Putting an end to restless nights

Christina McCrae, Ph.D.

For 60 million Americans, a good night’s sleep is little more than an impossible dream. One of the most frequently prescribed treatments for insomnia is sleep medications, but they don’t work well over the long haul, says sleep researcher Christina McCrae, Ph.D.

“Over the long term, people develop a tolerance to the medication and their sleep problems go back to baseline,” said McCrae, an associate professor in PHHP’s department of clinical and health psychology. “When patients go off the medication they can suffer from withdrawal symptoms.”

A certified behavioral sleep specialist, McCrae uses psychological interventions to help people change their thinking about sleep and put an end to counterproductive sleep habits. At her sleep clinic McCrae teaches patients cognitive behavioral therapy techniques such as controlling stimulants like exercise and caffeine close to bed time and helping patients associate the bed with its intended purpose — sleep, instead of arousing activities like watching television or reading. McCrae instructs patients to get out of bed if they can’t sleep and only return when they feel sleepy.

The work is rewarding, McCrae says, because the therapy is effective — based on a lot of empirical backing — and can typically be done in four treatment sessions.

“I’ve seen people who’ve had sleep problems for 25 years and with the therapy they were able to stop taking sleep medications,” McCrae said. “It is amazing how well people can respond in a short period of time.”

McCrae is currently researching behavioral therapies for people with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that is often associated with insomnia, to determine the mechanisms underlying sleep and pain in these patients. Other projects conducted at McCrae’s Sleep Research Lab include examining sleep problems of patients with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, caregivers of patients with dementia, and people with Parkinson’s Disease.

“Most any chronic medical condition may be associated with chronic sleep problems,” McCrae said.

McCrae’s collaborators include Richard Berry, M.D., director of the Shands Sleep Disorders Center; Roland Staud, M.D., and Jamie Conti, M.D., of the College of Medicine;  Meredith Rowe, Ph.D., in the College of Nursing; Michael Robinson, Ph.D., and Deidre Pereira, Ph.D., of the PHHP department of clinical and health psychology; and Samuel Sears, Ph.D., of East Carolina University. In addition, McCrae’s research lab includes several doctoral students from the clinical psychology program.

“In an educational environment like UF, I try to take a junior collaborator approach to training graduate students in the lab,” McCrae said. “Every project is geared toward patients, but they are also learning opportunities for our students.”