Sleeping should be one of the easiest things for anyone to do. But when the lights go out, the problems can begin. NATALIE BOWYER takes an exclusive look behind the scenes at a sleep clinic to find out more about the disorders that can turn each night int

Sleeping disorders can be a common problem, keeping sufferers awake at night.

Sleeping should be one of the easiest things for anyone to do. But when the lights go out, the problems can begin. NATALIE BOWYER takes an exclusive look behind the scenes at a sleep clinic to find out more about the disorders that can turn each night into a nightmare.

SLEEP talking is a common problem. From uttering a few incomprehensible sounds, right through to providing a commentary on an imaginary West Ham United football match (in this particular case, West Ham roll back the years and actually win), this sleep disorder has for a long time simply been seen as a night-time irritant.

Similarly, sleep walking (unless you suddenly wake the walker or they hurt themselves), and acting out dreams are commonly thought, but incorrectly, to be fairly harmless.

Sleep disorders are putting lives at risk. If untreated, some can cause high blood pressure and even lead to heart disease.

But there is a place in Cambridgeshire where sleep is a speciality. A place where, literally, dreams are made - Papworth Hospital's sleep centre, where an eight-part BBC documentary on sleeping disorders has just finished being filmed.

Dr John Shneerson, who is the sleep clinic's facility director said: "Sleep disorders are very common and can have far reaching and sometimes dangerous effects on almost every aspect of people's lives, as well as those of their partners and family."

The aim of the Papworth clinic is to help the people who sleep walk, sleep talk, and those who can not sleep at all, have a better quality of life. Its three consultants and eight sleep technicians treat 2,500 narcoleptics, parasomniacs and chronic snorers each year, diagnosing some of the rarest and most dangerous sleeping disorders affecting the UK's sleepless population.

At Papworth there are six dedicated sleeping rooms, and 20 additional beds, although an extension is underway and an extra 10 beds should be ready by August.

However, I am not here to be treated. I have never had trouble getting to sleep, and my fiancé is convinced I have the ability to drop off regardless of the time.

Others are not so lucky. An excessive lack of sleep is said to affect approximately six per cent of adults - more than 3.5 million people in the UK - and is a common, debilitating symptom of many chronic medical conditions. Untreated, excessive sleepiness is thought to be a major contributing factor to fatal road accidents, lost productivity and the breakdown of marriages and relationships.

Dr Ian Smith, a respiratory consultant at Papworth Hospital Sleep Centre, said: "Today's society requires a constant readiness to work and socialise, and as a result, people often do not want to admit to having excessive sleepiness or seek help.

"Although excessive sleepiness is a common debilitating symptom of a number of chronic medical conditions, many people who experience sleep-related problems are reluctant to trouble their doctor. Yet trying to live with excessive sleepiness can place livelihoods and relationships at risk, as well as endangering lives."

In some cases, sufferers have been known to wait 10 years or more before consulting a GP.

One of the most common sleep disorders is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) - its symptoms will include snoring and feeling sleepy - and there are currently more than 4,000 patients being treated for this at Papworth. This condition will see the patient's throat relax too much during sleep, it then begins to shut, preventing them from breathing.

After a few seconds the brain detects what is happening and wakes the person up. The throat reopens and the oxygen supply returns. While it is usually very easy for people with OSA to return once more to sleeping, the breathing cycle can repeat itself all night

"It is not uncommon for some suffers of OSA to wake up at least 300 times a night without being aware of it," Dr Smith said. "If they happen frequently, then sleep is so disrupted that the sufferer has difficulty waking up in the morning and finds it hard to stay awake during the day."

This disorder can be diagnosed at Papworth and will involve an overnight stay in a laboratory bed where specialists will carry out complex studies and monitor oxygen levels in the blood.

If necessary, the Papworth doctors will suggest a sufferer wears a continuous positive airway pressure mask while they sleep.

The mask is a simple way of keeping the throat open. It is connected to a small machine that blows air into the throat, stopping it from flopping shut.

Being overweight is one cause of OSA and it is thought about 380,000 people in the UK suffer from this sleep disorder, but it is often undiagnosed.

Dr Smith added: "This sleeping disorder is common and often the only sign of a OSA sufferer is that they snore. It can go undiagnosed for years until someone's wife or husband complains enough about their other half's snoring that they seek help."

Untreated, OSA can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and heart attacks.

Less common sleep disorders are also treated at Papworth, such as circadian rhythm disorder. With this disorder, a sufferer's body clock is out of sync and they can find it impossible to wake up in the morning.

They also treat restless legs syndrome where people get a crawling feeling in their legs that causes them to have to get up and walk around. And narcolepsy, a sleep disorder marked by sudden, uncontrollable urges to sleep.

This can be a life-limiting disorder as it can cause an individual to fall asleep at inappropriate times, such as during a meal, at the wheel of a car or even when they have just woken up.

A staggering one in three people are thought to get less than five hours of sleep a night, but Dr Smith says just being aware of some simple tricks can help achieve a good night's rest.

"Sticking to regular bedtimes, helping the body to unwind and avoiding certain foods and drinks in the evening can induce drowsiness and enhance sleep."

However, for those who continue to suffer at night there is always Papworth's sleep clinic to turn to. Its success rate is so high, only five per cent of patients return for further treatment.

INFORMATION: Sleep Clinic is on BBC1 at 10.35pm on Mondays and repeated on Tuesdays at 7pm on BBC2. To find out more about Papworth Hospital Sleep Clinic, call 01480 364567.