Many people may experience a night of poor sleep from time to time, but people who have the sleep disorder insomnia frequently have difficulty sleeping. They may struggle with falling asleep or staying asleep, or they may wake up earlier in the morning than they desire.
Insomnia also affects a person’s functioning during the day. People with insomnia can be tired, irritable, or have trouble focusing and performing well during waking hours.
Approximately five million people in the United States visit the doctor each year for help with their insomnia. Fortunately, there are a number of effective treatments for this sleep disorder. Learning more about these treatments can help people with this condition make informed decisions to improve their sleep.
Approach to Insomnia Treatment
The goals of insomnia treatment are to improve a person’s quality of sleep, increase the total time spent sleeping, and improve daytime functioning. Appropriate treatment for insomnia depends on how much distress the symptoms cause. Treatment is also based on whether the disorder is short-term or chronic.
The symptoms of short-term insomnia, also known as acute insomnia, occur fewer than three times a week and last less than three months. They are often triggered by stress or a change in routine. Short-term insomnia is typically treated by eliminating the factors causing it. If the symptoms are severe, certain medications may also be used.
People with chronic insomnia experience sleep disruption at least three times a week, and symptoms last for three months or longer. However, most people with chronic insomnia actually experience symptoms for years. Treatment for chronic insomnia typically begins with behavioral therapy and then sleep medication as needed.
When doctors select treatment for someone with insomnia, they consider other medical conditions the person may have. For example, older adults may have medical, neurologic, sleep, or psychiatric conditions that contribute to their symptoms. These conditions can also affect the treatment strategy and outcome.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is usually the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a brief counseling treatment in which the therapist helps a person identify and change factors and behaviors that may be causing sleep disruption. There are several components of CBT-I.
- Education: The therapist teaches the person with insomnia about the basics of sleep. For example, they discuss how the circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock, regulates when a person feels alert or tired. The therapist also reviews how physical and mental alertness can lead to insomnia.
- Sleep restriction therapy: A person with insomnia may spend a lot of time in bed lying awake. Sleep restriction therapy aims to reduce this ineffective time and ultimately increase actual sleep time.
- Sleep compression: While sleep restriction works for some people with insomnia, sleep compression may be better suited to those who don’t require as much sleep. Using a sleep diary that tracks time in bed and time asleep, sleep compression aims to gradually reduce time spent in bed until the person with insomnia feels well-rested.
- Stimulus control therapy: The person with insomnia is encouraged to associate the bedroom with sleep. This may mean getting out of bed if sleep is difficult and not coming back into bed until sleepy.
- Cognitive therapy: Cognitive therapy aims to eliminate negative thoughts and anxiety about sleep.
- Relaxation techniques: Several relaxation strategies are often incorporated into cognitive-behavioral therapy. Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and relaxing groups of muscles to reduce stress in the body. Deep breathing from the diaphragm can also help the body relax and prepare for sleep.
Brief Behavioral Treatment for Insomnia
Sometimes, a scaled-down version of cognitive-behavioral therapy, called brief behavioral treatment for insomnia (BBTI), is used to change mindsets and behaviors that affect sleep. BBTI primarily uses sleep restriction and stimulus control. If insomnia doesn’t improve after four weeks of BBTI, doctors may recommend CBT-I instead.
Sleep hygiene is the practice of habits that promote better-quality sleep. People with insomnia may practice sleep hygiene by itself or as part of CBT-I.
Sleep hygiene has several components.
- Create a regular sleep schedule: Keep a consistent bedtime and wake-up time on both weekdays and weekends.
- Remove electronics from the bedroom: Avoid using TVs, phones, or tablets in the bedroom. The light from these devices can make it difficult to fall asleep.
- Be active during the day: Regular daytime exercise can make falling asleep easier at night.
- Avoid certain foods and beverages near bedtime: Stay away from large meals, alcohol, and caffeine before going to bed.
- Make a comfortable sleep environment: A bedroom should be quiet, dark, and cool.
- Relax at night: Try reading or taking a warm bath to wind down before bedtime.
- Use the bed only for sleeping and sex: If you can’t fall asleep after about 20 minutes, get out of bed until you feel sleepy.
Sleep Aids for Insomnia
Sleep aids, such as prescription and over-the-counter medications, can help some people manage their insomnia. The most appropriate sleep aid can depend on the type of insomnia a person has, as well as their symptoms and medical history.
A health care provider can help you determine whether a sleep aid might help you, and if so, which one would be best.
