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Last Updated: Friday, 2 February 2007, 10:17 GMT
Minds open to benefits of shut-eye
By Chris Page
BBC Radio Ulster

Sleeping has become big business.

Given the average person spends about 25 years snoozing, surprisingly little is known about the science of sleep.

But that is changing - and the new interest in sleep is spawning a

multi-million pound industry.

Image of a couple sleeping
We get two fewer hours of slumber than our grandparents did

Sleeping aids are the fastest growing sector of the health market worldwide - and consumers are spending millions on products from sleep-inducing milk to ipod pillows.

Anne from County Down (not her real name) says she would pay anything to restore her rest.

She hasn't had a full night's sleep for seven years.

"I feel it's robbed me of a good quality of life," she said. "I generally sleep between two and four hours a night, but often I have nights where I don't sleep at all.

"I can't concentrate, and I can't even read a book or watch a film all the way through.

"I go to work, and carry on the best I can - but it's very difficult being constantly tired."

Problems like this are on the rise.

Research by the Royal Society of Medicine says sleeping is an issue in 12% of GP consultations - and each night we get two fewer hours of slumber than our grandparents did.

But one of the world's leading experts - Professor Jim Horne of Loughborough University - thinks sleeping problems are often more imagined than real.

"Insomnia is out there, but it's not a problem that's worse than it ever has been," he said.

Dr Paul Miller says sleep should be as high a priority as exercise

He believes the marketing of sleeping products may be creating the misleading impression that sleep is hard to come by.

There are many reasons why a person might have trouble getting 40 winks - but often it's linked with having a fast pace of life.

Dr Paul Miller, a consultant psychiatrist at the Mater Hospital in Belfast, believes we should make sleep as high a priority as exercise and a good diet.

"We are very good at encouraging people to be active, and to get their five portions of fruit and veg - we need to start treating sleep as a vital part of our health," he says.

But some developments suggest 24-hour living may be possible - even if it would not be good for us.

Experts believe in a few decades consumers will have the option of taking "go-pills" which turn off our need for sleep and give us a few more hours in the day.

In future, the sleep industry may present some difficult ethical choices.

The Radio Ulster Documentary: The Sleep Industry is at 1130 GMT on Saturday 3 February and 1630 GMT on Sunday 4 February.

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