Meet The Man Who Reckons He Can Fix Your Sleep Forever

Photo: Michael Beckert
2017 has got to be one of the most bananas years on record. And we're only halfway through.
Yet all anyone can talk about is sleep.
Like the "clean eating" and "gluten-free diet" fads from the golden days of 2016, this year we're obsessed with our sleep. How much we're getting, how long it takes us to fall asleep, the quality of our sleep, how we feel the day after sleep...
In response, the sleep consumer industry has exploded. Mattresses now come with climate control, anti-snoring technology and make for acceptable topics of conversation at the pub. Pyjamas, once a raggedy T-shirt from an ex-lover, are now made of 'cool moisture wicking' to prevent excess sweating. Phones come with sleep apps to track, monitor and analyse your shut-eye.
Remarkably, though, in the face of all of this, it feels like we're getting less sleep than ever before. Since 1940, it is estimated that we've cut our average sleep time by 20%. Between 2008 and 2011, NHS spend on sleeping pills increased by 17%.
So what's the problem? Where are we going wrong?
"I think the most common misconception is that there exists an inability to sleep," says Dr. W. Chris Winter, a sleep researcher, neurologist and one of the world's most respected experts on sleep (Arianna Huffington calls him the "Sleep Whisperer"). "People out there really fear that they might go to bed and not be able to fall asleep... And this belief is simply not true."
Dr. Winter's first book, The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken And How To Fix It, is already being hailed as a "solution" to insomnia. It's a no-nonsense, colloquial approach to sleep difficulties that aims to change the narrative around sleep in order to make it more manageable.
"I read an article recently that was like, '51.% of Americans can not sleep'," he says. "If you read that as '51% of Americans can't eat' you'd think 'Oh my God, 51% of Americans are starving to death – this is a crisis!'"
The claim that half of Americans aren't sleeping is simply not true, though, he says. "'51% of Americans are dissatisfied with their sleep?' OK well that's a different narrative. We're sleeping but we don't like the way we sleep, or the way we feel during the day.
"That's a much healthier starting point."
So is it possible that the more we fixate on our sleep, the more we get it wrong? We ask Dr. Winter to help us break down our sleep obsession.
Dr. Winter, why do we keep hearing the same maddening advice about sleeping, like "no phone before bed" or "have a bath" when we all know exactly what we're supposed to do to sleep better?
The turning off of your phone, making your room dark, all the things we hear about in the media are important but there is a large population of people who have done those things and they need to go onto the next step. There is a subliminal message [in the media] that everything is related to sleep "hygiene" – that you're not wearing the right pyjamas, your mattress is wrong – and it becomes this maddening endless search for these dry wick fabric pyjamas that will make you sleep better.
Yeah, I feel like that mentality isn't going to help very much...
It causes a lot of frustration. I think doctors feel the same. They have time for a pill, they have time to say, "Is your room dark, are you exercising?" and they don't really have time beyond that. Now there's a new media message about the dangers of sleep deprivation, which leaves you saying, "Oh my God, my pyjamas don't work, I've spent £4,000 on a mattress and now someone's telling me I'm going to get Alzheimer's disease if I don't get this sorted by the weekend." That's a tough position to be in!
Big time. How do people with sleep problems think differently from people who sleep just fine?
Twenty years ago, people thought of sleep like their eye colour. "I'm a good sleeper, I'm a bad sleeper, I have blue eyes, I have green eyes." It wasn't under their control. Now, with the different clocks and mattresses and medications it feels like a variable we can CONTROL.
For people that have had difficulty sleeping for a long time it really becomes deeply ingrained, to the point where they approach going to bed differently. I approach my bed as I approach brushing my teeth. It's something I do every day. But for some individuals it really becomes a problem.
When do you know you should seek professional help?
When you seek help is down to you. But if you've tried all the things those "5 Surprising Ways To Get To Sleep" articles talk about, and you're still frustrated, then it might be time to see a sleep specialist. There's lots of people that don't even realise that such a thing exists. We exist! They'll help you out quite a bit, most likely.
What's the first question you ask someone who comes to see you?
"What can I do to help your sleep?" And there's always some people who say, "I haven't slept for six months," and I'm like, "Wow, you're very fit-looking and wide awake – doesn't it seem strange to you that you've been up for six months when the world record for sleep deprivation is 11 days? And that person needed a cow prod?"
You start talking in those terms and things become a lot more clear and the panic goes. I want you to feel panic if you walk out to your car and see a bear but panicking because you think you're going to go seven months without sleep? That's not going to happen.
Sleeping pills: godsend or terrible idea?
Besides the dangers of them – many of them carry warnings that the average individual isn't aware of – my concern is the act of taking a pill to fall asleep. If you're using a sleeping pill when you've got jet lag or if you're going from working nights to working days, sleeping pills can be a useful tool to help you get back in the rhythm. But the individual who says, "I need a sleeping pill to fall asleep" – which is by far the most common thing people say to me – the biggest problem I have with that is that [the pills] reinforce that misperception that everybody else can go to bed and fall asleep but I'm incapable of that.
So probably not so great for the longer term?
My guess is, if we sat here long enough, eventually both you and I would fall asleep. It will happen as sure as the sun will rise. So to me, the sleeping pill, and the doctor who is writing you this prescription every two months, is reinforcing that you've got something wrong with your brain that prevents you from sleeping. This educated doctor is giving me sleeping pills and doesn't question it. It's like a weird stamp of validity. I've got patients who've been getting sleeping pills from their doctors for 15-20 years.
Are there people out there who really can't be helped?
This group can be divided into two categories. The biggest one is individuals that can't be helped who really have no problem. It's like someone saying, "Look, I'm balding" and you can't see any evidence. You've taken pictures of their scalp and there's no change but they're convinced they're losing their hair. There's a certain percentage of people like this with sleep. Their functioning ability during the day is quite good, you talk to their bed partner and they don't understand, and yet they really, really do not feel satisfied with their sleep.
And the other category?
So this is a smaller group of people who have a condition that's known as primary insomnia. This is an individual who has an inability to sleep and no real identifiable reason why that should be. I'm sure they exist. Although I've been in practice for 14 years and I don't think I've ever really found one. The first question I ask people after a sleep study is, "How was your night?" and they'll go, "Oh it was difficult, it was the worst night of my life" and I'll say, "How much do you think you slept?"
"Oh I didn't sleep at all," they'll say. Invariably, though, they slept for at least four hours and they're shocked. Sometimes I have to show them the video. I'm willing to concede that somewhere out there is a primary insomnia patient but for the average person, this is not something we need to worry about.
So when should I worry?
It's not the inability to sleep, it's the inability to sleep at the moment you want to, and the most important part is that there has to be some sort of fear or anxiety response to it. If someone comes to me and says it takes them three hours to fall asleep and I say, "How does that make you feel?" and they say, "Oh I love it, it's great, I lie there and think about my celebrity crush", or whatever they like to think about. If they don't care then I don't care. I don't consider that to be insomnia. I think people need to realise that there are a lot of benefits to simple and effectively resting.
To find out more about Dr. Winter's experience with sleep, his book The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken And How To Fix It is available now from Scribe.

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