World Sleep Day 2024: Why Londoners are the worst sleepers in the country

 (Photography by Bob Mazzer)
(Photography by Bob Mazzer)

It’s a question that many of us dread: ‘So... did you sleep well last night?’ For Londoners, the answer seems to be a resounding, ‘No’. Right now it feels as though almost everyone in the capital will tell you that they’re having trouble sleeping. We are a city that’s tossing and turning. Wired and unable to switch off. Spiralling when we don’t fall asleep within minutes of climbing into bed. A study in 2022 found that Hackney and Islington residents google ‘Why can’t I sleep?’ more than any others, making them the most sleep-deprived postcodes in the UK. Mattress-maker Silentnight concluded Londoners are the worst sleepers in the country, while 63 per cent of us told researchers at King’s College London that our sleep had worsened during lockdowns. And what was bad during the pandemic is now worse.

Prof Guy Leschziner, author of The Secrets of Sleep, who runs sleep disorder clinics at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals, blames the cost-of-living crisis. ‘People are feeling pessimistic about the current state of the country and there are significant financial anxieties,’ he says. ‘We shouldn’t underestimate the impact on sleep.’

Jamie Smyth, 38, moved to the capital a decade ago and has gradually noticed his sleep declining. ‘I wake up between 1am and 3am most nights,’ he says. ‘Work stress plays a huge part — if I’ve got a morning meeting, that keeps me awake, but I worry about my health and money, too. I leave the city at the weekend, I’ll generally sleep better. It’s that background hum — the lights and noise — that you don’t notice but that’s always there.’

Noise, stress, alcohol, caffeine, recreational drugs, shift work — all things the NHS lists as insomnia causes and all things that keep the wheels turning in the Big Smoke. They don’t specifically mention being kept awake by the beeping of ticket barriers when you live above Highbury and Islington station (that was a tiring year), nor the small hours spent replaying the stupid things you said in the pub, but it all points towards London becoming the city that never sleeps.

If you’re already worried about sleep and you get data that says you’re not sleeping as well as you think you should be, that can fuel the problem

Miranda Levy, author of The Insomnia Diaries, isn’t surprised. ‘In the pandemic people suffered with sleep problems, but we had more time to put in place strategies to help,’ she says. ‘Now, we’re going back into the office and our days are rushed. We’ve stopped putting ourselves to bed properly.’ Basically, we’re back to burning the candle at both ends: grabbing a takeaway on the way home, so our bodies are processing alcohol and fat when they should be powering down. Missing our morning gym session and going after work instead, stimulating adrenaline and cortisol too close to bedtime. Nipping to Pret at 4pm for a coffee to wake our - selves up, even though afternoon caffeine isn’t good for sleep.

Plus we’re not getting laid. The British Medical Journal reported that fewer than half of Britons aged 16-44 have sex at least once a week, blaming the ‘busyness of modern life’, when sex has been shown to encourage sleep by flooding our brains with relaxing hormones such as dopamine. It’s affecting our work, too. The Sleep Charity says that 50 per cent of UK employees take time off due to not getting enough sleep or feeling tired; and sleep deprivation costs the economy £40.2 billion annually. Well, not the entire economy. There is money to be made and getting city-dwellers to sleep is big business. You can buy sleep trackers, sound machines, CBD oils, lavender eye masks, weighted blankets and pillow sprays. There are expensive private clinics and top hotels where you can check in to ‘womb rooms’.

Searches for sleep apps, which mostly charge a subscription, soared by 100 per cent in the 12 months after lockdown. Some, such as Pzizz and Sleepstation are focused on tackling the causes of insomnia and come NHS recommended. Sleep expert Sophie Bostock helped to launch Sleepio, which offers a six-week digital course of CBTI (cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia) and can be prescribed free by GPs in some areas of London. She says that such apps can also support those struggling with mental health issues.

Bob Mazzer (Photography by Bob Mazzer)
Bob Mazzer (Photography by Bob Mazzer)

‘Poor sleep makes you more vulnerable to common mental health disorders including anxiety and depression, but insomnia is also a hallmark symptom of those conditions,’ Bostock says. ‘Improving sleep alone can reduce the symptoms of poor mental health. Getting treatment for poor sleep has less stigma than treatment for mental health, yet the benefits can be just as powerful.’

Other apps such as Aura and Headspace aim to lull you to sleep through mindfulness. On Calm, which costs £28.99 a month, Sleep Stories (essentially bedtime stories for grown-ups) are read in soothing tones by the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Harry Styles, and have been downloaded 450 million times. Which is 120 million more than the number of views the ‘Watermelon Sugar’ video has had on YouTube.

