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Professor Jason Ellis

Professor of Sleep Science, Northumbria University

Researchers are developing innovative new ways to tackle sleep disorders.

Lack of sleep can have a major impact on everyday life, potentially leading to depression and anxiety. Insomnia, the most prevalent sleep disorder, affects up to 15% of the population, though as the COVID pandemic struck there were suggestions that some 30% of the population were having sleep-related issues with worries about the virus, jobs and finance.

It also affects people in different ways. Sleep expert Professor Jason Ellis explains: “Two people can have the same experiences but one will develop a sleep disorder, the other will not.”

Sleep disorders

His research as a Professor of Sleep Science at Northumbria University in Newcastle looks at insomnia, sleep duration and quality, and developing preventative sleep medicine, where “genetic, biological, behavioural and psychological factors” are taken into account.

We are not just trying to prevent insomnia, we are trying to prevent the added complications that come from having insomnia.

In addition to the general population, the centre studies sleeplessness in chronically ill and prison populations, and other circumstances where people have limited control over their environment. Insomnia, which covers difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, or awaking too early, becomes more serious when it goes on beyond two weeks.

Early intervention

Professor Ellis, who is Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research, says: “A disruptive few nights for about two weeks is perfectly normal, that is a stress response like an exam coming up, but longer than two weeks is a critical vulnerability period for developing a sleep disorder and that is when we intervene.

“We are not just trying to prevent insomnia, we are trying to prevent the added complications that come from having insomnia such as depressive disorders and physical health conditions.”

Interventions that avoid using medication to manage sleep include talking therapies to discuss behaviours, such as stress, bereavement and psychological worries that sustain the insomnia, while other approaches look at how nutritional intake can influence sleep patterns. A new alternative therapy is lucid dreaming, which teaches people to be aware that they are dreaming and how to manage the dream.

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