Prescription sleep medications may be used in some acute cases of insomnia or in chronic cases of insomnia if first-line treatments such as CBT-I are not effective. Experts recommend that people with insomnia who take sleep aids also practice sleep hygiene and receive CBT-I, if possible.
The most commonly prescribed medications for insomnia are z-drugs and benzodiazepines.
- Z-drugs: Z-drugs are the class of medications that doctors most frequently prescribe for insomnia treatment. Z-drugs are sedatives that can shorten the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, but they can also cause side effects such as dizziness, hallucinations, and loss of memory.
- Benzodiazepines: These sedative drugs act on the GABA receptors in the brain to lower a person’s anxiety and relax their muscles. But doctors don’t often recommend benzodiazepine use for long periods of time because they are frequently abused and can ultimately lead to poorer sleep quality.
Other prescription medications, such as certain antidepressants, are sometimes prescribed for insomnia, but these are not appropriate for everyone. A person’s doctor is in the best position to evaluate what medication options, if any, would be most suitable to improve their sleep.
Over-the-Counter Sleep Aids
Over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids do not require a prescription from a doctor. Most of these sleep aids contain antihistamines, a typical allergy treatment. However, because the body quickly adjusts to these sleep aids, they may not be an effective, long-term solution for insomnia.
Side effects of OTC sleep aids may include daytime fatigue or grogginess and confusion or memory problems in older adults. OTC medicines may also interact with other medications, affect pregnancy, or make other medical conditions worse.
Before taking an OTC sleep aid for insomnia, talk to your health care provider. Your doctor can discuss whether these aids are right for you, based on your unique circumstances.
Another common sleep aid is the dietary supplement melatonin. Melatonin supplements are often taken in the evening, when the body naturally produces natural melatonin to help regulate the sleep-wake cycle.
Although melatonin is most often taken to help promote sleep, evidence of its effectiveness in treating insomnia is limited. While it can help people with insomnia fall asleep initially, it may be less effective for helping people stay asleep throughout the night.
Several other dietary supplements are marketed as natural remedies for insomnia. These include chamomile, valerian, kava, and wuling. However, there is not enough evidence that these supplements are effective treatments for insomnia, and both valerian and kava may produce unwanted side effects.
Cannabis and some of the chemicals found in cannabis, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), have been suggested as possible treatments for insomnia. However, evidence of their effectiveness remains limited and mixed. Further research may be needed before cannabis can be recommended for this disorder.
Treating Coexisting Conditions
Insomnia may lead to other medical conditions, while certain disorders may play a role in the development of insomnia. Effective treatment for insomnia often involves treating both the insomnia and coexisting conditions.
For example, 40% of people with insomnia also have depression. In cases where insomnia is caused by depression, treatment for depression may alleviate the insomnia symptoms. However, in many other instances, both the insomnia and the condition need to be managed.
Other medical conditions linked to insomnia include chronic pain, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other sleep disorders. Management of these conditions may help relieve some insomnia symptoms.
A doctor may diagnose you with insomnia if you have difficulty falling or staying asleep, as well as problems with functioning during the day.
As part of making an insomnia diagnosis, a doctor typically performs a physical exam to rule out other mental or physical conditions impacting your sleep habits. They may ask you to keep a sleep diary to track your sleep patterns and bedtime habits.
Your doctor will likely ask several questions to get a good understanding of your sleep problem, such as:
- How long have your sleep issues been going on?
- How often do your sleep issues occur?
- How long does it typically take to fall asleep?
- Do you wake up during the night?
- Do you snore or wake up short of breath?
Your doctor may also ask about lifestyle factors that may impact your sleep, including:
- Drug and alcohol use
- Caffeine and tobacco intake
- Stress levels
- Medical history
- Physical activity
Benefits of Treating Insomnia
Getting enough sleep each night is necessary to stay healthy. Getting treatment for your
insomnia can convey several important benefits.
- Improved health outcomes: Not getting enough sleep increases a person’s risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer.
- Enhanced quality of life: Insomnia is associated with severe daytime fatigue and difficulty performing daily tasks.
- Lower risk of injury: Lack of sleep can lead to dangerous motor vehicle situations and accidents at the workplace.
How to Prevent Insomnia
Anyone can experience insomnia, but practicing good sleep hygiene can improve sleep at night and relieve this condition. Sticking to a consistent sleep routine and daytime schedule, avoiding the use of electronics before bedtime, and limiting the intake of stimulants such as caffeine are all part of good sleep hygiene.
If you experience insomnia, talk to your doctor about your symptoms and how best to manage them. Addressing insomnia with the appropriate treatment can help you get a better night’s sleep and improve your quality of life.
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