Prof Leschziner thinks there is ‘a real danger of sleep becoming commercialised’ as businesses play on our anxieties for profit. He is wary of sleep-tracking devices, which appeal to Londoners who like to have metrics for every part of their lives: ‘But if you’re already worried about sleep, and then you get data that says you’re not sleeping as well as you think you should, that can fuel the problem.’ Indeed, as we’ve become aware of how crucial sleep is for our health, from our immune systems to our blood pressure, hearts, moods and memory, we have grown concerned that we’re not getting enough, or the right kind. We lie in bed cursing our bodies for not doing what they’re supposed to. We see videos on social media that validate our fears: one TikTok on sleep inertia, that groggy place between being asleep and awake, was viewed 7 million times.

‘As soon as you tell people that sleep is important, but they feel they’re not doing it as well as TikTok says, that will raise anxiety,’ says Prof Leschziner. ‘In reality, there are some individuals who need less sleep and others who need more. If you are going to bed at roughly the same time, waking up at roughly the same time, you feel somewhat refreshed, you aren’t sleepy during the day, you spend less than half an hour awake during the night and you fall asleep in under 45 minutes? Your sleep is probably normal.’ Prof Leschziner has noticed a rise in referrals to his clinic for chronic conditions such as sleep apnea (when breathing stops and starts), but says we shouldn’t conflate these with general insomnia, from which one in three adults in the UK suffers at some point.

Leia, 33, from south London, is unable to sleep through the night. ‘I’ve been through a bad period of anxiety, which my therapist has said is a hangover from the pandemic,’ she says. ‘I often listen to YouTube ASMR channels to block stuff out and I’m experimenting with a pillow spray. I’m also taking melatonin on prescription, but it’s too early to say if it’s helping.’

As soon as people feel they’re not sleeping as well as TikTok says they should, that will raise anxiety

Ah, yes, the drugs. According to NHS figures, one million people in Britain are prescribed insomnia medications every year. And while hormones such as melatonin are considered safe for short-term use, other pills are more potent. Last week NHS England announced a plan to wean patients off prescription sleeping tablets to avoid a US-style addiction crisis happening here. Not to mention that you can get over-the-counter sleep aids in every chemist. Sure, the pharmacist will warn you that they’re for occasional use — but who’s counting?

‘For most people, they should not be the first port of call,’ says Prof Leschziner, firmly. ‘Pretty much all insomnia drugs won’t simulate natural sleep and are sedative agents. Many of the prescribed drugs are potentially addictive and have side effects; there are concerns about the long-term impact on memory. Ultimately, we want to restore normal sleep without them.’ So how can Londoners start to recalibrate their relationship with sleep? ‘The first thing is to be aware of the factors that influence it,’ he continues. ‘I see people who say, “Oh, I have a lamp post outside my bedroom window, but it doesn’t bother me,” when actually the light exposure is significantly impacting the quality of their sleep.

‘There are some very simple things that you can do to improve your “sleep hygiene”, a horrible term. Invest in blackout blinds, make sure you’re not using your bedroom to work or spend hours doomscrolling. Consider earplugs. Go to bed at the same time. Don’t overdo caffeine. If you have concerns about sleep but don’t have chronic insomnia, these are the first things to try.

It’s essential, adds Levy, not to ‘turn your bedroom into a battleground’. ‘One of the main things that perpetuates insomnia is making the problem into a bigger problem,’ she says. ‘If you’re looking at the clock every 10 minutes, then your sleep is going to be worse. Instead, tell yourself, “Okay, I might feel crap at work tomorrow but it’ll be fine.”’

Living in London, this can all be easier said than done. ‘I find it just isn’t realistic,’ says Leia. ‘It’s not always possible to avoid eating a big evening meal within a certain window, or get into bed at the same time. Our bedroom doubles up as my husband’s office as we’re limited on space.’

So if sleep hygiene isn’t working and Harry Styles hasn’t helped you nod off? The experts point to those CBTI apps as the ‘gold standard’. ‘We now have a proven treatment that helps the majority of individuals sustain good-quality sleep in the long term without drugs,’ says Prof Leschziner, excitedly. ‘The development of digital platforms has made a massive difference.’

Bostock thinks that taking our foot off the accelerator might also do some good — for ourselves and our fellow Londoners. ‘Very few of us give ourselves the gift of sufficient sleep time on a regular basis,’ she says. ‘If we did, the world would be a kinder, happier and healthier place.’