Talk therapy leads to better results in patients with insomnia—even better than using sleep medications, according to a new study in yesterday’s Journal of the American Medical Association. In the trial, 160 participants were treated with weekly group therapy sessions plus zolpidem (Ambien) for six weeks. After the initial six-week period, patients stopped taking zolpidem and attended group therapy sessions for six months, where they addressed the issues causing their sleeplessness. Patients in this follow-up group reported getting more sleep than those treated with drugs.
While further study is needed, news that nondrug therapies can help treat insomnia is promising to the millions of people who have trouble getting a good night’s sleep. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown in other trials to be effective in treating intermittent and chronic insomnia.
A word on drugs: All sleeping pills have side effects, can cause dependency, and can even worsen your sleeping problems when abused, misused, or taken too often. It’s worth mentioning some of the side effects: daytime sleepiness, cognitive impairment, dizziness, unsteadiness, and rebound insomnia. Sleep-walking, sleep-driving, memory lapses, and hallucinations have also been reported.
If you chose cognitive behavior therapy, you should know what to expect. A therapist can set up a sleep schedule, help correct poor sleep habits, and teach you to use relaxation, breathing, and mental techniques to help you get some sleep.
While they’re helpful in treating insomnia, people with only mild insomnia problems may be relying too heavily on pills and not trying to address their sleep problems with nondrug measures. For persistent, chronic insomnia, we advise a nondrug approach first to improve sleep habits, possibly combined with cautious use of sleeping pills. For short-term treatment, try an over-the-counter sleep aid. And if that doesn’t work, see our free Best Buy Drugs report on insomnia drugs, and talk to your doctor about a less expensive generic.
Take our sleep quiz, check out some other techniques that can help you get some shut-eye, and see our Treatment Ratings (subscribers only) for the evidence on cognitive behavioral therapy.