Q & A: Is Sleep Restriction as Bad as It Sounds?

Sleep restriction for the sleepless?! Two people have written to Ask The Savvy Insomniac about this insomnia treatment, which can sound as harsh as waterboarding to insomniac ears.

But is it really so bad?

Sleep restriction for the sleepless?! Two people have written to Ask The Savvy Insomniac about this insomnia treatment, which can sound as harsh as waterboarding to insomniac ears. Here’s what one insomnia sufferer wrote:

“Sleep restriction sounds like torture to me! I’m already sleep deprived, and they’re telling me I’ve got to sleep less to get rid of my insomnia? The cure sounds worse than the disease! I have an Ayurvedic doctor and he basically agrees. He says I need to learn to relax, and then I’ll be able to sleep. What do you think?”

Oh, that insomniacs could learn to relax! Anything that helps us wind down at night is worth trying—progressive relaxation, guided visualization, meditation, tai chi, yoga. These mind-body practices afford other health benefits as well as improving sleep.

A Different Approach to Improving Sleep

But sleep restriction is a completely different kettle of fish. It’s daunting, I’ll agree. Studies show it has helped many insomniacs, though, so it’s definitely worth a bid.

Researchers who invented sleep restriction claim that insomnia becomes chronic due to behaviors we adopt to cope with poor sleep, and that changes in habit can result in a return to better sleep. They note that while good sleepers are sleeping most of the time they’re in bed, people with chronic insomnia typically spend a lot of time in bed awake. Insomniacs’ sleep is patchy: we’re asleep for a while, then awake. Asleep again, then awake. Restricting our time in bed, they say, helps consolidate sleep. Our sleep then begins to resemble normal sleep: fewer awakenings at night, and better ability, once awake, to get back to sleep.

My Experience of Sleep Restriction

I, too, was skeptical that sleep restriction had anything to offer me. It seemed so counter-intuitive. Spending less time in bed to improve my sleep: where was the logic in that?

But I decided to try it anyway. I checked a guidebook out from the library and followed the instructions step by step. (I’ll spell those instructions out in Monday’s blog.)

My first few days on sleep restriction were pretty miserable. I slogged through the hours with mush for brains. I could barely muster the wherewithal to do the basics like shopping and making meals, and no way could I actually sit down at the computer and work.

But things began to turn around fairly quickly. I started sleeping regular hours (I was a guerrilla sleeper before, seizing my few winks when I could). As I added more time in bed, I felt more stamina and brainpower during the daytime. And after several weeks of sleep scheduling, I lost my fear of sleeplessness, knowing that sleep was more reliable now than before.

The first week of sleep restriction was no picnic. But more than any other form of treatment, it helped turn my sleep problem around. To all those insomnia sufferers considering sleep restriction, I say, dive in. (Details on Monday.)

If you’ve tried sleep restriction, how did you fare?

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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