In my office, people who are taking many sleep medications for long-term use often come in looking for alternatives. In naturopathic practice there is a place for medications in the ‘Therapeutic Order.’ In naturopathic medicine the ‘least force’ treatment is used which will be effective. For instance, behavioral medicine will be used for insomnia first. Of course, behavioral strategies may not work for each person, so then herbal or nutrient therapy may be used next, and then pharmaceuticals.
Recently a person came in who had been using a combination of four sleep medications over the last 10 years. He had been alternating the medications on his own schedule as they became ineffective, and to avoid the need to increase dosage. Here was his regimen:
Alprazolam (Xanax) at 4am at his early am wakening to get another 3 hours of sleep. Alprazolam is a benzodiazepine hypnotic. Side effects include an increase in depression. When stopping the medication rebound insomnia can occur. Most of the hypnotics should not be taken with alcohol.
Zolpidem (Ambien) or Eszopiclone (Lunesta) Both are non-benzodiazepine hypnotics. Ambien is long-lasting, and people should be sure to have a full 7-8 hours in bed after taking it. Lunesta is one of the few medications approved for use on long-term basis.
Clonazepam (Klonopin) which is a long-acting benzodiazepine.
Even with these medications he was having interrupted sleep and found his sleep to be unrestful.
Our approach was to first use behavioral strategies to make his sleep robust and restful. Once he was sleeping well, we designed a schedule in collaboration with his PCP to taper down off the medications slowly. In this way we were able to avoid rebound insomnia and other withdrawal symptoms.
So, if you are struggling with insomnia, use the ‘least force’ treatment strategy that will solve your sleep problem. If you are recommended a sleep prescription, find out how long that medication can be safely used, any drug interactions to be aware of, and the typical withdrawal symptoms.
The Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia that we offer is based upon the program developed and researched originally at Stanford University Sleep Disorders Center. In this systematic program participants first learn some basics about sleep and to re-associate their bed with sleep. Next we reframe any sleep misconceptions or worries that actually interfere with sleep. An example is “If I don’t get to sleep right now I’ll never be able to get through my meeting tomorrow.” Realistically, the person who struggles with chronic insomnia has probably gotten through demanding days in the past after a disrupted night. While doing this cognitive work to reduce worries, we also teach relaxation techniques to relieve body tension that can contribute to insomnia. Another key component of our program is sleep restriction therapy. The client’s sleep diary is analyzed, and a agreeable bedtime and waketime set. As the client’s sleep improves, and they no longer have much (if any) time lying awake in bed, the bedtime is incrementally advanced each week. This process continues until the person reaches the goal – feeling well rested each day, and having consolidated sleep each night!
What makes our approach to Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment for Insomnia naturopathic is that we know the person’s health is an entire system, that their sleep can not be separated from the entirety. In addition to factors that conventional sleep specialists evaluate, we will also assess food allergies / intolerance, neurotransmitter levels, and overall wellness. Therefore we begin the program with an extensive intake interview. During this initial intake we review the clients’ health in all areas that have relevance on their sleep. This includes neurological, endocrine, psychological, and lifestyle, among others. We may also order lab tests to evaluate organ function. Our goal is to first identify the underlying cause of the sleep disorder, then to treat. Wherever the original cause lies, chronic insomnia has developed over time as an interplay of predisposing, precipitating and perpetuating factors, which will take time to tease apart and heal.