So many people have been talking about sleep issues lately, which is nothing new...and if you are looped in to the “wellness world” it has been a hot topic that has been written about from many different angles for quite some time now. Almost every article starts with hammering home the ginormous importance of catching Zs by using lack-of-sleep-associations like “accelerates aging,” "contributes to inflammation,” “leads to disease,” “premature death.” I find that all super helpful in calming me down and making me less anxious about the fact that I can’t find the magic solution to lull me into a full, quality night’s sleep…NOT! This article won’t be using scare tactics, because I don’t think we need convincing that sleep is crucial! We aren’t kids who are trying to get out of sleep anymore…most of us long for an extended peaceful slumber, and would actually do ANYTHING to get it, so why make us feel worse about not achieving it? I hope to give you some new things to think about and different approaches to try, because I truly feel your pain…and there is almost nothing worse than insomnia, because it impacts everything and makes life hard to live.
When my health first crashed in 2011 I actually went for about a 2-week period with basically no sleep. I was up around the clock. I was finally able to pick apart some contributing factors. One was pain…abdominal and full-body muscle/nerve pain (makes sense why I couldn’t sleep through that). Two, was my heart rate being super high (can’t rest when you are revved). Three, was unstable blood sugar. My gut, as it turns out, was so bad it was sort of like a sieve…not able to absorb nutrients, so I had to constantly eat to keep my body from panicking that it was going to starve (which essentially it was as I uncontrollably lost 25 pounds in 4-5 weeks). So, as with most health challenges, my #1 suggestion is…
1. Work On Gut Health! - This is so multifaceted that I can’t address it all here, but I will share this link with a short story to drive my point home - Years of Insomnia and Adrenal Fatigue Fixed By Healing The Gut. And, if you think blood sugar dips may be part of the problem for you, try having a small snack right before bed to sustain you (some sweet potato, nut butter on a rice cake, etc.) Overall, neurotransmitters are the key here…in a healthy gut they thrive (serotonin, GABA, all sorts of sleep helpers), but when the gut is out of balance, sleep can suffer big time.
2. Magnesium - Speaking of nutrition, you always want to consider nutrient levels, and when it comes to sleep (and relaxation), magnesium is an important one! You can either try to troubleshoot this externally (Epsom Salt bath, Magnesium oil/spray on skin), or by taking a supplement. I like Calm by Natural Vitality…just know that this form of magnesium can loosen stool, so start slow and work your way up to bowel tolerance - bonus if you are constipated, though!
3. Warm Yourself Up - Many find that warming themselves up makes them drowsy, so trying a warm shower or bath (such as with Epsom Salt, as I mentioned above…even with some lavender or another relaxing scent you like), or heating up some heat packs and throwing them in your bed (I like to do this while brushing my teeth and getting ready for sleep so my bed is nice and warm when I get in). Also, placing something warm and slightly weighted on your chest and/or abdomen can be quite calming and soothing. Just don’t use something like a heating pad that stays hot (or increases in heat), because you could fall asleep and burn yourself, and a cooler temp later on is actually better for sustaining sleep.
4. Drink Lots of Water (throughout the day) - WHAT?! Ok, let me explain. I love experimenting on myself and being my own private investigator. In the early days of my illness I got up to pee in the night A LOT. You see, the body is very smart. When there is a toxic exposure/overload on the body (including allergens & infections) the body does its best to dilute and flush them out. As I got better I started to notice that on the days I drank the most water and peed more throughout the day I didn’t have to get up at night to pee…even if I drank right before bed. On days I was very busy and didn't drink enough water (which usually meant a more stressful day too - so more stress hormones for the body to detox), or pollen counts were high, or I had a chemical exposure of some sort, I was up in the night at least once to pee. Help your body detox and hydrate throughout the day so it isn’t stuck trying to do it at night while you are supposed to be sleeping. Just another cool way the body tries to protect us!
