For years I struggled with insomnia: waking each night around 2 a.m., tossing and turning, and finally just getting up. I learned to nap during the day if I could squeeze one in, but I was sleep deprived in a chronic, dangerous way. Sleep deprivation can lead to all kinds of health problems, and mental & emotional issues as well. I was very aware of these risks, having read nearly every article and book out there on how to sleep. Teaching myself to sleep right became kind of an obsession; I made spreadsheets of all the things I was supposed to do each day in order to sleep better. I kept track of every little thing, so I would know what worked and what made it worse. The only problem was that nothing ever seemed to work; it only got worse.
After three years of this, I happened upon an article about how people who define themselves as having insomnia made their sleep problems worse. And not only that, but they felt worse the next day even when they got as much sleep as people who don't think of themselves as having sleep issues. I realized that the problem for a lot of us, for me in particular, could be in my mind. I had so much stress built up around bedtime, that I often felt a little panicked if I wasn't in bed by 10 p.m.- that golden hour for getting perfect sleep. I had tried every natural sleep product my friends recommended over the years, and even a couple of unnatural, over the counter ones recommended by my doctors. I had done a sleep study: hooked up to wires and tubes and stuck all over with goo. It felt like the worst night of sleep in my life, but afterwards I was told that I didn't have sleep apnea. I came very close to getting surgery on my deviated septum, believing at the time that this was what was keeping me up. I canceled that surgery at the last minute, panicked that it would only make things worse.
Insomnia and sleep problems are incredibly common. Once I started posting about my sleep issues on Facebook, I realized how widespread the problem is. I started an insomnia support group, so I could learn from what worked for others. I shared the article linked to above with that group, and one member admitted that it was so important to her not to define herself as an insomniac anymore, that she almost hadn't joined my group. She hadn't had sleep issues in years, ever since she let the label of insomnia go. Another member took issue with the idea that her sleep problems, which she felt had a physical cause, were all in her head. Definitely, there are different causes of sleep issues; for many of us it begins with the birth of our first child. We can start out with one cause, and then the problem becomes chronic along the way, as the original cause is replaced by anxiety around sleep. We need to make sure we change the things we can in our lives to create better sleep hygiene, but we need to also do what we can to give our minds a break from stress around sleep.
Sleep is essential. Along with eating right and exercise, sleep is one of the three pillars of health. It should come naturally, it should come easily, and I was so frustrated that it constantly seemed beyond my grasp, no matter how much I tried to do things "right". I did learn some little tricks along the way, from all my sleep books & articles. I found that it's important to take the right steps for sleep hygiene, but also to remove the stress around sleep.
Here's what finally worked:
- Brief Meditation Morning and night, for 5-10 minutes. I find that it's a nice beginning and end to each day, and 5 minutes is much easier to squeeze in than the standard 20 minutes that is usually recommended. Occasionally I can't fit it in during a busy morning, so I'll do my morning meditation in the afternoon. I don't stress about it. Meditation has too many proven benefits to ignore.
- Journaling In order to reduce nighttime stress levels, it's helpful to write about anything troubling us, before laying down to sleep. Anytime I have something bothering me at bedtime, I write about it, including all my fears and any possible solutions. Getting my worries down on paper lets my mind off the hook, so it can go on to do the important work of sleep. As a nightly habit, I also write down three unique things that I'm thankful for; one thing I'm proud of; and one thing I'm excited about. This is a good habit to help focus on the positive; whether it helps with sleep or not I can't say. Sleep problems are commonly caused by, or exacerbated by, depression, so anything we can do to lighten up should help.
- Earplugs This was a hard one to get used to at first, as I disliked the feeling of pressure inside my ears. But after a few nights with earplugs, I barely noticed them. And, wonderfully, I no longer woke to every outside noise. Now, when I put my earplugs in, I feel l am in a cozy little cocoon where nothing can bother me. If you are caring for infants, it's probably best to leave out the earplugs for now.
- Blackout Blinds It's important to get your bedroom as dark as you can make it when you sleep. Cover or remove anything that has an LED light at night. Remove night lights from bedrooms, and keep them in common areas and bathrooms instead. Our neighbors keep a light shining all night, so we pull our blinds down all the way. The darkness should be so complete that you cannot see your hand in front of your face.
