Depending on your situation, the diagnosis of insomnia and the search for its cause may include:
- Physical exam. If the cause of insomnia is unknown, your doctor may do a physical exam to look for signs of medical problems that may be related to insomnia. Occasionally, a blood test may be done to check for thyroid problems or other conditions that may be associated with poor sleep.
- Sleep habits review. In addition to asking you sleep-related questions, your doctor may have you complete a questionnaire to determine your sleep-wake pattern and your level of daytime sleepiness. You may also be asked to keep a sleep diary for a couple of weeks.
- Sleep study. If the cause of your insomnia isn’t clear, or you have signs of another sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, you may need to spend a night at a sleep center. Tests are done to monitor and record a variety of body activities while you sleep, including brain waves, breathing, heartbeat, eye movements, and body movements.
Changing your sleep habits and addressing any issues that may be associated with insomnia, such as stress, medical conditions, or medications, can restore restful sleep for many people. If these measures don’t work, your doctor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, or both, to help improve relaxation and sleep.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can help you control or eliminate negative thoughts and actions that keep you awake and is generally recommended as the first line of treatment for people with insomnia. Typically, CBT-I is equally or more effective than sleep medications.
The cognitive part of CBT-I teaches you to recognize and change beliefs that affect your ability to sleep. It can help you control or eliminate negative thoughts and worries that keep you awake. It may also involve eliminating the cycle that can develop where you worry so much about getting to sleep that you can’t fall asleep.
The behavioral part of CBT-I helps you develop good sleep habits and avoid behaviors that keep you from sleeping well. Strategies include, for example:
- Stimulus control therapy. This method helps remove factors that condition your mind to resist sleep. For example, you might be coached to set a consistent bedtime and wake time and avoid naps, use the bed only for sleep and sex, and leave the bedroom if you can’t go to sleep within 20 minutes, only returning when you’re sleepy.
- Relaxation techniques. Progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, and breathing exercises are ways to reduce anxiety at bedtime. Practicing these techniques can help you control your breathing, heart rate, muscle tension, and mood so that you can relax.
- Sleep restriction. This therapy decreases the time you spend in bed and avoids daytime naps, causing partial sleep deprivation, which makes you more tired the next night. Once your sleep has improved, your time in bed is gradually increased.
- Remaining passively awake. Also called paradoxical intention, this therapy for learned insomnia is aimed at reducing the worry and anxiety about being able to get to sleep by getting in bed and trying to stay awake rather than expecting to fall asleep.
- Light therapy. If you fall asleep too early and then awaken too early, you can use light to push back your internal clock. You can go outside during times of the year when it’s light outside in the evenings, or you can use a lightbox. Talk to your doctor about recommendations.
Your doctor may recommend other strategies related to your lifestyle and sleep environment to help you develop habits that promote sound sleep and daytime alertness.
Prescription sleeping pills can help you get to sleep, stay asleep, or both. Doctors generally don’t recommend relying on prescription sleeping pills for more than a few weeks, but several medications are approved for long-term use.
- Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
- Ramelteon (Rozerem)
- Zaleplon (Sonata)
- Zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo, Zolpimist)
Prescription sleeping pills can have side effects, such as causing daytime grogginess and increasing the risk of falling, or they can be habit-forming, so talk to your doctor about these medications and other possible side effects.
Over-the-counter sleep aids
Nonprescription sleep medications contain antihistamines that can make you drowsy, but they’re not intended for regular use. Talk to your doctor before you take these, as antihistamines may cause side effects, such as daytime sleepiness, dizziness, confusion, cognitive decline, and difficulty urinating, which may be worse in older adults.