problem in the UK.

"We reckon that one in 10 people have chronic insomnia, in other words sleeping problems that go on for longer than three months.”

Science links poor sleep to a whole range of mental and physical health problems including depression, obesity and heart conditions.

Lynn Marks is an NHS emergency care assistant and has had sleep problems since her twin boys were born 25 years ago.

She shared some sleep video diaries with me and told me: “I don’t think I ever really coped. It’s so hard, it’s so difficult. Anything keeps me awake, bills, children, people's problems.

"It’s hard because I think god why can’t I just go to sleep?”

Lynn Marks kept a video diary to track her sleeping habits

And across the population our sleep seems to be getting worse. Modern technology, our 24/7 lifestyle and sleep anxiety could all be contributing to a rather gloomy picture.

Among those UK adults we surveyed who have trouble sleeping sometimes, 53% blamed a poor night’s sleep on stress and 31% said that in the last six months concern about the cost of living had kept them awake at night.

The Sleep Charity is calling for the government to appoint a Sleep Tsar to try and help tackle the UK’s sleep problem.

I spoke to CEO and founder of the charity, Vicki Beevers. She told me: “The government has got to wake up to the importance of sleep, it’s costing them millions of pounds every year.

“There are many people out there - 40% of the nation are struggling with sleep. We need a national sleep strategy and we need some investment into sleep.”

Sleep Charity CEO Vicki Beevers: 'Sleep is one of the pillars of good health - this needs to be taken seriously now'

When we approached the Department of Health, they insisted they are committed to looking into the impact of sleep problems. They cited their Major Conditions Strategy saying this will “focus on conditions that contribute most to morbidity and mortality.”

Alarmingly what many people do have, but may not know, is sleep apnoea. This is a disorder that leads your breathing to stop and start while you sleep. It means any rest you get will be interrupted.

Doctors estimate that 1.5 million are affected but add that 85% of those with sleep apnoea have not yet been diagnosed.

Colin Rees' snoring constantly disturbed his sleep and his wife Kay’s. Experts then fitted Colin with CPAP machine, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure.

Kay Rees was told by a doctor that she was close to a nervous breakdown due to the slack of sleep caused by her husband Colin's snoring

He wears the oxygen mask overnight and it has transformed their lives.

Colin from Tredegar, Wales, told me: “It gives you the right amount of oxygen. If it drops low then the machine will pick that up and put the right amount of air in so you have an undisturbed sleep.

"I never realised how bad it was.”

For the Tonight programme I investigated what is being done to combat the UK’s sleep crisis. We visit sleep clinics where people are monitored overnight. We see how therapies are being used to cure people from insomnia and we look at how beneficial sleep tech really is. 

Top tips to help you sleep better:

Make your bedroom your sanctuary

Subconsciously, you need to associate your bedroom with sleep. That means keeping it for sleep and intimacy only. It’s not a place for working, scrolling on your phone or even watching TV.

Snoozing and lie-ins

To re-set your body clock, get up at the same time every day, even if you’ve had a bad night – that includes weekends. And an afternoon nap may mean you’re less tired and not able to sleep when you get to bed. 

Even if you awake in the night, try and wake up at the same time every day, recommend experts. Credit: ITV Tonight

Consider caffeine carefully

Caffeine sensitivity varies between people. Some can be on double espressos until midnight with no impact – for others, a small Americano at 4pm can mean hours of tossing and turning. Have a trial of caffeine-free for a week to see which camp you fall into – and remember that tea, many colas/energy drinks and chocolate also contain caffeine. 

Try to relax before going to bed

Switch off screens an hour before bedtime and instead have a warm bath, listen to some quiet music, or do some yoga – all help to relax both the mind and body. Your doctor may be able to recommend a helpful relaxation tape. 

Create a restful sleeping environment

Your bedroom should be kept for rest and sleep and it should be neither too hot, nor too cold; and as quiet and dark as possible. Make sure your bed is comfortable. It’s difficult to get deep, restful sleep on one that’s too soft, too hard, too small or too old. 

More exercise

Regular, moderate exercise such as swimming or walking can help relieve the day’s stresses and strains. But don't do exercise too close to bedtime or it may keep you awake! 

Avoid alcohol in the evening

Although it may make you fall asleep, it causes you to wake up early and have poor quality sleep. 

Don’t smoke

Yes, it’s bad for sleep too. Smokers take longer to fall asleep, wake more regularly and often experience more sleep disruption. 

Deal with worries or a heavy workload

By making lists of things to be tackled the next day. 

Watch ’Sleep Well, Live Better Britain’s Sleep Problem’ on ITV1 at 8.30pm on Thursday, August 24 or stream on ITVX.

*Sleep survey: ITV Tonight/Savanta Poll: 2,209 UK adults 18+ (14-16 July, 2023).

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