- Caffeine Moratorium Don't worry, it's not off limits. For me, anytime I drink coffee or black tea after noon, I'm risking being wide awake in the middle of the night. So I have the hard stuff in the morning, and stick to green tea or herbal blends later on. I have a nightly cup of herbal tea at bedtime, but I feel it's more a cozy ritual and less about the specific herbs I drink being helpful for sleep. These days I'm drinking catnip tea before bed.
- Screen Ban I cheat on this one, because I do read books on my phone before bed, using the Kindle app. But after tucking in the kids, I no longer scroll through social media. Our only TV is in the den, far away from bedrooms. Blue light from LCD screens has been shown to reduce sleep quality, so we use a free app (Twilight for Android, f.lux for Apple) that automatically filters out the blue light after the sun goes down. I also turn my phone on airplane mode, to make sure my sleep isn't interrupted at night by little incoming messages. This also to reduces my temptation to check Facebook after hours. With airplane mode on, all I can do is read my book in peace; it's kind of perfect.
- Drink in Moderation Or, don't drink at all if you like. Definitely, the more you drink, the more degraded your quality of sleep will be. It's best to have just one or two drinks, and to have them earlier rather than right before bed, so the alcohol gets metabolized before sleep onset. Yes, wine can make you feel sleepy and even help in falling asleep; however quality of sleep can be hindered by alcohol. I find that I can fall asleep easily after a couple of drinks, but then I'll pop awake around 4 a.m., regretting that last glass of wine. Also watch things like sulfites, additives, and weird mixers. We try to enjoy our booze with the least chemicals and sugar possible. My favorite mixed drink is a vodka or tequila with soda water. It's so light and easy to drink, and doesn't leave you feeling sick. I've had good luck with sulfite free red wine as well.
- No Pets At least, no pets in the bedroom at night. I am too sensitive to every little movement, every meow (even with earplugs) and cats are nocturnal. We set up our attached garage as our cat's nighttime apartment, so we can all get better sleep.
Here's what might help with sleep; I don't know for sure but I do it anyway:
- Exercise Daily Forget three times a week: exercise every day. Bodies were meant to be used, not to sit. We spend so much of both our work and our leisure sitting; we really need to consciously move when we can. The only people exempt from this are people with very physically demanding jobs, like construction workers or landscapers- but if this describes you, you might find yoga helpful for countering repetitive motions and minimizing work related stresses. For others, start where you can. Commit to a gentle walk and a few stretches every day. Do more if you are able. I like the idea of breaking a sweat every day, though I can't always make that happen. In order to keep our bodies working properly as we age, we must use them all we can.
- Eat Well Avoid things you know bother your tummy; don't eat too much; don't eat too close to bedtime (leave at least a 3 hour window between dinner & sleep). Eat nutritious, whole foods, made from scratch with natural ingredients whenever possible. Don't beat yourself up for the occasional junk or treat; what matters is what you do most of the time.
- Daylight At night we want deep darkness for proper melatonin production; in the morning, getting outside for some exposure to natural daylight will help balance waking hormones for a new day. A quick walk around the block is pretty easy to fit into our morning routine, and has the added value of moving the body. You could also have your coffee out on your porch. Getting outside soon after waking up is ideal, but it doesn't have to be a big undertaking. I recently bought our family umbrellas so the interminable Pacific Northwest rain won't keep us from our daily walks. Even on heavily overcast days, the natural light outdoors will trigger hormone production and help regulate sleep cycles.
- Bedtime One central tenet of sleep hygiene is going to bed at the same time every night, and getting up 8 hours later every morning (or more, since it can take a bit to fall asleep). Most of us produce sleep initiating hormones at around 10 p.m., so that's the ideal time for lights out. I do pretty much follow this, but I no longer get bent out of shape if we are still tucking the kids in at 10:30. What matters is that we have an enjoyable, relaxing evening.
Further Reading (Affiliate link):
- Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to A Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success This book, by Shawn Stevenson of The Model Health Show, is laid out clearly with a different section for each strategy to encourage better sleep. Stevenson explains the science behind each idea, with a down to earth, modern voice. I tried nearly all of his suggestions (I skipped the silver sheets and grounded bedding!) and because of these tips I really did start to sleep better. I recommend you check it out to see if he has ideas for things that might work for you that I didn't include here. Not everything felt like it helped me, but it might be just what you need. He really sums up current sleep science in such a thorough way that I found every book I've read on sleep since this one to be redundant.
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