If you are one of those poor, unfortunate souls who spends agonizing hours lying in bed awake each night, it might be time for you to start sleeping even LESS.
That’s right, I said it – less sleep may in fact be the answer to all of your insomnia-related woes.
Okay, I realize that you’re probably scratching your head right now thinking that my own lack of sleep might be messing with my brain, but stick with me, this crazy theory actually makes perfect sense.
Growing in popularity, Sleep Restriction Therapy is defined as an all-natural, behavioral therapy that addresses (and often cures!) insomnia. Did you catch that all-natural part? That means no sleeping pills are needed for this sleep therapy to work.
Even if you have found relief for your insomnia with sleeping pills, perhaps you want to put down that bottle of Ambien and give Sleep Restriction Therapy a try. After all, it’s only a matter of time before one of those horror stories we’ve all heard about sleep-eating or sleep-driving on Ambien becomes a reality. My advice- put down the pills and read on.
What exactly is Sleep Restriction Therapy?
The whole idea behind Sleep Restriction Therapy is based on the understanding that when suffering from insomnia, your body adapts and learns to survive with very little to no sleep. If your body can adapt to no sleep, you can assume it will also re-adapt to a sufficient amount of sleep.1It’s like the opposite of oversleeping.
That’s where Sleep Restriction Therapy (SRT) comes in.
Think of it like an intensive training program, similar to a diet or exercise plan – but rather than getting your body into shape, SRT works to strengthen and shape up your sleep schedule.
The basic idea for SRT is pretty simple actually-by purposefully depriving your body of sleep for a period of time, you kind of press the reset button on your internal sleep computer. Once you have pressed reset and essentially deleted all of your bad sleeping habits, you can effectively start re-training your sleep cycle.2
Just like with any training program-diet, exercise, or sleep-it takes patience and dedication to reap the rewards. And while SRT may not help you fit into your skinny jeans, it will allow you to feel well-rested enough to hit the gym after work.
Come to think of it, they do say that people who sleep more tend to be thinner…so maybe SRT can help shape up your sleep AND your waistline!
But I barely sleep as it is…how is LESS sleep going to help?
Before you get too worried, I should point out that the ‘sleeping less’ part of SRT’s equation is only temporary. Sleep Restriction Therapy aims to not only improve the amount of time that you sleep each night, but to also improve your sleep efficiency.
Sleep efficiency is defined as the amount of time that you spend asleep divided by the amount of time that you spend just lying in bed (likely desperately pleading with the sleep gods to help you drift off).3
For example, if you sleep 4 out of the 7 hours that you spend in bed, your sleep efficiency is around 57% (probably making you pretty tired and irritable). Ideally, you want your sleep efficiency to fall between 90 -100%.
But by lying in bed for hours on end, simply hoping that you will enter into unconsciousness before your alarm goes off, you are causing serious damage to your sleep health.
By forcing yourself to remain in bed, tossing and turning with frustration, your mind begins to associate feelings of anxiety with the bedroom. This only worsens insomnia.
It is recommended that if you can’t sleep after 15 minutes, you should get up, go do something else, and try again later. However, most people convince themselves that staying in bed awake is better than not being in bed at all.
This thought process is all wrong and a big part of what SRT aims to fix. In order to fix it though, you need to first reboot your system by sleeping less. SRT does this by initially limiting the hours that you allow yourself to sleep in your bed.
Imagine that you stayed up all night and all day, no naps. And tomorrow night, you only allowed yourself to sleep for 3 hours. Most likely you would feel pretty tired and enjoy an incredibly deep sleep for those 3 short hours.
That exhaustion and urge to crash that you feel after extended periods without sleep is called sleep drive. Sleep restriction manipulates that sleep drive in order to help you kick your insomnia once and for all.
Okay, so how exactly do I start Sleep Restriction Therapy?
While you don’t really need help from a medical professional to effectively execute Sleep Restriction Therapy, it’s always advised to consult with a doctor before entering into any kind of treatment plan.
A general practitioner or family doctor however is not typically the person who will help you implement this type of treatment. If you want some professional medical input, your best bet is to reach out to a psychiatrist or psychologist.
But if you’re like me, more of a DIY type person even when it comes to health-issues, then all you really need to start Sleep Restriction Therapy is a fair amount of self-discipline and patience.
Here are the basic steps to follow:
1. Keep a sleep log
Before doing anything, you really need to have a clear view of your sleeping patterns. I know, I know, you are probably thinking I don’t need to do that, my sleeping pattern is simple-I don’t sleep! But even if you are a severe insomniac, you’re catching a few hours of sleep here and there.
Spend a few weeks diligently recording when you get in bed, how long you spend in bed awake, how long you spend in bed asleep, what time you wake up, and any other details that may be pertinent.
Did you pass out for 8 solid hours last Saturday, but only after that pub crawl and late-night party involving more than a few adult beverages? Make a note of it. It’s likely that is not part of your normal sleeping routine, and if it is – Cut it out! Record any similar outside factors that may explain inconsistencies in your sleep.
