WASHINGTON -- Millions of Americans lie awake at night counting sheep -- or have a stiff drink or pop an allergy pill, hoping it will make them drowsy. But specialists agree all that self-medicating is a bad idea, and the causes of chronic insomnia remain mysterious.
Almost a third of adults have trouble sleeping, and about 10 percent have symptoms of daytime impairment that signal true insomnia.
Sufferers readily cite the resulting problems: walking around in a fog, as memory and other cognitive functions slow. Dozing off at the wheel or at work. Depression. Lack of energy.
But for all the complaints, scientists know surprisingly little about what causes chronic insomnia, its health consequences, and how best to treat it, a panel of specialists brought together by the National Institutes of Health concluded yesterday.
Two things are clear, the panel found: Chronic insomnia is a major public health problem. And too many people are using unproven therapies, even while there are a few treatments that do work.
The hope is that the report will dispel some of what panelist Dr. Sean Caples of the Mayo Clinic decried as ''misinformation and myths."
Among the panel's findings:
Cognitive/behavioral therapy, a psychology-based treatment that trains people to reduce anxiety and take other sleep-promoting steps, is very effective, and doesn't cause side effects. But it can be hard to find health providers trained in the techniques. Insomniacs should check with board-certified sleep specialists and psychologists.
Newer prescription sleep pills, such as Sonata, Ambien, and Lunesta, work without many of the side-effect concerns of older agents known as benzodiazepines. One study of Lunesta showed effectiveness with six months of use, but more research on long-term use of all three is needed.
The most commonly used treatments are alcohol and over-the-counter sedating antihistamines like Benadryl. Alcohol use disrupts quality sleep, and antihistamines can cause lingering daytime sedation and other cognitive problems.
The most common prescription insomnia medicine is an older, sedating antidepressant called trazodone, even though there's no evidence that it offers more than a two-week benefit, and it comes with side effects.
There is no evidence backing the effectiveness of the popular dietary supplements melatonin and valerian to fight insomnia.
Self-medicating aside, why do even doctors reach for trazodone and other unproven treatments? The panelists suspect that some are reluctant to prescribe controlled substances, including prescription sleep aids. Newer pills, known as nonbenzodiazepines, come without the abuse potential of older sleep aids because they're eliminated from the body much faster, explained panelist Dr. Charles Zorumski, psychiatry chief at Washington University School of Medicine.