Dealing with Insomnia

I’ve struggled with insomnia off and on since I was about 7 years old. It’s a special kind of hell – lying in bed, unable to get comfortable, first too hot then too cold, growing more and more frustrated by the minute, acutely aware of exactly how much time is left before the morning alarm goes off… Over the years, I’ve read a LOT of books and articles trying to find one magic bullet that would make me sleep soundly every night (preferably without medication), which of course doesn’t exist. But there are plenty of small things you can do to at least alleviate the worst of the symptoms. Here’s a list of everything that’s worked for me or for people I know with similar issues.

Note: These are suggestions and are not meant to replace sound medical advice.

In the morning:

Get up at the same time every day. Even on weekends or after a late night, try not to sleep in more than about an hour to prevent your sleep schedule from shifting. Also, try not to hit the snooze button (I know it’s tempting!); it doesn’t really do anything other than make you late.

Expose yourself to sunlight as soon as possible. This helps to set your brain/body’s circadian rhythms. If you can open the blinds first thing in the morning to let in natural sunlight, so much the better. But if it’s winter, or you’re regularly up before the sun, it might be helpful to invest in a sun lamp.

Supplements. In addition to a healthy diet (more on that in a bit), here are the daily supplements that I’ve found helpful.

  • Tart cherry juice. Studies have shown that taking few ounces of 100% tart cherry juice daily helped participants to sleep better at night.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oil and other omega supplements have been shown to improve sleep.   Try to find one with at least 600mg of omega-3 DHA.
  • Magnesium. I take this right before bed as to reduce anxiety, which is always a good thing when you’re trying to sleep.

During the day:

Stay awake. Try not to nap – if you absolutely need it, take a 20-30-minute power nap – sleeping during the day is a sure-fire way to ensure you don’t sleep at night.

Exercise.   Cardio, weights, yoga, Zumba – do something, anything! Get up and move! While scientists don’t know the “magic number” of exercise minutes per day to get the benefits, but studies have regularly shown that after 4-8 weeks of regular exercise, adults with insomnia fell asleep faster and stayed asleep longer. Added benefits: it’s great for anxiety, depression, general mood, and hunger cravings (usually).

Eat a healthy diet. Loading up on sugary soda and junk food? Riding a blood-sugar roller coaster throughout the day? You’ll pay for it at night. Focus on a diet with lots of natural proteins, fresh fruits and veggies, and a little (!) bit of healthy fats (nuts and oils). Also, nix the alcohol and tobacco/nicotine. More on caffeine in a bit.

– Get outside. The more you’re exposed to natural light during the day, the more your circadian rhythms with sync up with the sleep schedule you want.

In the evening (2-3 hrs before bed):

Limit caffeine. Some sources will say you should try to limit your total amount of caffeine per day or quit altogether.  I’m not quite so strict, but I know from experience that I need to have a 12-hour window between when I last had caffeine and when I plan to go to sleep.  For example, if I want to be in bed by 11pm, then I need to stop caffeinated drinks at 11am.  I found this out the hard way with one too many afternoon lattes taken before an evening class.  This caffeine-free window is unique to each person, so you may need to experiment to see what works best for you.  Some people – my sister for one – can drink a Mountain Dew 20 minutes before going to bed and have no difficulty falling asleep.  Must be nice.

Stop eating. You don’t want your stomach working hard to digest that last slice of pizza you ate for a late-night snack just as you’re trying to fall asleep.  And heartburn isn’t your only worry.  While it’s in a way satisfying to get into a nice food coma and curl up into a sleepy ball, it isn’t conducive to long-term sleep patterns.  Give your body time to deal with the food you’ve given it before you settle down.  Two to three hours before bedtime is enough to let you digest, but not so long that you’re ready for another snack/meal. Also, some people swear that stopping dairy or sugar even earlier in the day helps them sleep or prevents other nighttime symptoms (night sweats, heartburn, bad dreams, etc).

