Real life: Wake Up Call
Wikipedia calls it a naturally recurring state. Shakespeare described it as the process that “knits up the ravelled sleave of care”. A crisis in her own life prompted Birgit Buenger to do extensive research into something that many of us take for granted
Sitting in a cafe in central Cambridge, Birgit Buenger describes the moment that prompted her to change careers. It was 2010 and she was driving through the city of Cologne. “Waiting for the lights to go green, I vowed that if I ever resolved my problems, I would do something to help others suffering the same thing.”
Her problem was with sleep and she was far from alone. It’s estimated that worldwide around a third of people suffer from sleeplessness; 10 per cent of people suffer from the more severe condition of insomnia. “I was sleeping badly three or four nights a week, lying awake for hours or waking up at 3am,” says Buenger.
Nine years on, Buenger’s business card describes her as an insomnia analyst. “My role is to bridge a gap between people experiencing sleeplessness and healthcare professionals. In a consultation with a client, I use a detailed questionnaire to build a thorough picture of his or her sleep,” she explains.
She follows this with a summary which is sent to the client, empowering him or her to navigate the healthcare system. “My questions look at the whole person within different contexts and help to highlight areas of concern but I absolutely don’t recommend treatments. I aim to complement not compete with the work of healthcare professionals,” she says.
She is full of praise for busy GPs and others who are the front line of healthcare. “Any GP sees a huge range of conditions. They cannot be expert in everything. Typically, medical training includes between 10 and 25 hours on sleep conditions. There’s still so much we don’t know about how sleep works.”
In a book soon to be published, a preview of which is already available online, Buenger shares her own journey through insomnia. In her 20s she was working as an IT consultant, flying all over Europe, when her sleep problems crept up to dominate her life.
“My job was the priority but everything else slipped away. I had no social life and anxiety about night time consumed my thoughts,” she says. “I felt shame that I was failing to do something that should be so natural – to sleep. I tried everything, from wacky diets and pricey gadgets to exhausting myself physically. Nothing did the trick.”
She describes her emergence from sleep deprivation as a process of peeling back layers. “With the help of the right experts, I adjusted the blood sugar levels in my diet and fixed my hormonal imbalances. I had sessions of psychotherapy to work through some difficult life experiences, and I began meditation and yoga,” she says.
“But I can’t emphasise enough that everyone is different. If I’m asked for an example of someone who might seek my advice, I might describe a notional woman in her 40s, struggling with sleep and no obvious reasons to justify her ailment. People feel often feel isolated and desperate to get back to restorative sleep.”
Sleep is a complex process that’s profoundly important to our wellbeing. Poor sleep causes untold personal misery and is at the root of millions of lost work hours and terrible road traffic accidents, just to mention just a couple of consequences.
With so much biomedical research going on here, and a vibrant international community, Cambridge is proving a great base for a new venture. “Having been brought up in Russia and Spain as well as Germany, I thought Cambridge might feel too small. But I loved it here from the get-go.” she says.
“I often look back on my personal lightbulb moment and I’m thankful that I managed to resolve my own problems and that I followed my gut feeling to contribute to the understanding of an issue that’s been described as a global epidemic.”
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