Insomnia cures

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By Dr Simon Kyle

It is perfectly normal to encounter sleep problems at some point in your life but it's when the bad nights become more frequent than the good nights that you may find yourself reaching out for an 'insomnia cure'.

Years of research can help us differentiate so-called 'cures' for insomnia, which address the symptoms of poor sleep, from techniques which really can help you improve your sleep for the long-term.

It is broadly possible to divide insomnia cures into two categories: those that take a pharmacological approach and those that employ cognitive and/or behavioral techniques.

Pharmacological cures

Sleeping pills

When faced with insomnia, many are forced to reach for pharmacological cures first. The most common of these are hypnotic drugs, such as sleeping tablets.

Sleeping pills can be effective in relieving short-term insomnia and are often the first line of treatment offered to poor sleepers by their doctors. Unfortunately, pharmacological 'cures' often fail to address the underlying causes of insomnia, meaning that they are not recommended for persistent sleep problems.

'Off-label prescriptions'

As well as sleeping pills, people may be prescribed medications that were originally intended to cure other conditions but that, as a side effect, cause drowsiness. These often include antidepressant drugs (intended for people who are depressed) or anti-histamine drugs (used to treat allergic reactions).

This is known as 'off-label prescribing' and some doctors prefer these kinds of drugs because they can prescribe them on a longer-term basis.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) works by teaching techniques that address the mental (or cognitive) factors associated with insomnia, such as the 'racing mind', as well as the worry and other negative emotions that accompany the experience of being unable to sleep. Alongside this, behavioral techniques work to establish healthy sleep patterns and achieve a strong connection between bed and successful sleep

CBT has been shown to be a highly effective treatment for poor sleep which helps to reinstate natural sleepiness and enable people to both get to sleep more easily and stay asleep throughout the night.

Pharmacological interventions Vs. CBT for insomnia

Studies have consistently shown that, on the whole, patients with insomnia prefer approaches based on CBT compared to those that use medication and, despite the increase in prescriptions for sleeping pills and sales of over-the-counter sleep aids, research has shown that long-term sleep problems are helped most effectively by CBT.

Emerging research also shows that CBT techniques can have long-term benefits even when combined with pharmacotherapy, compared with pharmacotherapy alone.

In every case you should follow your doctor's advice with regard to medication – starting, changing or finishing a course of medication can have serious effects. Ensure that you consult your GP if you have any questions on this.

Filed under: Sleep aids