30 minutes before bed:

Limit screen time. The worst sort of light to expose yourself to (ha ha) just before bed is the blue light emitted from phones, tablets, and computer screens.  Set a timer for half an hour before bedtime to remind yourself to check social media one last time, finish up that episode on Netflix, and set your alarms for tomorrow morning.  Disconnecting yourself will also stop the stimulating/addicting signals being sent to your brain every time you get a new ‘Like’ or see a new clickbait you have to check out.

Dim the lights and start to wind down. Just as a bright light will help to wake you up in the morning, dimming the lights in the evening tells your brain that it’s time to get sleepy. Now’s the time to finish up tasks around the house, (as you’ve already turned off the TV and put away your phone), and get ready for bed. Maybe enjoy a mug of chamomile tea or take a hot bath with lavender or other soothing scents.

Reading in bed. This is the one thing that I’ve always seen in these insomnia articles that I never could follow.  I always, always read in bed before I turn the lights out – sometimes it’s my only chance to read during the day.  However, I’ve made one important change in this rule that has helped me:  I re-read books that I know well.  This prevents the “just one more page, just one more chapter … oh my gosh, how is it 3am already?” problem.  It reduces anxiety because I don’t stay awake going over what I’ve read or wondering what’s going to happen next; I already know what happens next.  I’ll also use this time to read Scriptures, as I sometimes find those boring/relaxing as well. 😉

Meditate and/or Journal. Either or both of these activities help to rid your brain of all the random thoughts/worries/mental clutter you’ve accumulated during the day. Even just five minutes can provide benefits.

Go to sleep (aka lights out) at the same time every day. This goes back to the circadian rhythms/sleep schedule that I keep harping on. It’s annoying, yes. But it works. Trust me.

Your sleeping environment:

– As dark as possible. You want your brain to produce melatonin to help keep you asleep during the night, and to do that your eyes need to register close to complete darkness. Invest in light-blocking curtains or a sleep mask if necessary.

Cool but not too cold. I’ve seen 65 deg F (about 18C) frequently cited as the perfect temperature for sleeping. I think it’s personal preference, so see what works best to keep you from either kicking off covers or shivering. Some fancy mattresses even allow you to set the temperature in your bed.

Sounds. Some people have to have the TV on in the background. If I’m stressed or anxious and I can’t shut my brain off, I’ll put on the audiobook for the first Harry Potter. I know it so well that I’m not actively listening for what happens next, but it keeps my brain distracted enough that I can fall asleep. However, most people prefer white noise or a particular CD or app.  Find something soothing that isn’t distracting – search in your app store for ideas.

Keeping Fluffy and/or Fido in the room with you.  I’ve seen both sides of the arguments on this:  having your pet sleep in bed with you may help you to sleep more deeply, but their fur/dander can cause allergy issues, and if they tend to be restless in the night you’re likely to sleep poorly too.  This is a case of “know your pet” – if they don’t keep you up at night then great!  If they’re more of a hindrance than a help, then put them on the other side of a closed door.  With my cat Puffin it’s really a tossup as to whether he’ll be allowed to sleep with me or not on any given night.  Some nights he’s calm and cuddly and he’s perfectly fine being in the bed, but sometimes he’s very playful and attacks my feet or plays with the window blinds.  When that happens, out he goes!

When all else fails:

Some nights, sleep is just elusive. You can do everything right and still not fall asleep/stay asleep. When that happens, here are your options:

Get up. If staying in bed is going to frustrate you, then get up. Go watch TV or read a book in another room until you feel like trying again. If your brain won’t let something go (is obsessively going over and over the same thing), try writing it out.

Take something. If it’s not too late, try taking an over-the-counter sleeping pill. However, don’t use the middle of the night to find out how you respond to an OTC medication for the first time! A full dose may be too much for you and leave you worse off in the morning than if you’d simply been up all night. Also, do not use alcohol to help you sleep – its drowsing effects are temporary and you’ll wake up soon after.

I hope this helps! Happy Snoozing! zzzzz

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