OUR weekly heath feature with Dr Zak Uddin. This week he talks about the importance of sleep and answers your medical questions...

IT has often been said that the best things in life are free, and if this is to be believed, the evidence for getting a good night’s sleep is very strong. However, it seems we are a nation, if not a world of insomniacs, and with trouble sleeping currently being one of the leading reasons to consult a general practitioner, are we on the brink of an epidemic?

Insomnia itself is a fairly new concept. While certain famous leaders have proudly proclaimed to needing less than four hours sleep a night, until 50 years ago only a tiny minority of people were deliberately depriving themselves of sleep, defined as less than six hours a night.

However, a recent poll shows that half of people in the UK are now trying to get by on this or less. With the recommended amount being seven to eight hours a night, this may not seem like a big deal, but figures suggest that conditions associated with sleep loss cost the UK economy £30 billion every year.

The effects of even short term sleep deprivation are startling. One night of less than five hours is enough to reduce the performance of cells needed to clear cancer promoting cells from the body.

If you don’t sleep for 19 hours, your judgement is impaired – similar to having consumed a large amount of alcohol.

In the short term, the body becomes less sensitive to its own insulin, causing a pre-diabetic state. The levels of hormones associated with hunger and feeling full become altered and insomnia may cause an increased appetite and hence weight gain. Long term lack of sleep has been linked to several cancers and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, especially in shift workers, who are unable to maintain a regular sleeping pattern.

MENTAL as well as physical health is affected by lack of sleep and while it was thought that low mood or anxiety caused sufferers to lay awake at night, it has been shown that insomnia can induce symptoms from aggression all the way to suicidality.

If this is a wakeup call for you, the advice is refreshingly simple, and the answer to insomnia is not sleeping pills, but sleep itself.

Aim to go to bed at the same time each night, in a room where artificial or natural light is at a minimum.

You should try to limit any distractions; so if you are constantly disturbed by updates or texts on your phone, it may be better not to have it in the room.

Try to avoid caffeine in the few hours prior to sleep as it is a stimulant. Excess alcohol may also disrupt your sleep.

Signs that you aren’t getting enough rest, or that it is not of adequate quality are if you feel you could sleep through your alarm, or needing mid-afternoon caffeine to perk you up.

Ultimately, sleep is as important as any other part of your daily routine.

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Q I always had good skin in my teenage years, however, now I’m in my thirties I’ve started getting boils and redness on my cheeks and forehead, which is getting me down. Can adults get acne?

Stephanie, 35

A While people typically suffer with acne in their teenage years, due to the hormonal changes of puberty, acne can occur at any age.

What you are describing might also be Rosacea, another skin condition which causes symptoms similar to acne.

Importantly, both can be treated and if it is affecting your happiness, a routine appointment with your GP will help to clarify the diagnosis as well as what can be done to help you.

Q Recently I have noticed that I get very anxious in social situations.

I used to be the life and soul of the party, but these days I find myself making excuses to stay at home

Robert, 69

A What you are describing sounds like social anxiety, and it seems that it is now having an impact on your ability to enjoy life.

While it may be limited to going out, social anxiety may also be a sign of underlying anxiety or low mood.

It would be useful to discuss your feelings with your regular doctor, who will be able to recommend treatments, which may include counselling.

  • Do you have a question for Dr Zak? You can email him via askdoctorzak@gmail.com, visit the website doctorzak.co.uk or find him on Twitter @AskDoctorZak
  • Dr Uddin’s advice is provided in good faith and in accordance with currently accepted evidence. However, this content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should always seek the advice of a GP, or other qualified health provider, regarding a medical condition.