Tough cure for insomnia: Patients woken up every 20 minutes

Anna Guthleben hadn't slept well her entire life. When she turned 40 it began to catch up with her.

Anna Guthleben hadn't slept well her entire life. When she turned 40 it began to catch up with her. Photo: Anna Guthleben

As a child, Anna Guthleben took to staying up late as a guilty pleasure, but also as a natural talent.

Reading under the sheets until midnight, she’d be up bright as a button the next morning, full of energy for the day ahead.

Even now she seems like that when you meet her in conversation.

But the fact was, her capacity to nod off started to suffer when she reached 40. When she was menopausal, she hit a wall.

“I didn’t recover like I used to,” she says.

It was 2017, and time for Anna to learn how to go to sleep. There were plenty of sleep programs around, but given Anna’s natural go hard and strong tendencies, she opted for an experimental treatment out of Flinders University: One night only.

I saw a flyer for an experiment. I thought it was hilarious,’’ she says.

Leon Lack, sleep researcher and professor of psychology, was researching an intensive form of restricted sleep therapy which aims to reduce the time people with sleeping problems spend in bed, by waking them at various intervals.

The technique came into the greater public consciousness via Dr Michael Mosley, who conducted his own experiments in order to repair his sleep habits.

The thinking is: Restricted sleep therapy, which is normally conducted in tandem with cognitive-based insomnia therapy, and over a number of sessions, “re-boots the brain”.

But Professor Lack was trialling the idea that it could be achieved in one long, and somewhat maddening session. This sounded good to Anna.

“It was done in my own home. By myself,” she says.

I was given what I needed and told what to do. And got on with it.’’

She spent the night with an iPhone strapped to her upper arm, wearing an ear piece.

Every 20 minutes, the phone made “a tiny, little sound,” she says.

“If you were awake, you wiggled your arm. Otherwise, if you were asleep, the phone vibrated and woke you up,” she says.

The instructions were to get out of bed every time she was woken. She’d sit and read for a while and go back to bed.

Says Anna: “After the third or fourth time being woken up, I was thinking ‘What the hell am I doing?’ But I wanted to give them good data and kept at it. I actually slept for two hours at one point. But overall I was woken up about 20 times.”

Anna was surprised to find it worked.

“I was able to sleep again,” she says.

Since then, however, Anna developed breast cancer, lost her job and a house and her ability to sleep.

Her plan? To try the therapy again and reboot her over-active brain.

You can access Professor Lack’s DIY Bedtime Restriction Therapy, as promoted by SA Health, here.

You can hear more about Anna’s story and other sleep hacks on SBS Insight, 8.30pm on Tuesday.

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