Sleep is essential to a properly functioning mind—ask any insomniac. When the relaxing activity becomes a source of frustration and worry, it’s no wonder that the prescription of sleep-inducing drugs is on the rise.
Many of these medicines, such as benzodiazepines, the most popular class of drugs, are marketed as mostly harmless. But these mind-altering drugs can have serious side-effects. A recent study, for instance, linked benzodiazepines to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And, even if ill effects are avoided, the drugs have been shown to be highly addictive.
What if there was a way to avoid pills? According to a recent meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) may be the solution.
A meta-analysis is a statistically rigorous study of studies, which is often relied upon as a way to draw a meaningful conclusion from a variety of research. In this case, James Trauer and colleagues at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre considered 20 past studies involving more than 1,100 people with chronic insomnia, and applied statistical methods to draw an overarching conclusion.
The researchers found that those undergoing CBT-i fell asleep 20 minutes sooner and spent 30 fewer minutes awake during the night compared with those who didn’t undergo the therapy. Better still, at least according to one study, the results can last up to six months after people stop the therapy.
CBT-i involves meeting a therapist for an hour a week, for up to eight weeks. Patients may be asked to keep a sleep diary and practice strategies to help induce sleep. For instance, if a person is not able to sleep within 20 minutes of going to bed, the recommendation could be to get up and do something relaxing. This way, the bed is associated with relaxation rather than worry.
Despite its promise, the number of therapists trained in CBT-i is still small. And many people prefer popping pills to facing a therapist to talk through their worries. If CBT-i is to become a popular option, health officials will have to do a lot more to make the therapy easily accessible.