I can vividly remember Christmas Eve of 1984. I was just old enough to really understand what Christmas was all about, but not yet old and world weary enough for it to have lost its shine. Basically, I was in the goldilocks zone. And the reason I remember it so vividly is that it was the first time I simply could not get to sleep. I was actually trying my best, because I knew that the sooner I went to sleep, the sooner it would be Christmas. I went and found my mother and explained through tears my earth shattering problem. She wasn’t overly moved by my plight, and told me to have a drink of milk, then go and count sheep in my head. She was busy wrapping presents (Santa must have outsourced that year), and didn’t have time for my blubbering.
But for some, this would not be a vivid memory. For some, it is their lived experience, where sleep evades them, and no amount of sheep counting seems to do the trick. You might be experiencing insomnia in some form if you are:
- Unable to fall asleep at night
- Waking often
- Waking too early
- Feeling drained after being asleep
- Feeling stressed about going to sleep
- Irritable, depressed or anxious
- Losing your train of thought too easily
We all know what it is like to be bone tired. But for most of us, it is the exception, not the rule. Today, I am going to step through some tried and true methods to spend more time in the land of nod.
One of the main causes of insomnia is related to the stress of everyday life; job, family, health. Tragically, being told that your stress is the problem only compounds the stress. It’s like being told to not think about a pink elephant. You could consider talking to a trained counsellor or psychologist to help find strategies to deal with your stress.
Your body has a circadian rhythm which functions like an internal clock. It tells your body roughly when you need to go to sleep, it governs your metabolism and your temperature. If you travel, and your circadian rhythm is out of kilter with the society around you, you will often find that the sleep you do get feels like it didn’t quite do the job.
Poor sleep hygiene
Professor Matthew Walker uses the term sleep hygiene because it suggests a routine and intentionality, much like you do for your physical cleanliness. Poor sleep hygiene includes things like having irregular bed times, napping in the day, or going to bed after doing something physically stimulating (there is one exception, but I’ll let you use your imagination). In the last twenty years, rates of insomnia have risen almost identically with the number of people using smart phones. The blue light emitted from your phone when in a darkened room tells your brain to perk up, and it is part of the reason you lie there for longer than you want.
Eating at the wrong time
If you have a large meal and then go and lie vertically, you are going to make yourself uncomfortable. Many people will experience heartburn, when the food and acid in your stomach begins to flow back up your esophagus. That can damage your throat long term, and keep you awake in the short.
So what are we to do? Researchers have found that the old ‘counting sheep’ method is no more effective than anything else in our quest to get some sleep. But there are a number of things you can do to speed up the process.
- Do the opposite of everything listed above. Get a regular bed time; avoid big meals in the hour before; try to reduce time in front of screens in the evening; try to reduce the things in life which are sources of stress (if only it were that easy).
- Manage your temperature. The common wisdom is that you need to be toasty and warm to fall asleep, but scientifically, this is not so. Your brain actually needs to drop 2-3 degrees to fall asleep. Try warming your hands and feet to draw blood away from your core and out to your extremities.
- Supplement. There are so many good options like melatonin or restavit tablets. Restavit tablets are helpful because they are available over the counter and you could improve your sleep tonight. They are an antihistamine, similar to the medicine you might take if you had hay fever. But this specific type slows down your central nervous system so that you drift off to sleep quicker. Best of all, neither melatonin nor restavit tablets have been shown to be addictive.
- Cut out the alcohol. My clients are often surprised by this. A glass of red makes me so sleepy they insist. Well, getting concussed tends to make you drowsy as well, but that doesn’t mean it is a healthy and helpful way to improve your sleep habits. Alcohol might make you feel tired, but you will have a much worse night’s sleep because it actually dehydrates you.
- Practice some form of relaxation and meditation before bed. I know, I know. This sounds dangerously close to counting sheep. But there is a key difference. Counting sheep activates the parts of your brain that meditation or mindfulness would still. Also, counting sheep can make you feel anxious because you are waiting for sleep to arrive. Meditation is an activity in and of itself. Sleepiness becomes a by-product.
Ultimately, you need to make sure you are getting a good night’s sleep. There is no substitute, and I have written endlessly on the health benefits in previous blogs. But it genuinely is a matter of life and death. I don’t want to end on a down note. Here’s a joke: Did you hear about the agnostic insomniac?
They lay awake at night, wondering if there was a dog.
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Image Author: @Ilugram