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Insomnia solutions without pills or devices

April 26, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Sixty million Americans have chronic insomnia and sometimes even sleeping pills don't help. But there's a new experimental approach to beating insomnia that doesn't involve a pill or device - just your own brain power.

While sleeplessness can be due to pain, illness, medications, caffeine or alcohol, the biggest contributors to insomnia are depression and anxiety, according to Dr. Fawaz Faisal.

Faisal is a sleep medicine expert. He says this type of sleeplessness can be helped with without pills or a device. It's called biofeedback, a process that seeks to understand what's going on in your muscles and your brain, and then taking that information and learning to relax.

"A lot of people, you'd be surprised, don't know how to relax," said Faisal. And that was Howard Shelley's problem.

Shelley participated in the first clinical research study using a form of biofeedback called brainwave optimization. Instead of listening to his muscles, he listened to his brain waves to improve sleep.

"It's kind of like pushing the reset button in that you get back to a balanced level to start with," said neurologist Dr. Charles Tegeler.

Tegeler says stress or trauma can throw off the brain's natural rhythms and balance.

Here's how it works: sensors attach to the scalp and connect to a brain-mapping computer that detects brain waves. The brain waves are then broken down into frequencies and evaluated.

Dominant frequencies are then assigned a musical tone and played back to the patient through ear phones.

As the brain listens to the sounds, changes can occur in the neural network, actually helping you get to sleep.

"As a result of that, the body will physically relax, the brainwaves will relax and the muscles will relax, and that should help them fall asleep more easily," said Faisal.

But before you look into biofeedback techniques, Dr. Faisal says try a few things at home.

Sound machines emit soothing sounds that distract the brain from stressful thoughts. In one study, sound machines were found to work almost as well as sleeping pills.

Also, don't eat a heavy meal close to bedtime. Don't watch TV in the bedroom or get on your laptop. Studies show that light emitted from these devices can interfere with brainwave patterns. If you wake up in the middle of the night don't read -- it engages the brain. Try doing gentle stretches instead.

Dr. Faisal also suggested an easy way to put the pause button on stressful thoughts.

"It's a good idea to write it down, therefore the brain will not keep thinking about it," he said.

Cleaning up his sleep habits combined with biofeedback helped Shelley get some regular shuteye.

"It works. After the third session, I got a great night's sleep. After that, little by little, the insomnia kind of went away. I'm sleeping great now," he said.

Brainwave optimization is just emerging. But most sleep specialists offer a form of biofeedback, and cognitive behavior therapy can help focus on issues you may not even realize are keeping you up. Experts say it's all about finding out why you are having trouble sleeping.

See these insomnia-fighting tips through photos.


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