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Understanding and treating sleep disorders

Chronic insomnia is a significant health, social and economic burden on affected individuals, their families, healthcare providers and society as a whole. From a financial perspective alone, an estimated 1.86% of GDP (up to £36 billion) is lost annually from the UK’s economy due to productivity losses. Jason Ellis – Professor in Psychology and Director of the Northumbria Sleep Research Laboratory – has devoted his career to researching insomnia to prevent its dangerous consequences.  

Professor Ellis’ insomnia research is vast, exploring the biological, environmental, psychological, behavioural and social factors leading to chronic insomnia. The influence of his research – especially on the lives of the patients he works with – cannot be understated.  

In 2012, the scientific community welcomed the results of his investigation into the differences between acute and chronic insomnia. It was an historic study that has had wide-ranging implications. First, his work has redefined how the sleep research community classifies stages of the disease. Thanks to Professor Ellis, the community can delineate acute insomnia patients from chronic ones – something not possible previously.  

This is important because chronic insomnia is a largely unrelenting condition, as well as being associated with numerous illnesses and diseases. An individual that sleeps on average less than six hours per night has a 13% higher mortality risk than someone sleeping between seven and nine hours. By knowing what characteristics separate acute and chronic insomnia, researchers can focus on stopping the disease before it turns chronic, saving financial and healthcare resources and patients’ time. 

As part of his work, Professor Ellis has created and tested an intervention, which consists of a 60-minute cognitive behavioural therapy session given to patients in the acute stages of insomnia. Seventy-three per cent of participants in his study experienced improvements in their sleep within three months; this intervention is highly effective. It is also inexpensive and easy to scale. This is news the UK population is celebrating, given that one-third of the adult population develops acute insomnia in a year, and 10% suffer from chronic insomnia disorder. Several clinics and therapy services are now using this intervention to treat patients presenting with acute insomnia across the UK and beyond, as far away as Korea. 

Professor Ellis has also adapted his intervention into a self-help book, The One-Week Insomnia Cure: Learn to Solve Your Sleep Problems – which has been translated into Czech, Spanish and Japanese, and serialised in newspapers such as the Daily Mail. This book has sold over 10,000 copies and it is now recommended by the NHS to those seeking to manage symptoms of insomnia. 

With emerging evidence that chronic insomnia also poses a significant risk for the development and worsening of many diseases and conditions (e.g., depression, obesity and alcoholism), Professor Ellis is engaging in consultancies with major health organisations and corporate players the world over.  

While the goals of the collaborations vary – collaborations that include Public Health England, Transport for London, UCB Pharma and the BBC, to name a few – the results are consistently high quality and impactful. Examining his collaborations with health organisations alone, he has already trained over 250 clinicians in the UK, US, Holland and Japan on how to perform his acute insomnia intervention. 

The effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the rates of insomnia around the world means that Professor Ellis’ research is perhaps more relevant now than ever before. In 2020, The Society of Behavioural Sleep Medicine COVID-19 Task Force recommended Ellis’ intervention as a way to manage acute insomnia during, and in the wake of, the pandemic. 


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