Can't sleep? Try warming your hands

The "quest for rest" is a battle more than 60 million Americans fight each night. But new hope for insomnia sufferers could literally be in their hands.

"I could be very tired, lay down and the bed feels great, the covers feel great, the pillows, the comforter -- and sleep just doesn't happen," said Dennis Barbarito,

Late nights spent tossing and turning took a toll on Dennis. Work, relationships, health --all suffered from his persistent insomnia.

"I've tried sleep medications from Klonopin to Ambien, cutting down on my coffee, cutting down on my sugar, not exercising at night, exercising at night to tire myself out," said Dennis. "And no matter how I do it, when it comes time to sleep it just doesn't happen."

Finally catching some Z's could come from within. Sleep specialists say people's ability to fall asleep is linked with the temperature of their hands and feet.

"The best predictor of whether someone is going to fall asleep or not is an increase in their hand and foot temperature relative to their core," said sleep specialist Mathew Ebben, PhD with The Center for Sleep Medicine in New York.

In normal sleepers, as we doze off the temperature of our hands and feet increases by about one degree. In a recent study, insomniac participants actually learned to change their hand temps through temperature biofeedback -- a technique that trains the brain to control temperature responses.

"I'll teach them a couple of techniques that are helpful in imagining their hands getting warmer, and actually creating more blood flow to the periphery to their hands," said biofeedback specialist Robert Udewitz, PhD.

At the same time, the insomnia sufferers see a monitor and get immediate feedback on what techniques work best for them.

"We're trying to teach them to control their hand temperature, basically. And then they use that when they go to sleep, and we're trying to see whether they fall asleep faster with this technique -- and it looks like they are," said Dr. Ebben.

That could make the quest for rest more than a dream. Dr. Ebben says the technique worked for about 90 percent of participants. Biofeedback training - and hand warming in particular - has also been shown to have a beneficial effect for patients who suffer from migraine headaches, high blood pressure, pain, stress and digestive disorders.

For more information:

Background: Insomnia and sleeplessness are problems that affect most adults at some point in their lives. An estimated 30 percent to 50 percent of the population are affected by insomnia and 10 percent have chronic insomnia. According to the National Sleep Foundation, women are 1.3 times more likely to report insomnia more than men and those over age 65 report insomnia 1.5 times more than younger people. Divorced, widowed and separated individuals also suffer from insomnia more than the general population. Oftentimes, people will develop insomnia from psychological causes, including stress, anxiety and depression. Physiological conditions can also lead to sleeplessness. Those include chronic pain syndromes, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease. Extended periods of sleeplessness can lead to poor concentration, difficulty remembering things, depression, impaired motor coordination, irritability and impaired social interaction.

Achieving Sleep: Isomnia sufferers will go to great lengths to fall asleep. Over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids, like zolpidem (Ambien), eszopicione (Lunesta) and melatonin, help some get to sleep. For many patients, however, medications can become habit forming or still may not help them achieve sleep. The key to getting some Z's, however, may come in a more natural way.

Studies show as helathy people fall asleep, blood from the core of the body moves to the limbs. This results in an increase of about one degree Fahrenheit in the hands and feet. In patients with sleep disorders, however, this temperature transfer does not occur. Sleep specialists are now testing temperature biofeedback in insomniacs to replicate the normal temperature response.

Temperature Biofeedback: Four or five 30 minute sessions over a span of five weeks can help the brain learn to control physiological responses and actually stimulate the healthy blood to limb transfer. Studies out of Weill Cornell Medical College show 90 percent of patients are able to learn the temperature biofeedback techniques successfully. Studies of the technique are ongoing, but researchers say results have been promising.

"They were able to fall asleep faster. It's as simple as that. We had one person that was taking him a couple of hours to fall asleep and it was reduced to a half hour," Matthew Ebben, Ph.D., a sleep specialist at the Center for Sleep Medicine at New York - Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, told Ivanhoe. "It probably won't help everyone, but it will help people that don't want to take medications and are able to learn the technique."

Weill Cornell Medical College

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Behavioral Sleep Medicine


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