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January 19, 2009

Better in Bed: Do You Need a Sleep Makeover?

Insomnia plagues more than 50 million Americans — but can we ditch the fast-fix meds in favor of a healthier long-term solution? Sometime Ambien-popper Ying Chu books a session with a holistic sleep doc

woman sleeping on a pillow

Photo Credit: Lise Gagn/iStock Images

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I was a champion sleeper. I'd doze off on cue, snooze soundly for seven hours, dream blissfully, and always wake up rested. My idea of a sleep aid was chamomile tea and a hot bath. But then last spring, after nine years together, my live-in boyfriend and I broke up. It left me in an emotional gutter for months. And for the first time in my life, I had trouble in bed — falling and staying asleep.

My once-happy home now felt desolate; the cozy bed that we had shared was eerily lonely. My personal anxieties were keeping me awake, but turning up to work bleary-eyed wasn't an option. So I took the fast and easy escape, indulging in Riesling and Ambien on alternate nights throughout the summer.

By the time I met Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., sleep and dream specialist and clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona's Center for Integrative Medicine, for a personal consult in early fall, I was relying on half an Ambien twice a week (while supplementing with cocktails). A staunch adversary of prescription sleep remedies, Naiman advocates a more natural approach to slumber. "Truly restful sleep requires quantity and quality," he says. "Most sleep drugs literally knock you out and can compromise both REM and deep sleep, so you often wake up hungover. Dependency is also a huge issue."

You could call it an epidemic, considering Americans spent $3 billion on prescription sleep aids in 2007, according to Consumer Reports. That's 50 percent more than 10 years ago, with the sharpest spikes seen in young adults and women. (Fluctuating hormones and a higher incidence of depression and anxiety is to blame for our insomnia, says a recent Duke University study.) All too familiar with my situation, Naiman diagnoses me with "rebound insomnia," then sizes up my sleep routine and surroundings before prescribing his holistic fix:

Foremost, Naiman insists that I quit the pills cold turkey. "Keep them around for emergencies, but stash them out of sight," he says. It was hard not to reach for them on the first few restless nights, but it got easier after a week.

Then he instructs me to scale back the cocktails, as alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that facilitates sleep initially, but hinders it later and disturbs dreaming once the drowsy buzz wears off.

To kick my habit of unwinding — and dozing off — in front of 30 Rock reruns (only to wake up slightly disoriented an hour later), Naiman recommends adopting a bath-and-aromatherapy ritual (he helped develop the Origins Night Health line), which coaxes the body and mind into rest.


Finally, he advises me to personalize my freshly painted — but still empty — bedroom. "It should feel intimate," he explains. "How would you want it to look if you were spending seven waking hours there?" I add a night table and some candles and move in a few framed photos from the living room.

Now, seven months post-split, my sleep pattern is much improved. On nights when I need help putting the brakes on the day's thoughts (or when I've had an extra glass of wine), I'm back to unwinding with a bath. And for peace of mind, I keep a couple of Ambiens hidden in a jewelry box on my new night table — should the ex call. But I haven't needed them yet.

NEXT PAGE: Three Sleep-Deprived Readers Get Advice from a Snooze Expert

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