Insomniacs Suffer Depression, Heart Woes After Years of Little Sleep

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"If they do ask about it, and the patient does have insomnia, they usually feel their only option will be to give one of these pills," he said.

Experts say cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the few treatments that has shown any lasting progress in stopping insomnia for good. The therapy is a four- to eight-week process that tries to train insomniacs how to sleep again. The therapy emphasizes that people should have healthy sleeping habits, only getting in bed with sleepiness hits, making sure the bedroom is comfortable and getting out of bed if sleep doesn't come. Therapists also give insomniacs relaxation techniques and strategies for quieting their minds when too many thoughts keep them awake.

Studies show the therapy often works, giving 70 to 80 percent of insomniacs some relief, and completely knocking it out for 40 percent of patients. But therapists who practice it are in short supply, and insurance plans are variable when it comes to covering the cost.

"Cognitive behavioral therapy should really be considered a first-line therapy for chronic insomnia," Morin said. "Although we might think it is more costly and time-consuming, it may be more costly in the short term, but the effects will be more long-lasting."

Morin also noted that group therapy, telephone consultations and even Internet self-help sites can help guide the sleepless through the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy. The American Board of Sleep Medicine keeps a list of certified sleep specialists who can deliver the therapy.

Morin said he hopes that more doctors will spend time making sure their patients are sleeping well.

"Sleep is really a vital sign, and doctors should keep track of it," Morin said. "We ask people about their diet and exercise habits. Sleep should be part of that as well."

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