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The Top 3 Cures for Insomnia

July 5th, 2018 | 3 min. read

By Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D.

When you have insomnia, each day and each night can feel like an uphill battle.

Scientists are getting closer to unlocking the secrets of what sleep does for our brains, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions. What we do know is that sleep is a biological necessity. Sleep deprivation has been linked to increased risk of developing a number of serious health problems, such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, and your ability to learn and retain new information may be impaired.

Anyone who has missed out on even a single night of restful sleep can tell you about the effects felt throughout the following day. From grogginess, to irritability, and changes in appetite. Unfortunately, in this day and age, few of us are able to get the sleep we need to function at our best.

What Is Insomnia?

People with insomnia report three key concerns:

  • Trouble falling asleep in less than 30 minutes
  • Trouble staying asleep, or
  • Waking too early

These issues are chronic. Meaning that they occur most days of the week for more than a month; happen despite having adequate time to rest; and cause difficulties during the day that can be attributed to these problems getting adequate sleep.

All too often, insomnia isn’t taken seriously. A lack of understanding can cause insomnia to seem like a convenient excuse for less than top performance during the day. Even those who suffer from it may not think it’s a big enough deal to mention what they are experiencing to their doctor.  

Is there a cure for insomnia?

The answer is a resounding “sometimes.” Insomnia is complicated. It can be a symptom of a larger health issue - and it can also cause such issues. Your doctor can make sure you don’t have an underlying illness or that medications are not interfering with healthy rest, and with this knowledge can keep an eye out for related concerns.  In many cases, finding the right treatment can improve sleep, if not completely cure insomnia.

Supplements and Sleep Aids

Supplements commonly associated with sleep include valerian, L-theanine, magnesium, melatonin, and herbs, such as chamomile or lemon balm. Taken as a group, these supplements have not been proven to be effective in improving sleep.

Of these options, herbs are typically regarded as posing no health risks. Melatonin shows some promise, but it’s impossible to ascertain the quality of any supplement. (It may say 2 mg on the label, but that doesn’t guarantee 2 mg of the active ingredient are in the pill.) And taken in large doses, magnesium can cause diarrhea or nausea.

Over-the-Counter Medications

The active ingredients in over-the-counter sleep aids are antihistamines. These may have some benefit for occasional sleeplessness, but are not recommended for insomnia. There is very little data that these medications improve sleep. There is, however, plenty of data on the side effects, including cognitive clouding and grogginess, dry mouth, constipation, and incomplete bladder emptying.

Prescription Medications

For those suffering from insomnia, prescription medications can seem like both a quick fix and a miracle. Unlike supplements and over-the-counter medications, prescription remedies have been proven to help patients fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer. Unless the insomnia is short-lived or unique to a particular set of circumstances, most sleeping pills aren’t a good solution. In fact, most sleeping pills aren’t meant for use beyond four to eight weeks. They also come with a host of side effects, such as residual sleepiness, dizziness and lightheadedness, impairment of mental functioning and muscle coordination, or sleep-walking.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

National Institute of Health studies show that a cognitive behavioral approach to insomnia is more effective than sleeping pills with a 75% success rate and sustainable improvements to sleep quality with no evidence of negative side effects.

Cognitive behavioral therapy programs help overcome the underlying causes of sleep problems. Participants learn to identify the thoughts and behaviors that worsen sleep problems and replace them with healthy habits that promote restful sleep.

A cognitive behavioral approach to insomnia can be beneficial for nearly anyone with sleep problems regardless of whether insomnia is the primary issue or related to a physical ailment or mental health disorder. Participants report greater total sleep time, less time to fall asleep, fewer waking periods during the night, reduced use of medications, and lasting benefits long after the program has ended.

What to do if you are suffering from insomnia?

Always talk with your doctor, who can help you identify any medical reasons that you might not be sleeping well from health concerns to medications. Your doctor can also point you in the direction of a certified sleep science coach.

While sleep is not completely understood, we know it is an important part of life. Difficulty with sleep can bring on physical and psychological problems as well as worsen chronic conditions. Over-the-counter medications have unfortunately not been shown to be effective. Prescription medications has been shown to be effective but have the potential for unpleasant side effects. Cognitive therapy is an exciting new area of treatment which holds promise of long-term relief.

If you want to know more about how PartnerMD’s approach to concierge medicine and how that could improve your sleep quality, get our free guide to understanding concierge medicine. It defines concierge medicine in plain language, explains how we do it differently from other practices, and much more. 

Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D.