Discovering Healthy Sleep with Insomnia Therapy

**By Brandon Peters, MD**

What if it were possible to resolve insomnia without the perpetual use of a sleeping pill? This is the very promise of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI), a drug-free treatment approach with multiple, long-lasting benefits. Insomnia therapy is so effective, in fact, that the American College of Physicians (the academy of internal medicine doctors) now recommends CBTI as the first choice for the treatment of chronic insomnia.

asleepCBTI can provide patients with the education and changes necessary to optimize sleep. In a few short months, the time it takes to fall asleep and the time spent awake at night is significantly reduced. The frequency of awakenings declines. Sleep quality improves. The symptoms associated with chronic sleep deprivation fade away. The risks and side effects associated with sleeping pills are avoided.

What Is Insomnia Therapy?

Formally known as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI), the treatment is a 6-week program that can help people with chronic difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or who find that sleep is unrefreshing. If it takes more than 20 to 30 minutes to fall asleep, more than 3 nights per week, this is termed chronic insomnia. Insomnia therapy is a scientifically proven, highly effective way to end insomnia without relying on medications.

Some of the components of insomnia therapy include:

  • Education on normal sleep
  • Identifying triggers of insomnia
  • Emphasis on optimizing the circadian rhythm and building the sleep drive
  • Overview of sleeping pills and ways to taper them
  • Developing healthy sleep habits
  • Learning skills to calm a racing mind
  • Stress and anxiety management
  • Individualized sleep-wake schedule recommendations
  • Eliminating thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that compromise sleep
  • Coping strategies to respond to sleep loss and preserve daytime function
  • Identifying sleep disorders that contribute to poor sleep with testing

The benefits of insomnia therapy can last for years. This goal-directed treatment teaches a set of skills that can also be useful if insomnia recurs later in life. The interventions can always be re-applied to get sleep back on track. With improved sleep satisfaction, therapy participants find the support they need to avoid the use of sleeping pills.

Risks Associated with Sleeping Pills

Sleeping pills have their place in treating short-term insomnia, but there very good reasons to avoid long-term use of sleep medications. If insomnia persists for months requiring nightly medication, a new solution is needed. There are risks and side effects associated with dependence on sleep aids, including:

  • Confusion—Over-the-counter sleep aids that contain diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Tylenol PM, Advil PM, Aleve PM, ZzzQuil, etc.) may increase the risk of confusion in older people.
  • Sleepwalking—Medications like Ambien (sold as the generic zolpidem) are hypnotic medications that may affect memory and increase the risk of sleep-related behaviors without full awareness. This may provoke sleepwalking, sleep eating, sleep sex, and even sleep driving.
  • Dementia—Medications that contain diphenhydramine, benzodiazepines (used for anxiety and sleep), and others may increase the risk of long-term memory loss and dementia.
  • Increased falls—Sedatives may increase the risk of falls and hip fractures, especially among older people. This may be more likely if the person is prone to wake to urinate at night.
  • Death—Large population studies demonstrate an increased risk of dying from various causes—making death 2 to 3 times more likely—with sleeping pill use.

Accessing the Tools of Insomnia Therapy

How can insomnia therapy be pursued? While it’s true there is a general shortage of insomnia therapy providers – specially trained psychologists and sleep specialists available for one-on-one treatment – equally effective alternatives are available.

At Virginia Mason, we offer a shared medical appointment workshop. In these classes, 5 to 10 people are guided through the treatment program with one of our board-certified sleep physicians. Covered by insurance, the workshop requires a weekly visit lasting 90 minutes over 6 weeks. Each week your progress will be closely monitored with sleep logs. Feedback and specific guidance will be provided to advance you toward your goals.

Not everyone can make it to a weekly class. Fortunately, the same program basics and a collection of resources can be accessed via an online course called Insomnia Solved. Weekly lessons include self-assessment, education, sleep logs, and audiovisual materials.

Finally, the primary text of Insomnia Solved is also available in paperback for purchase from Amazon.

No matter why you have insomnia, or for how long you have had it, insomnia therapy can effectively help to end it. For some this may mean falling asleep more easily, sleeping through the night, sleeping without the use of sleeping pills, or improving daytime fatigue. If sleep is a struggle, do not hesitate to get the help that you need and discover ways to enjoy healthy sleep again.

Peters-Mathews_BrandonBrandon Peters, M.D., is board-certified in both neurology and sleep medicine and currently practices at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle and Federal Way. He is also a clinical faculty affiliate at Stanford University‘s School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. 

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Glass J et al. “Sedative hypnotics in older people with insomnia: meta-analysis of risks and benefits.” BMJ 2005; 331:1169.

Hausken AM et al. “Use of anxiolytic or hypnotic drugs and total mortality in a general middle-aged population.” Pharmacoepidemiol Drug Saf 2007; 16:913-918.

Qaseem A et al. “Management of chronic insomnia disorder in adults: a clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians.” Ann Intern Med 2016; 165(2):125-133.

Siebern AT and Manber R. “New developments in cognitive behavioral therapy as the first-line treatment of insomnia.Psychol Res Behav Manag 2011; 4:21-28.



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