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Sleeping pills, alcohol no cures for insomnia say experts

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Ryerson University sleep experts offer help for insomnia.

If you're looking for a good night's sleep, try cognitive behavioral therapy. Experts at Ryerson University warn reaching for a sleeping pill or a drink of alcohol won't help insomnia in the long-run. In their investigation, the psychologists found relying on nightly routines such as taking a sleeping pill or alcohol are no cure for trouble sleeping.

Forty percent of people studied by the insomnia therapists use what they call safety behaviors to get sleep that are of no benefit.

“Poor sleepers who engage in what we call ‘safety behaviours’, such as taking sleep medication or drinking alcohol, are actually disrupting their sleep in the long term,” said Heather Hood, a PhD student in clinical psychology and lead author of the study.
These safety behaviors are driven by unhelpful beliefs about sleep, but people suffering from insomnia or poor sleep feel they need to do these things to help them fall asleep.”

For their study, Hood, Dr. Colleen Carney, her academic supervisor and director of Ryerson’s Sleep and Depression Laboratory, and Andrea Harris, graduate psychology student asked 397 students to fill out online questionnaires about routines that help them fall asleep, how often they performed them and how firmly they believed they had to take steps to avoid insomnia.

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They found that forty percent firmly believed they were taking appropriate steps to fall sleep, such as performing certain tasks that were of no benefit.

“People who are poor sleepers exert a ton of energy trying to force sleep,” said Carney. “Sleep is something that has to unfold naturally, so the more you engage in behaviours to try to sleep, the less likely you’re going to fall asleep.”

In their study, they found the best sleepers didn’t rely on any particular tasks to cure insomnia – they simply fell asleep.

The best approach for ensuring a good night’s sleep says Carney, is cognitive therapy, which teaches a more relaxed attitude toward getting adequate rest. The study suggests rituals that seem to facilitate sleep are more disruptive than they are helpful.

Image credit: Morguefile