Changing your sleep habits and addressing any issues that may be associated with insomnia, such as stress, medical conditions or medications, can restore restful sleep for many people. If these measures don't work, your doctor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, medications or both, to help improve relaxation and sleep.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can help you control or eliminate negative thoughts and actions that keep you awake and is generally recommended as the first line of treatment for people with insomnia. Typically, CBT-I is equally or more effective than sleep medications.
The cognitive part of CBT-I teaches you to recognize and change beliefs that affect your ability to sleep. It can help you control or eliminate negative thoughts and worries that keep you awake. It may also involve eliminating the cycle that can develop where you worry so much about getting to sleep that you can't fall asleep.
The behavioral part of CBT-I helps you develop good sleep habits and avoid behaviors that keep you from sleeping well. Strategies include, for example:
- Stimulus control therapy. This method helps remove factors that condition your mind to resist sleep. For example, you might be coached to set a consistent bedtime and wake time and avoid naps, use the bed only for sleep and sex, and leave the bedroom if you can't go to sleep within 20 minutes, only returning when you're sleepy.
- Relaxation techniques. Progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback and breathing exercises are ways to reduce anxiety at bedtime. Practicing these techniques can help you control your breathing, heart rate, muscle tension and mood so that you can relax.
- Sleep restriction. This therapy decreases the time you spend in bed and avoids daytime naps, causing partial sleep deprivation, which makes you more tired the next night. Once your sleep has improved, your time in bed is gradually increased.
- Remaining passively awake. Also called paradoxical intention, this therapy for learned insomnia is aimed at reducing the worry and anxiety about being able to get to sleep by getting in bed and trying to stay awake rather than expecting to fall asleep.
- Light therapy. If you fall asleep too early and then awaken too early, you can use light to push back your internal clock. You can go outside during times of the year when it's light outside in the evenings, or you can use a light box. Talk to your doctor about recommendations.
Your doctor may recommend other strategies related to your lifestyle and sleep environment to help you develop habits that promote sound sleep and daytime alertness.
Prescription sleeping pills can help you get to sleep, stay asleep or both. Doctors generally don't recommend relying on prescription sleeping pills for more than a few weeks, but several medications are approved for long-term use.
- Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
- Ramelteon (Rozerem)
- Zaleplon (Sonata)
- Zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo, Zolpimist)
Prescription sleeping pills can have side effects, such as causing daytime grogginess and increasing the risk of falling, or they can be habit-forming, so talk to your doctor about these medications and other possible side effects.
Over-the-counter sleep aids
Nonprescription sleep medications contain antihistamines that can make you drowsy, but they're not intended for regular use. Talk to your doctor before you take these, as antihistamines may cause side effects, such as daytime sleepiness, dizziness, confusion, cognitive decline and difficulty urinating, which may be worse in older adults.
Many people never visit their doctor for insomnia and try to cope with sleeplessness on their own. Although in many cases safety and effectiveness have not been proved, some people try therapies such as:
- Melatonin. This over-the-counter (OTC) supplement is marketed as a way to help overcome insomnia. It's generally considered safe to use melatonin for a few weeks, but no convincing evidence exists to prove that melatonin is an effective treatment for insomnia, and the long-term safety is unknown.
- Valerian. This dietary supplement is sold as a sleep aid because it has a mildly sedating effect, although it hasn't been well-studied. Discuss valerian with your doctor before trying it. Some people who have used high doses or used it long term may have had liver damage, although it's not clear if valerian caused the damage.
- Acupuncture. There's some evidence that acupuncture may be beneficial for people with insomnia, but more research is needed. If you choose to try acupuncture along with your conventional treatment, ask your doctor how to find a qualified practitioner.
- Yoga or tai chi. Some studies suggest that the regular practice of yoga or tai chi can help improve sleep quality.
- Meditation. Several small studies suggest that meditation, along with conventional treatment, may help improve sleep and reduce stress.
Caution regarding herbal and dietary sleep aids
Because the Food and Drug Administration does not mandate that manufacturers show proof of effectiveness or safety before marketing dietary supplement sleep aids, talk with your doctor before taking any herbal supplements or other OTC products. Some products can be harmful and some can cause harm if you're taking certain medications.