5. Activated Charcoal - To go along with the water/toxin point… Sometimes the reason we can’t sleep is because our “bucket” is full. Once we reach our “fill line” with environmental and internal (ie. stress) toxins, allergens, electronics, and all of the other inputs our system has to process daily, we start to “overflow.” Then we need to figure out how to start bailing out some of that excess to quiet the overreaction. One quick “go to” for me is Activated Charcoal, or what I like to call my “miracle pill." If a toxin, allergen, or bacteria has sent me over the edge, insomnia and night terrors/jerks are one common symptom for me. A few days/nights of Activated Charcoal (with tons of water) are usually enough to bring me back down to a good baseline. It’s like a reset button for me! (Be sure to consult a healthcare practitioner when considering any supplement - and follow the directions! This one needs to be taken AWAY from other meds, nutrition, etc.)
6. Screen Protection - I won’t harp on this one too much, because we all like to be entertained before bed. For some of us, it is our one end-of-day indulgence. I am not going to tell you to stop, but if you are desperate for sleep, stop ALL screens at least an hour before your desired bedtime, 2-3 hours would be even better! If you just can’t imagine it, then I would suggest really getting honest with yourself about why...and if it is a healthy relationship (this is something I am currently exploring). If you decide to proceed with nighttime screen use, then protect yourself as much as possible. I have been using blue-blocker glasses (made by Swanwick) every night after sundown for almost a year, and I see a MAJOR difference. I am serious! Who knew?! I bought the ones that go over glasses, because I am almost always wearing my glasses at night. There are a bunch of brands on Amazon.com you can check out, too. I also use the f.lux software on my computer as well as a screen protector on my cell phone. EMFs/Wi-Fi also mess with our sleep, so what I suggest is putting your Wi-Fi on a timer so it is off during sleep hours…and if you MUST have your cell phone in your room, put it on “Airplane” mode so it is not zapping you all night.
Under this category I will also just reinforce that it is all about controlling light exposure. If you have lights around your house that have dimming capabilities, then use them…or switch from your overhead lights to your lamps (we love our salt lamps) at night. If you are finding your circadian rhythm completely off, limit light exposure after the sun goes down and get your face out in the light of morning as early as close to waking up as possible (you can also use a light box…or other blue light - in the Winter I use the blue light setting in my infrared sauna). This will reset your internal clock, balance hormones, prevent seasonal depression, etc. When the problem is that it is light too early an eye mask has worked wonders for me!
7. Send a Message To…Yourself - I am sure all of the resources you have already read talk about the importance of a bedtime routine and consistency. It’s true. We all know it. It’s why we do bath time and stories every night with babies and children…to cue them for sleep. Consistent in-bed and wake-up times are also key…ahem, some of us struggle with this even if we have read about it a thousand times (raising my hand). I sort of start to tune out when people lecture on this one, because I feel I have heard it all before and still haven’t changed. Then I heard something that really struck me in one of my classes the other day. The doctor presenting explained that if we made the effort to introduce a new bedtime habit, like a cup of chamomile tea, and we had some sips and got right into bed, over time our body would associate that tea, those sips, with sleep. Since I fully believe in rewiring the brain, I bought in to this. I am only a couple of nights in, but I will keep you posted! My favorite nighttime tea is Fidnemed Nighttime Tea by Mountain Rose Herbs, and from now on I will not be having it at other times, because I don’t want to confuse things…I want to be sure to reinforce the connection with bed/sleep.
8. Summon Your Senses - Explore and figure out which senses work most in your favor. For some, it’s their sense of smell. Essential oils and lotions are great for this (I discourage candles, because many are toxic, and you should never risk falling asleep with them burning). You can easily Google the best scents to promote sleep, but as you have probably heard, lavender is the most common. My all-time favorite essential oil blends are made by 21drops. Their "Sleep" potion is miraculous...I never leave home without it. Any time my son can't sleep he asks for it, and it always works! It contains my favorite scent, Ylang Ylang, which is known for calm/sleep/relaxation. You can dab it on your wrists, temples, under your nose, on your pajamas and pillow.