After a few weeks, figure out the minimum average amount of time that you sleep each night. This does not include time spend staring at the ceiling—only time that you are actually asleep.
2. Stay up all night
This step is optional. If the thought of pulling an all-nighter, meaning you don’t even go near the bedroom for 24 hours, sounds impossible to you, move on to step 3.
However, if you feel confident that you can summon your college-self and successfully pull an all-nighter like you used to, it will definitely help to break your ‘learned’ sleep cycle. Sleep fasting is similar to food fasting in that it offers you a fresh start.
3. Sleep only in your window
No, this does not mean that you should curl up in your windowsill at bedtime tonight. What this means is that you will use the average minimum time that you sleep per night (from step 1) and allow yourself to ONLY sleep for that amount of time, even if you want to sleep more.
Let’s say that your average minimum was 3 hours per night and you need to wake up for work at 6am. This means that you would have to stay awake until 3am, only getting into bed for your average minimum sleep time of 3 hours.
4. Rise and shine with bright light
While some feel that this step is unnecessary, others believe it to be the most important. Scientific research tells us that bright light is one of the most influential regulators for the sleep wake cycle.4
While I suppose it is possible to simulate this effect with your bedside lamp, you are probably better off exploring the various light therapy devices on the market.
Spending about 20-30 minutes in front of one of these devices immediately upon waking can not only help with sleep cycle regulation, but improve mood and energy too.
5. Gradually increase sleep
This step takes a lot more self-discipline than one might imagine. It’s incredibly important to avoid jumping back into trying to sleep for a full 8 hours-the process must be more gradual to be effective.
Once you have achieved at least 85% sleep efficiency with your minimum average sleep time, you can start increasing your nightly sleep by 15 minute increments.
For example, if you started with sleeping 3 hours per night, and you are in fact actually sleeping at least 2.6 of those 3 hours (85% efficient), you can start heading to bed 15 minutes earlier.
Each day, you want to calculate your sleep efficiency, increasing by 15 minutes only when you are consistently hitting that 85% efficiency. If you start having trouble sleeping and your efficiency is dropping, you need to go back to sleeping for whatever amount of time allowed you 85% efficiency.
It won’t happen instantly, but with discipline you should eventually be able to sleep through the whole night.
Pros and Cons of Sleep Restriction Therapy
Being an elementary school teacher for years, my sleep cycle was a disaster! Most days I wouldn’t get home until 7pm, then spent hours on lesson planning and grading, tried to squeeze in 5 minutes with my husband, throw some food in my belly, and take a quick shower…all with the goal to be asleep by midnight. HA! Ya, right!
I rarely was asleep before 1am, sometimes even 2am, and my alarm rudely went off every morning at 4:45am. Amazingly, I never felt that tired…my body just adapted.
And while it is possible for the human body to adapt to almost any situation, that doesn’t make it healthy. I only wish that I had heard of Sleep Restriction Therapy back when I was teaching. Instead, I relied on insane amounts of caffeine and good old-fashioned stress to keep me going.
All that being said leads me to one of the major advantages of SRT – it eliminates the use of sleeping drugs, which can be dangerous and addicting.
For me, even though I had a Rx for sleeping pills, by the time I reached the bedroom, it was generally way too late to pop a pill and regain consciousness by 4:45am. My sleep habits were so bad that even sleeping pills couldn’t help! With SRT being all natural, it would have been a great solution. A huge benefit for SRT.
Another positive of SRT is the possible impact that it has on depression. Thousands of people have dealt with some form of depression in their lifetime, with sleep issues often being a symptom.
While SRT doesn’t necessarily offer a long-term cure, it can help manage depression symptoms. The idea is that by not allowing depressed people to sleep as much as they are inclined to (due to being depressed), depression symptoms will subside.
As far as the disadvantages of SRT, they are probably exactly what you would expect. By depriving yourself of sleep, or of enough sleep, you may experience a variety of symptoms – including headaches, body aches, fatigue, and quite obviously, feeling tired.
In addition to several temporarily unpleasant symptoms that SRT may produce, successfully engaging in this therapy takes quite a bit of self-discipline.
For those that struggle to put away the Oreos before eating the entire bag, a therapy that relies heavily on self-discipline may prove difficult. But, if your sleep situation is in dire need of help, don’t be discouraged by the self-discipline aspect. Give it a try, one night at a time and you might surprise yourself!
Overall though, SRT is a fairly straightforward and simple treatment plan. Its free, which is always an advantage, and you can do it on your own accord, no doctors required. Plus, based on a fair amount of scientific research-it works. That’s really the biggest benefit.
If done successfully, Sleep Restriction Therapy works to cure insomnia. Really, what more convincing do you need than that?
Have you treated your insomnia with Sleep Restriction Therapy? Let me know in the comments below!