Tai Chi, Psychotherapy May Treat Insomnia in Seniors

Senior man practicing tai chi on the beachPsychotherapy and Tai Chi—a martial art that focuses on breathing and simple body movements—can both effectively combat insomnia in older adults, according to a small study published in Sleep. These two interventions may also reduce inflammation, which is correlated with insomnia and can produce a number of health issues, including heart disease.

Sleep problems are common among seniors. One study found 13% of men and 36% of women older than age 65 took 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep. Though insomnia medications can help people with insomnia get a good night’s sleep, they also carry a number of side effects, ranging from dry mouth and constipation to unusual behavior during sleep, such as driving or eating.

Solutions for People with Insomnia

Researchers worked with 123 adults older than age 55 with insomnia, randomly assigning participants to one of three groups. One group underwent 2 hours of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) every week for four months. A second group participated in Tai Chi with the same frequency, while the third group completed a four-month educational program about aging, insomnia, and healthy sleep habits.

The research team followed up with participants a year after the interventions. Blood samples revealed both the psychotherapy and Tai Chi groups had lower expression of genes related to inflammation and higher expression of genes correlated with antibody response. They also had lower levels of C-reactive protein and pro-inflammatory cytokines—two indicators of inflammation.

Both the CBT and Tai Chi groups also experienced a reduction in insomnia, but the CBT group was more likely to experience insomnia remission. The study’s authors suggest CBT may directly reduce inflammation, thereby producing insomnia remission. Though the team did not test other health measures, a reduction in inflammation can also reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. If subsequent research is able to replicate these results, the study suggests improving mental health could also improve physical health.


  1. Irwin, M. R., Olmstead, R., Carrillo, C., Sadeghi, N., Breen, E. C., Witarama, T., . . . Nicassio, P. (2014). Cognitive behavioral therapy vs. Tai Chi for late life insomnia and inflammatory risk: A randomized controlled comparative efficacy trial. Sleep. doi:10.5665/sleep.4008
  2. Kessel, J. M. (2015, November 18). Tai Chi vs. psychotherapy for better sleep and more. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/11/18/tai-chi-vs-psychotherapy-for-better-sleep-and-more/?_r=0
  3. Sleep and growing older. (2013, August 7). Retrieved from http://www.sleepeducation.org/news/2013/08/07/sleep-and-growing-older

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  • Sonia

    November 27th, 2015 at 2:36 PM

    Both of my grandparents have terrible insomnia. Actually they want to stay up all night and then they sleep all day. I am not sure when this started but the older they have gotten the worse their sleep patterns have become. I know that overall they would feel much better if there was some way to get them back on a better schedule but it almost feels like an impossibility at this point.

  • Olive

    November 28th, 2015 at 8:31 AM

    But I live in a very small town with no access to something like this

  • George

    November 28th, 2015 at 1:06 PM

    Whenever I add any kind of exercise to my daily routine I always sleep better.

  • Rene

    November 29th, 2015 at 7:14 AM

    I know that tai chi can be great for this so I also wonder about other forms of martial arts or something like pilates or yoga that would stress breathing exercises in addition to stretching? This seems like it could be just as beneficial as tai chi is.

  • Iris

    November 30th, 2015 at 3:57 PM

    Sometimes it can be all about finding that perfect winning combination that will give you the most bang for your buck so to speak.

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