(For 21%-off your order with 21drops, use the discount code: "Sharon21")
Another tool I have found helpful is sound. I have used guided meditations specifically for sleep (Yoga Nidra is also something to consider), as well as delta waves/binaural beats. You can purchase them on iTunes/Amazon, or just do some searches on YouTube to try some out for free. I really like Wholetones and Dr. Jeffrey D. Thompson’s collections, but there are many options out there.
9. Comfort Food - For digestive health you should try to eat your full dinner meal 2-3 hours before bed, but a snack before you turn in can actually help you sleep. I mentioned stabilizing blood sugar above, but beyond that, you can pick foods and drinks that have compounds and nutrients that actually promote sleep. Again, you can Google and experiment, but here are some good choices: cherries, nuts - especially almonds, bananas/plantains, granola, chamomile, warm milk (it really DOES work…and if you don’t do dairy, almond milk is great!)…a really excellent anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, sleep enhancing drink to have before bed is “Golden Milk.” The most simple recipe is: 1 Cup Milk (dairy or alternative), 1 tsp. Turmeric powder, or a 1-inch coin of fresh Turmeric root, peeled, A dusting of fresh cracked Pepper, or a small pinch of ground Cardamom, or both (Put the ingredients in saucepan; Whisk the milk while bringing to a gentle boil; Drink warm). You can read more about it here - The Healthy Nightcap You Need For Better Sleep.
I feel compelled to add that everything you put into your body throughout the day can have a significant impact on sleep. If you are eating things that you have a sensitivity/intolerance to it can contribute to immune disruption, inflammation, nervous system agitation, and other imbalances, which can spill over and disturb sleep. There are obvious things like caffeine, alcohol, and medications (some even have sleep issues listed as a side effect), but things we think are healthy for us can also mess with our ability to sleep, like some herbs, supplements, and vitamins. For example, if I get too much Vitamin B-12 (or other B Vitamins) it acts like a stimulant in my system and can cause anxiety and insomnia. This is due to methylation challenges I personally have, which is something you might want to explore with your doctor (by checking genetic mutations, homocysteine levels). I just urge you to remember that ANYTHING can be a “poison” to someone, and it is possible to have too much of a good thing (finding YOUR perfect brand/dose/level is key and takes patience and a commitment to being an investigator, along with a trusted practitioner).
10. Check Your Surroundings - I will share a little story with you…it was actually a BIG story for me. Ever since my major health struggles began I have had bouts of severe insomnia. Unfortunately it isn’t usually just about not being able to sleep, but would include intense nightmares or short vivid dreams, jerking/startling awake every, single time I start to dose off (all night long), waking up but still “seeing” scary things (usually gigantic spiders hanging from the ceiling, in front of my face), feeling like I stopped breathing/gasping for air, and waking up panicking and shaking, with my heart racing until I could find a way to finally calm down (sometimes it would take me an hour). Thankfully I have figured out many of the root causes of these flares (allergies, toxic exposures, something I ate, stress, etc…which means I can trouble-shoot better when sleep issues pop up). However, this past January the jerking/startling awake all night had kicked in again. It literally felt like every 10-15 minutes…ALL.NIGHT.LONG. This went on for weeks…I literally tried everything I knew how to do. Nothing touched it. My days were growing more and more impossible to get through. After a month I was programmed not to fall asleep at all. Not sleeping seemed better than jumping awake and calming myself down over and over again. As I laid there I started to cry. I felt like I just couldn’t take it anymore. Then I noticed something…a loud CLICK sound. I waited…another 15 or so minutes passed and it happened again. I woke my husband up…”Do you hear that?!” I asked. He was too out of it to join in on my mission. Back in December we were having issues with our heating system and had quite a bit of work done on it. I had already connected the timing of my sleep issues to this change in our home, but all of my e-mails and phone calls were met with promises that no chemicals had been used. However, they had also changed the thermostat in my bedroom from an old dial style to an updated electronic version. After calling my father and talking it through with him, we figured out it was programmed wrong to “run” five times an hour, or about EVERY 12 MINUTES, and every time it “ran” it CLICKED! BINGO!!! My father helped me reprogram it so it ran less often, but it clearly had to go. I moved all of my stuff into our guest room until I could get the heating company to come back with an archaic dial thermostat for my bedroom. It took about another week for my system to reset and stop waking up all night, but once the irritant was removed my system could finally relax. I started to reflect on my poor sleep in hotel rooms, and other places…those wall A/C and heating units banging on and off all night always woke me up. I was born with a sensitive nervous system, but since having Lyme Disease it is dialed up a few notches. After researching online I found I was not alone, though…there were many “noise complaints" about the specific thermostat I had issues with, as well as other people who slept near refrigerators, or A/C condensers, or anything that kicks on and off around them, sharing their sleep woes. Noise pollution is very real and can be super disruptive to sleep. I now travel with earplugs/earbuds with music or a sound machine.
