PEOPLE’S PHARMACY: Help for severe insomnia?

Q: I’ve had chronic, severe insomnia all my life. All I get from well-meaning people is the advice to stop drinking coffee. All I get from doctors are more and more drugs, which work for a while, then quit.

I go days at a time without sleep. My brain is so fried. Any suggestions would be really welcome.

CHRIS HUNT/AJC Special; Styling by Sarah Cox

CHRIS HUNT/AJC Special; Styling by Sarah Cox

A: Although yours is an extreme case, you are not alone. Millions of people also have great difficulty falling asleep. Others awaken in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep. Regardless, sleep deprivation can contribute to a range of health problems, from hypertension and forgetfulness to impaired immunity and weight gain.

Some tricks to try include vigorous exercise early in the day, a hot bath an hour before bedtime or a high-carb snack half an hour before climbing into bed.

Nondrug approaches such as relaxation CDs, magnesium, melatonin or herbs like valerian, hops or lemon balm also may be helpful.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist, and Teresa Graedon is an expert in medical anthropology and nutrition. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. 
E-mail them via their 
Web site: www.peoples They can be reached at peoplespharmacy

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7 comments Add your comment


December 30th, 2009
2:24 pm

I know where you’re coming from. Sometimes during the summer I go up to 4 days with no sleep at all. By that time, I barely know who I am. My doctor just doles out Lunesta but since my insurance won’t cover it, that’s a hundred bucks per refill. The drugs just mask the problem. I run a fan next to the bed which drowns out the sound of my heartbeat and various other things. A bowl of cereal usually helps and if I’m not asleep in a couple of hours, I get up and watch TV for a half hour or so (if you can find anything to watch at 2AM) and I frequently doze off after that. Good luck. I sure sympathize.


December 30th, 2009
4:29 pm

I and others I know use diphenhydramine hydrochloride. A common brand name for this is Benedryl. Department stores also sell it in generic form, which may be less expensive than Benedryl. I try not to use it unless absolutely necessary because it can take up to an hour after I awaken in the morning to lose the grogginess. But it seems to give me healthful sleep, including REM-stage sleep. All the best to you in your efforts to get healthy sleep. It’s vital.

Shirley L

January 2nd, 2010
9:11 pm

Read No More Sleepless Nights by Dr Peter Hauri of Mayo Clinic. A total program that is very effective.


January 3rd, 2010
7:43 pm

I have tried Yoga with some measure of success. I use the meditations and breathing exercises..sometimes I manage to fall asleep as early as 4 am but mostly 5 or 6. So, that’s one to three hours, just enough to drive to work and be moderately productive. I still have no short term memory and I still get some words mixed up.


January 4th, 2010
4:34 pm

Hello. I am Christine of Las Lomas High School so I am wondering if you can help me in my senior project about insomnia. Please do reply. I live in Walnut Creek. An expert that knows a lot of stuff and a person that I can meet is helpful. Please reply. Here’s my email address Thank you very much.

Geoff Harris

January 30th, 2010
9:01 pm

Wow- I thought that I was pretty much alone when it can to really severe insomnia. I have gone about 3.5 days with zero sleep once. It’s been pretty bad for a year, averaging 4 hours per night (range 0-9). A few months ago, I felt that I reached my breaking point. My words would get mixed up on occassion, and I’d usually feel weak at work. I would have bouts of recovery for a few hours during the day in which I could processes my thoughts as usually and feel good, but then I would crash. I am on my second couch therapist and have been prescribed many drugs-yes, which work for a while then quit. I am afraid that my next step will be to take a leave from my job to deal with this.


March 19th, 2010
1:51 am

I’ve had insomnia since I was an infant. Newborns should sleep more than five hours a day. It just got worse as I got older.

I’ve been on every over the counter medication. Herbal suppliments do nothing. Every prescribed medication does nothing, including benzodiazepines, barbituates and narcotics. I’ve doubled or tripled the dose on them, mixed them, mixed and overdosed on them, added alcohol for kicks, and still cannot fall asleep.

I had surgery less than a week ago. Even the anesthesiologist was unable to put me under. The pain was numbed, so I was able to force myself to ignore what was going on.

I’ve found myself missing days at a time with no memory of what I’ve done. In college, a roommate swears that I was awake for 17 days straight. After I started walking into walls and talking to people that weren’t there, she managed to get me to drink over a liter of vodka and pass out. During that time, I attended class, took notes, and even went so far as cooking. Luckily, my roommate hid my car keys at the time.

So far, I have found no solution. I can binge drink to pass out, but society frowns upon that simply for smelling like alcohol the next day. I do not drive once I’ve started the routine and I have never once suffered a hangover.

I have a rare tolerance to alcohol, and I do not suggest that anyone else take this route. Even though it is the only thing I have found to date that allows me to sleep, I have lost several jobs simply due to my morning breath. I find this unfair since no one has yet to fire a smoker for a similar excuse.

If anyone can find a real cure, I kindly ask you to post it.