When you’re desperate for sleep, it’s tempting to reach for a quick fix in sleeping pills or other prescription medication. It’s important to be aware, however, that sleep medication doesn’t always cure the problem, because it often fails to address the underlying sources of your insomnia.
If you’ve been diagnosed with insomnia (or if you are having chronic difficulty sleeping) and common strategies to improve sleep aren’t cutting it, you’ll be happy to know that medication is not your only option.
Natural, non-medicinal therapies are usually recommended as the first line of treatment and can be effective in treating the underlying causes of insomnia, rather than simply applying a “bandage” to the symptoms.
What causes insomnia?
Insomnia is typically classified into two types: short-term insomnia and long-term (or chronic) insomnia. Each type has its own list of possible causes.
Short-term insomnia lasts less than three months and is usually attributed to one or more stressors. These stressors can include the loss of a loved one, divorce, job pressures, recent illness or chronic pain or even withdrawal from stimulants such as caffeine, certain medications, drugs or alcohol. Short-term insomnia often improves once the stressor is resolved.
Long-term, or chronic, insomnia is characterized by sleeplessness lasting longer than three months and occurring a minimum of three nights per week.
Chronic insomnia often occurs in tandem with other conditions such as mental health problems (such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder), medical illnesses, neurological disorders (such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease) and medication or illegal drug use.
5 non-medicinal treatments for insomnia
1. Relaxation therapy – A process that decreases the effects of stress on both your mind and body, relaxation therapy includes deep breathing techniques and progressive muscle relaxation. Deep breathing, which entails breathing with long, cleansing breaths, is a surprisingly simple, yet powerful, relaxation technique. Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically flex and then relax your muscles, from your head all the way down to your feet. This is useful for children and adults alike, and it’s extremely effective for helping you relax at any time – not just prior to sleep!
2. Biofeedback – Biofeedback is a technique that teaches you how to control your body’s processes, such as your heart rate and blood pressure. Biofeedback uses sensors placed on your skin to track muscle tension, activity level or brain rhythms. This allows you to gauge your level of tension and develop personalized strategies to help reduce that tension.
3. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – For most people, cognitive behavioural therapies are usually recommended as the initial treatment for insomnia (once routine strategies have proven ineffective). When specific to insomnia, cognitive behavioural therapy combines several different sleep methods, such as stimulus control therapy, sleep hygiene, sleep restriction and relaxation therapy. Insomnia can be triggered by both emotional and mental issues, and CBT can be an effective way of treating the underlying problem, helping you develop long-term, sustainable and healthy sleep patterns.
4. Phototherapy – Phototherapy is a type of light therapy that is effective for people whose insomnia is caused by delayed sleep phase syndrome. These people have a difficult time falling asleep until much later than they wish. Phototherapy involves sitting in front of a specially designed light box for 30 to 40 minutes at a specific time each day, which helps realign the body’s internal sleep clock. If done in the morning, phototherapy can help you fall asleep earlier in the evening. If the light box is used in the mid-afternoon or later, it can cause sleep to be delayed.
5. Chronotherapy – Chronotherapy works by intentionally delaying your bedtime by periods of two to three hours on successive days until you’re able to fall asleep at the desired time.
Chronotherapy can be difficult to do at home and often involves taking some days off from work or school to accommodate the changing sleep pattern. After reaching the desired bedtime, you must strictly enforce the newly aligned sleep-wake schedule to ensure it remains consistent.
Medications for insomnia
While non-medicinal techniques and therapies to improve sleep are preferable, that’s not to say there’s no time or place for prescribed sleep medication.
Medication is recommended when behavioural therapy fails to improve your sleeplessness – especially if your insomnia is interfering with your ability to function.
When choosing the appropriate sleep medication, remember to carefully consider the risks and benefits, and to consult your doctor or nurse practitioner. Potential benefits, such as improved daytime function, need to be weighed against the potential risks – which can include side effects, cost and even addiction.
Sleep problems are common, but everyone’s experience is unique. If you’re struggling with insomnia or another sleep disorder, start by speaking with your doctor or nurse practitioner, who can help you determine your best treatment options.