No, not the movie (although who doesn’t love Al Pacino as the “shocker” antagonist?). I’m talking about the inability to sleep…that beast some of us wrestle with every evening. For those of you who can empathize with experiencing anxiety as the evening drags on (“I wonder if I’ll sleep OK tonight?”), you might benefit from this post. For those of you who fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, curses to you! I’m kidding, but we could never date because I need someone to keep me company at 5am.
If you’re still with me, chances are you can relate to the frustrations of being physically and mentally exhausted, but still playing Chicken with your alarm clock (the old: “If I fall asleep now, I can still get 2 hours!”). In this post, I’ll give you a bit of background on the theories around sleep, and share some tips on how to put Insomnia to rest without using a rag soaked in ether.
The word “insomnia” is derived from the Latin root “Somus” (who was the Roman god of sleep), the prefix “in” (which means “negation”) and “ia” (which means “syndrome). Damn, I knew that medical terminology class I took in my undergrad was good for something! But what I’m trying to emphasize there is that we all know sleep is important–I mean there was a god of it in Anceint Rome (although they were a little god-happy back then). There are four main theories out there as to why we sleep: Inactivity Theory, an evolutionary theory that suggests we sleep because it keeps us out of harm’s way at night; Energy Conservation Theory, that suggests sleep conserves our energy stores while it would be least productive to search for food; Restoration Theory, that suggests we “restore” what is lost during waking hours (e.g. HGH, protein synthesis, muscle growth, tissues repair); and Brain Plasticity Theory, that suggests learning is integrated into our brain plasticity during REM (dream) sleep.
You probably didn’t need that background or the theories, though, to know that sleep is a crucial part of life. Just think back to a time you pulled an all-nighter (not drug-induced, preferably). I could elaborate more on stages of sleep and brain waves, and I would actually probably achieve the same goal of this post (you’d fall asleep), but I’ll spare you the science and move onto some tips!
This post will be focused mostly on what us counsellors refer to as “Sleep Hygiene.” This is the stuff you probably already know if you’re an insomniac, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. If you find none of these things help, you may benefit from my upcoming post on managing anxiety.
1. Get exercise every day (You don’t have to run a marathon every day. This could be as much as a brisk walk on your lunch hour or a mellow yoga class. Experiment with it and find out what works best for you).
2. No Caffeine or alcohol within 6 hours of bedtime (or preferably, none at all, but I say this as I sip my 4th cuppa of the day).
3. Make sure you have finished exercise within 2 hours of bedtime (otherwise, your heart rate will still be elevated, making it difficult for you to fall asleep).
4. Make sure your room is cool enough–if our body temperature doesn’t cool down enough, we will not fall asleep.
5. Save your bed for sleep and sex (I know, it’s tempting to use it for solving world hunger…but seriously, keep food and movies out of your bed unless those part of your sex life. I don’t judge.)
6. Don’t go to bed on a full stomach, but don’t go to bed hungry (Digesting will keep you up, but being hungry will wake you up. If you’re starving at bedtime, have a snack. There are differing opinions on what is most appropriate, but most sleep experts suggest something with complex carbohydrates, which leads to serotonin secretion and helps with sleep.
7. If you really struggle with chronic insomnia, set the same wake and sleep time each day–even weekends (I know. This is painful. You’re out until 3am on Friday and I’m asking you to get up at 7am on a Saturday morning. You’re now officially the worst bedmate ever. So find a compromise: 8? 8:30? Just don’t make it noon. It will really screw you over for Monday).
8. Don’t nap! What? But I neeeeeeeeeed to!!! NO! Don’t do it. Your body will be confused and will come to rely on them.
9. Make sure as much light and sound is removed from your environment as possible. Anyone who’s ever slept with me (um…in the same bed) will know I’m the most attractive sleeper around. I have blackout curtains and sleep with earplugs (quite possibly the greatest invention).
10. If it’s one of those nights where Insomnia is still winning the battle, try not to fret. We get into a cycle where we look at the clock, see what time it is, and feel anxious. Our body cannot rest in an anxious state. So, remind yourself that no one has ever died from pulling an all-nighter (as a direct result, at least), and you will still be able to function. My mom (whom I thank for my poor sleeping skills) always says, “At least I don’t have to perform brain surgery today.” If you’ are, in fact, a brain surgeon (or pilot), and you really don’t think you can’t function, call in sick. There is an eager pilot or brain surgeon just waiting to take your place that day.
A few more things to consider: If you’re a woman, be aware of how your cycle influences your sleeping habits. Low estrogen can cause insomnia, so try to vigilantly practise sleep hygiene during hormonal dips (this is also why peri-menopausal and menopausal women tend to have trouble sleeping). If anxiety is the beast that’s keeping you awake, I will be writing a more extensive post on this later, but try to bring yourself into the present (anxiety sweeps us away into the future and won’t let us fall asleep). For example, focus on your breath (e.g. count in or out-breaths/the feeling of your stomach rising and falling/the air coming into your nostrils) or pay attention to the sensations in your body and try to visualize yourself sinking into your mattress. It can also be helpful to visualize placing your thoughts on leaves on a stream, or in a box under the bed for safe keeping. If you’re afraid you might “forget” a very important anxious thought, write it down and tell yourself you’ll set aside some time tomorrow to “worry” about it.
Finally, if you decide to go the “supplements” route, steer clear of sleeping pills or those OTC “Sleep-aids.” They suppress deep sleep and REM sleep, and you’ll still wake up exhausted (why not just stay up and at least get something done?). Some people find melatonin, valerian root, magnesium, and 5-HTP can be helpful for getting Zzzzzs (thanks, Malcolm!); still, try the au naturale way, first, if you can, and be sure to ask your pharmacist lots of questions if you decide to try one of those options out. They may be “natural,” but they still can have adverse effects or interfere with other medications (for example, St. John’s Wort can interfere with oral contraceptives…and you thought it was supposed to relieve stress!)