By BENEDICT CAREY
Curing insomnia in people with depression could double their chance of a full recovery, scientists are reporting. The findings, based on an insomnia treatment that uses talk therapy rather than drugs, are the first to emerge from a series of closely watched studies of sleep and depression to be released in the coming year.
The new report affirms the results of a smaller pilot study, giving scientists confidence that the effects of the insomnia treatment are real. If the figures continue to hold up, the advance will be the most significant in the treatment of depression since the introduction of Prozac in 1987.
Depression is the most common mental disorder, affecting some 18 million Americans in any given year, according to government figures, and more than half of them also have insomnia....
The study is the first of four on sleep and depression nearing completion, all financed by the National Institute of Mental Health. They are evaluating a type of talk therapy for insomnia that is cheap, relatively brief and usually effective, but not currently a part of standard treatment.
The new report, from a team at Ryerson University in Toronto, found that 87 percent of patients who resolved their insomnia in four biweekly talk therapy sessions also saw their depression symptoms dissolve after eight weeks of treatment, either with an antidepressant drug or a placebo pill — almost twice the rate of those who could not shake their insomnia. Those numbers are in line with a previous pilot study of insomnia treatment at Stanford.
In an interview, the report’s lead author, Colleen E. Carney, said, “The way this story is unfolding, I think we need to start augmenting standard depression treatment with therapy focused on insomnia.”
... Doctors have long considered poor sleep to be a symptom of depression that would clear up with treatments, said Rachel Manber, a professor in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Stanford, whose 2008 pilot trial of insomnia therapy provided the rationale for larger studies. “But we now know that’s not the case,” she said. “The relationship is bidirectional — that insomnia can precede the depression.”
... Several studies now suggest that developing insomnia doubles a person’s risk of later becoming depressed — the sleep problem preceding the mood disorder, rather than the other way around.
The therapy that Dr. Manber, Dr. Carney and the other researchers are using is called cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I for short. The therapist teaches people to establish a regular wake-up time and stick to it; get out of bed during waking periods; avoid eating, reading, watching TV or similar activities in bed; and eliminate daytime napping.
I guess the idea is that your bed shouldn't be your electronic command and control center, it should be just for sleeping.
The aim is to reserve time in bed for only sleeping and — at least as important — to “curb this idea that sleeping requires effort, that it’s something you have to fix,” Dr. Carney said. “That’s when people get in trouble, when they begin to think they have to do something to get to sleep.”
This kind of therapy is distinct from what is commonly known as sleep hygiene: exercising regularly, but not too close to bedtime, and avoiding coffee and too much alcohol in the evening. These healthful habits do not amount to an effective treatment for insomnia.
In other words, while they can't hurt, they often can't help.
Still, there are a lot of subtle things some people need to be aware of, such as what flavor of ice cream before bed. I can no longer eat anything chocolate within, perhaps, five or six hours of bedtime.
Dr. Andrew Krystal, who is running the CBT-I study at Duke, called sleep “this huge, still unexplored frontier of psychiatry.”
“The body has complex circadian cycles, and mostly in psychiatry we’ve ignored them,” he said. “Our treatments are driven by convenience. We treat during the day and make little effort to find out what’s happening at night.”