The new ear zapper that could help banish insomnia
EAR CLIPS that stimulate a nerve in the ears could help treat insomnia. New research suggests that using the clips for just 30 minutes before you go to bed can improve sleep quality and reduce daytime drowsiness.
Scientists believe it works by stimulating the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
One in three people in the UK suffers with insomnia at some point (insomnia is defined as the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep at night).
The most common causes include stress or anxiety, and shift work (which can disrupt natural sleep patterns). Alcohol and caffeine consumption are also factors: these can disrupt sleep as they act as a diuretic, making us want to urinate in the night, as well as relaxing muscles and causing heavy snoring.
An estimated one in 10 people with insomnia ends up taking sleeping tablets, either prescribed or bought over the counter from a pharmacist.
Stronger drugs prescribed by GPs include so-called ‘Z' drugs (the three main ones are zopiclone, zolpidem and zaleplon), which work by slowing the brain's activity so it is easier to nod off.
However, long-term use of the drugs has been linked with worrying side-effects, including drowsiness (which raises the risk of falls and road traffic accidents), memory loss and aggression.
Patients can also suffer withdrawal problems when they come off them.
Now, scientists at Peking University in Beijing believe the ear clips could offer a drug-free way to improve sleep. The clips are connected by a wire to a small power pack about the size of a mobile phone.
When this is switched on, an electric current passes through the clips and into the ears to stimulate the vagus nerve. This is a major nerve that runs up through the chest and neck and into the brain and is involved in controlling a wide range of functions, including our sleep and wakefulness.
The clips are attached to the auricular concha – the shell-like entrance to the ear that leads towards the ear canal, where a branch of the vagus nerve can be found just beneath the skin.
In a trial, the scientists tested the clips on 63 volunteers with insomnia. Half were told to attach the clips to the auricular concha, the rest to the outer-edge of the ear where the vagus nerve does not pass near the skin.
Each person used the device for 30 minutes before bed for a month and kept diaries of their sleep patterns.
The results, in the journal Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in August, showed that those who received vagus nerve stimulation had fewer problems nodding off by the end of the trial and were less drowsy in the day.
In just four weeks, their average scores fell by around two points on the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, which measures drowsiness.
Independent sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley, says: "This study is of interest but the number of patients involved was small. We need larger, better quality studies to show positive results before this can be used as a treatment."
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