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How to cure insomnia through sleep restriction

One common (and effective) tactic to help insomnia sufferers improve their sleep is sleep restriction therapy.

Sleep restriction therapy works by increasing sleep drive and sleep pressure. If you want to improve your sleep, sleep restriction is well worth a try.

Throughout the day, we naturally become tired and begin to feel sleepy - this is known as sleep drive. The longer we're awake, the more we want to sleep.

It's thought that this is partly down to a neurotransmitter in the brain called adenosine. When we're awake, levels rise and when we sleep, levels drop. If we have an irregular sleep routine or take random naps when we feel tired, we interrupt this cycle and that makes our sleep worse.

When following this method you want to avoid naps and divided sleep periods. Instead of sleeping whenever you get a spare moment, stick to the same sleep and wake times each day. Even if your body seems to be craving a lie-in, ignore the desire and get out of bed at the same time every day.

When you stay in bed for longer than your body expects, it affects your circadian rhythm and reduces your sleep drive.

Sleep restriction is a healthy and effective way to improve your sleep. If you stick to it, it will increase your desire to sleep and improve your quality of sleep.

To give sleep restriction a try, follow the advice below:

Step One: Start keeping a log of your sleep habits

Record the time you go to bed, how long (approximately) you sleep, and what time you wake up each day. Keep this up for a few weeks until you have a clear pattern of your normal sleep habits.

Step Two: Work out how much time you spend sleeping each night

Once you've figured out how many hours you spend asleep each night (based on the data you collected from your sleep logs), restrict the time you spend in bed to this specific amount of time.

For example, if you find that you tend to sleep for about four hours, set yourself a bedtime and wake time that is four hours long and only spend four hours in bed no matter how tired or awake you feel.

Step Three: Start calculating your sleep efficiency

You'll need to do this every day. Once you've set your new bedtime and wake time, you want to start calculating your sleep efficiency. This is done with the following easy formula:

Time spent asleep DIVIDED BY Time spent in bed MULTIPLIED BY 100

For example, if you spend two hours asleep but four hours in bed, your sleep efficiency is 50% (2 divided by 4 = 0.5, multiplied by 100 = 50%).

Stick to the sleep and wake time you set for yourself in step two until your sleep efficiency reaches 85%. This may take quite some time, but it will happen eventually as sleep pressure continues to build.

When this happens, add 15 minutes to the time you spend in bed and continue calculating your sleep efficiency every day.

The next time it reaches 85%, add another 15 minutes.

Repeat this cycle until your sleep efficiency number stabilizes at around 85% - by this time you should have found your ideal sleep duration and the quality of your sleep should be dramatically better.

Note: If you are over the age of 65, you can nap for up to 30 minutes during the day and your sleep efficiency target can be reduced to 80%.

Sleep restriction therapy only works if you are committed. You need to stick with it and you mustn't nap during the day, regardless of how tired you feel.

Behavioral therapies such as sleep restriction are not easy. They take effort. Popping a sleeping pill takes far less effort, and that's precisely why they're so popular.


Improve your sleep in two weeks: Over 5,000 insomniacs have completed my free insomnia sleep training course and 97% of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend. Learn more here.

Last updated: December 12, 2012

This Article Was Written By

Martin Reed

Leave a Comment

  • Jamaica
    November 28, 2013, 7:48 am

    Have been trying sleep restriction for almost 4 weeks now (only giving myself 5.5 hours in bed) and while I can usually sleep for 4 hours at a time (this is an improvement), I have yet to have more than a couple 5 hour nights in a row. How long do you think I should keep going before going to bed earlier? I am afraid to start adding time because I might go backwards in my progress. I am also wondering if it makes sense to further restrict my time in bed? Bottom line I want to know how long this is supposed to take?