The way to improve sleep without sleeping pills

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- About nine million Americans take prescription sleeping pills.  Many more take over-the-counter remedies.  But new research shows there is a drug-free way to improve sleep.

Army veteran Cole Abel had nightmares of his service in the Iraq War, and those nightmares made him anxious about sleep.

"The anxiety level that you have when you're going to sleep really hinders your ability to do so.   You don't get enough sleep it affects your whole day.  So you become more reclusive and more depressed," Abel said.

He found help from the VA at its Honor Annex in Kansas City.

"I want you to get up when you can't sleep.  No more tossing and turning.  Go to another room.  Shake it off," said Dr. Janet Constance, a psychologist, to him.

It's cognitive behavior therapy or CBT for insomnia.  Participants learn proven sleep habits such as using the bed just for sleep.

"So no reading, eating, watching television in bed," said Dr. Constance.

Participants also learn ways to control their anxiety or distress over not getting enough sleep.   The techniques include slow breathing.

"Breathing in for the count of four, pausing for two," said the psychologist to Abel.

A new review of studies found CBT helped people get to sleep about 20 minutes faster and reduced their time spent awake after falling asleep by 30 minutes.   Dr. Constance says she's seen far greater results with better than 70 percent of patients getting rid of their insomnia or having significantly reduced symptoms.

"This CBT-I is equivalent to medications in the short-term, and in the long run you're going to get much better effects," she said, adding that there aren't the side effects of medication.

Abel says he's benefited.

"Probably two weeks into it, I was feeling more recharged and more ready to go," he said.

Abel went from getting no sleep some nights to six to eight hours now.

Dr. Constance says four to six sessions are enough for many.  She encourages people with insomnia to ask their doctors to refer them to someone who practices CBT.   The new research is in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

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