New website promotes tackling insomnia without use of medication

A website created by a Nova Scotia pharmacist aims to help Canadians wean themselves off sleeping pills by teaching them how to treat insomnia without drugs.

Falling and memory impairment are some of the side effects associated with sleeping pills, pharmacist says

A new website developed by a Nova Scotian pharmacist aims to help people get to sleep without pills.

A website created by a Nova Scotia pharmacist aims to help Canadians wean themselves off sleeping pills by teaching them how to treat insomnia without drugs.

David Gardner, also a professor in the department of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the side effects associated with sleeping pills are costing the healthcare system money when there is an effective alternative.

Gardner has designed a website, called mysleepwell.ca, which aims to teach people how to use cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) instead of pills.

Speaking to CBC Information Morning,  he said the goal is to replace sleeping pills with a "very practical, pragmatic, easy-to-access therapy."

Dalhousie professor David Gardner has created a website to encourage people to confront their insomnia without the use of drugs. (David Gardner)

"The really neat thing about CBT-I is that you can do it yourself," using readily-available apps, websites or books, said Gardner.

CBT-I employs several strategies, including:

  • Staying up late and reducing the amount of time spent in bed.
  • Employing a variety of relaxation techniques before going to sleep.
  • Being careful about when to consume caffeine and alcohol and when to eat, exercise or nap.
  • Managing stressful thoughts while in bed. 
  • Leaving the bedroom if you don't fall asleep right away.

"It's the No. 1 treatment that you've never heard of," Gardner said. "Our goal is to make it as accessible to people as sleeping pills are."

Camille Gagnon, assistant director of the Canadian Deprescribing Network, is welcoming a new website that aims to help Canadians treat themselves for insomnia without pills. (Submitted)

Camille Gagnon, assistant director of the Canadian Deprescribing Network, expressed enthusiasm about the initiative.

"To have these resources readily available for patients is a step in the right direction for this movement," she said. Her organization aims to help people wean themselves off unnecessary or unsafe medications.

The use of sleeping pills comes at a cost to society and the individual, Gardner said. 

Links to anxiety, depression

Users can become unsteady and prone to falling, he said. To compensate, some people simply stop leaving their homes to socialize, he said, which can lead to anxiety and depression.

Memory impairment is also a factor, he said. In fact, it's "absolutely" possible that some seniors might think they're showing signs of dementia when really they're experiencing side effects from their sleeping pills, Gardner said.

When they stop using the pills, he said, "their memory and their thinking clears right up and they actually have a better quality of life."

There's also the risk of dependence.

The pills typically become less effective the more people use them, Gardner said.

When people stop using them entirely, they often go into withdrawal. One of the primary symptoms of withdrawal is insomnia, so it can be a "vicious cycle," Gardner said.

A summary of the existing research shows that 16 per cent of sleeping-pill users over the age of 65 in Nova Scotia are considered chronic users, Gardner said. The national average is 10 per cent.

Gardner estimated that Nova Scotia would have 80 fewer hip fractures each year if the number of chronic sleeping-pill users in the province matched the national average. That's around $5 million in savings for the healthcare system, he said.

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About the Author

Nina Corfu

Associate Producer

Nina Corfu has worked with CBC Nova Scotia since 2006, primarily as a reporter and producer for local radio programs. In 2018, she helped launch and build a national website for preteens called CBC Kids News. Get in touch by email: nina.corfu@cbc.ca