Sleepless in Blackpool

Sleep doctor - Dr Mohammad Paracha
Sleep doctor - Dr Mohammad Paracha
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Most people need between seven and eight hours sleep a night.

That’s about three hours more than the time devoted to the study of sleep medicine by medical students.

It seems a bit of an imbalance given how grouchy most feel if we miss out on a decent night’s kip – let alone the significance of sleep to our health. Some – and they famously include Margaret Thatcher at the height of her powers as Prime Minister – get by on as little as four hours.

Teenagers require at least 10. And that’s official. According to Blackpool’s specialist sleep physician it comes down to their biological clock having yet to adjust to the patterns of older people – who tend to fall asleep earlier rather than sleep in longer.

Sleep is fascinating. Yet even Dr Mohammed Paracha finds it hard to accept that some five hours at most tend to be devoted to sleep medicine for medical students.

Five hours? It doesn’t even equate to a decent night’s sleep for most of us.

Dr Paracha is one of the nation’s foremost specialists on sleep medicine, making him much in demand on the lecture circuit. He’s a director of the Blackpool Sleep Service, a member of the British Academy of Sleep Medicine and British Sleep Society.

It started 10 years ago on the back of his primary work as a consultant respiratory physician. The two often go hand in hand as well documented cases – on TV – relating to sleep apnoea have established.

But Dr Paracha is straying deeper into the land of nod and all its mysteries to learn more about the science of sleep.

He now regularly gets referrals from across the country. “There are very few specialist sleep centres in the North West or anywhere else, for that matter,” he concedes. “I don’t even think some local GPs appreciate we offer the service here. By and large people don’t realise how significant sleep is. Yet we spend a third of our lives asleep. By the age of 70 you will have slept the equivalent of 22 years. And as we get older we require less sleep.”

The Blackpool Victoria Hospital based medic’s speciality is all aspects of respiratory medicine including lung cancer, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic cough, asbestosis and pulmonary fibrosis. It’s logical that he would look at sleep related disorders such as obstructive sleep apnoea – often characterised by excessively loud snoring and abnormal pauses in breathing caused by an obstruction preventing air from entering the lungs.

Ten years ago, says the medic, it would take the better part of a year for a sleep apnoea case to get through the health system. Today, with GPs and other medics far more aware, it can be a matter of 12-18 weeks from referral to patients kitted out with the equipment required for an overnight sleep study at home, the findings then highlighting the need, or otherwise, for further investigation or surgery – such as the operation which Labour leader Ed Miliband had.

“It is not a rare condition, about four per cent of the middle aged population, males and females, suffer from it – that’s more than type one diabetes. Yet there’s very little investment in treatment. We’re now promoting this service. I get referrals from all over. A relatively simple procedure can undoubtedly save lives and marriages,” says the doctor. “Sometimes the snoring is so excessive it drives the partner into another bed in another room! And often, although the patient will wake feeling far from refreshed after a night’s sleep, it’s the partner who notices the pauses in breathing. It affects women as well as men.”

He also looks at narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, excessive daytime sleepiness and parasomnia in all its forms. Examples include sleepwalking, night terrors, sleep paralysis, REM sleep behaviour disorder, and sleep aggression. Sexsomnia, sometimes called “sleepsex,” is also a parasomnia. “People have no recollection of what they did next day,” says Dr Paracha.

In America, the science of sleep is big business. Dr Paracha highlights the architecture of sleep, the stages ranging from light to deep sleep, deeper, and then dreaming sleep, before returning to deep sleep. “You find dreams come in on 90 minute cycles, and you dream for longer each time, so the longest dreams will be just before you wake.”

He doesn’t subscribe to the latest must have bedtime butty – peanut butter and banana said to contain key sleep inducing elements.

“My best tip would be this, it doesn’t matter what time you go to sleep, the key time is when you wake. Condition yourself to always wake on the dot at a specific time daily and the rest may follow. Some swear by naps. But I’d always say don’t nap for longer than half an hour otherwise you’ll wake up groggy. There is a condition known as sleep inertia.”

He says sleep patterns have also changed by dint it being a 24-hour society.

“More people work shifts and companies need to study how to best manage shift work.”