Sleep Restriction Therapy as an Alternative Treatment for Insomnia

A Natural Alternative

Developed in the 1980's by Dr. A.J. Spielman, sleep restriction therapy has become an ideal treatment for insomnia, especially for chronic sufferers who have been unsuccessful with more traditional methods. The foundation of sleep restriction is solving the paradox of excess time spent in bed. Through lying in bed awake, or even doing light activities, such as watching television or making lists, the body learns to stay awake while in bed. Then, a habit forms of lying in bed even when you are tired and want to fall asleep. This in itself creates anxiety, making it even more impossible to rest, thus creating the cycle of insomnia.

The roots of insomnia vary with every individual. Sleeplessness can be caused by poor sleeping habits in the past, a disruption of normal circadian rhythms, such as flying across time zones, serious trauma, food and drink, depression, or a combination of any of these factors. The problem is, whatever the cause, once sleep efficiency is lost, it is very difficult to get back. This therapy effectively re-teaches the body to sleep when it is time to sleep by increasing the desire and sustaining it over a period of time.

Method in Practice

The first step is to determine your own minimum sleep threshold – how long are you able to sleep on average? Next, go through an entire twenty-four hour cycle of sleep deprivation. This encourages your body to create endogenous chemicals which induce sleep. It also disrupts the insomnia sleep cycle.

Now, it is time to start sleeping. If your minimum sleep threshold is three hours, subtract three from the time you want to wake up, and go to sleep at this time. When it is time to get up, get out of bed, even if you still want to sleep. To help reset the circadian rhythms, make sure you are around a bright light for at least thirty minutes upon waking up.

Each night, add fifteen minutes to your sleep cycle, until you have reached a good night's sleep, which for most adults is between six and eight hours. Even after sleep restriction therapy is completed, continue to train your body that the bed setting translates into sleep; whenever you find yourself having difficulty falling asleep, get out of bed and do something.

As a preliminary step to practicing sleep restriction therapy, replace any bad sleeping habits with good habits; avoid caffeine, alcohol, or late-night snacks, exercise during the day instead of napping, and don't spend extra time in bed. Also, talk to a behavioral sleep therapist about sleep restriction's potential affect on your daily activities.

Benefits of Sleep Restriction

Sleep restriction therapy is a natural way to treat insomnia. There is no need for drugs, which in fact make it impossible for your body to learn to sleep well on its own. They are ineffective in the long term, and can become dangerously addictive. Sleep restriction can also have a positive impact on depression, which is one of the original factors leading to insomnia in the first place.

Dr. Speilman conducted a study on the effects of sleep restriction therapy on chronic insomnia. His patients on average had suffered for fifteen years. After practicing the sleep restriction method, their number of hours asleep increased, as well as their sleep efficiency. On average, the results were effective for thirty-six weeks.

It is no surprise that sleep restriction is as effective as it is because its methods address the root of the problem as opposed to the symptoms. Its rewards are however not easily attained. Just like the rigorous training of an athlete, sleep restriction takes commitment and a lot of effort; and, just like intense physical conditioning, sleep restriction therapy works.


Psychology Today

Talk About Sleep

American Academy of Sleep Medicine

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