Some things to consider in your sleep environment…
Remove: Any light source (put tape over alarm panels, media consoles, etc.); electronics/EMFs (put Wi-Fi on a timer to shut off during sleep hours); anything that makes noise intermittently
Add: Fan/air filter (helps cancel out noise & keeps air clean)/sound machine (on low); organic bed/bedding (post coming on this one soon); plants that are known to calm and help with sleep (I have a lavender plant in my room...for more ideas - 12 Plants For Your Bedroom to Help You Sleep).
11. Address Emotions (especially around sleep) - I know. Most of us don’t really want to hear this one, because it seems so “out there." For a while I took this one as a bit of a “throw away” suggestion and blew it off a little…probably because I didn’t know how to go about working on it. Once I fully believed in its importance, the first step I took was really thinking through why I wouldn’t want to go to sleep at night. The obvious answer was the more recent experiences I had had with nightmares, sleep-panic attacks, etc. Who would want to go to sleep if it meant being startled awake repeatedly? It made perfect sense, and I had a lot more compassion for myself. I stopped pressuring myself about sleep and had a more caring approach. Once I dug deeper I remembered a lot of old childhood fears and insecurities around sleep. I was scared of the dark, afraid my brother would come in and spook me, and I was a sleep walker (and even fell down a flight of stairs once). As a child I really hated lying there, in my bed, alone with all of my fear and scary thoughts every night. I also had a lot of digestive issues as a child, and I would frequently be woken up in the middle of the night with intense pain, distention, and distress that had built up while I was sleeping. I tell you all of this to demonstrate that we typically have lots of deep layers behind every challenge or symptom we face…and hopefully to inspire you to give yourself the space and self-love to look behind the curtain. Here is a great resource that sheds more light on what can feel like a somewhat nebulous topic - Subconscious Causes of Insomnia – How to Know, and What to Do.
Another common issue is STRESS! If we are revved up and pushing all day, and numbing/distracting ourselves at night with TV, internet, our "drug" of choice, our bodies and brains don’t have an opportunity to unwind and process everything. Many of us are just running one day into another. This results in swirling thoughts when we are supposed to be “shutdown” for recovery and repair. One suggestion I would make is trying to leave time in your day to process things realtime, but I know many of you are laughing right now and saying, “Yeah, right”…so instead I want to really encourage you to carve out time in your evenings to process stressful experiences and thoughts. For many, writing is a very helpful tool. Letting thoughts and concerns out on paper frees up your mind to let go into a more restful sleep. Some people process things better by getting physical and moving their bodies, so if you fall into that category I would recommend trying a bedtime yoga routine (this one is short and sweet - only 7 mins). Our brains are our friends, and if they don’t have time to work through things for us during the day they will do it at night while we are trying to rest.
If you find yourself in negative thought loops/worry before bed, or when you wake up in the middle of the night, it is important to use the opportunity to rewire your brain! You can reassure yourself that daytime, or the time you set aside at the end of the day, is the time for working through those thoughts, and then quickly switch to a “go to thought.” Your “go to thought” can be a prayer, a favorite poem you memorized, a mantra, or a joyful memory you can play out in full detail (I like to replay funny things that happened in college, or watching my son experience Disney World). Come up with a few things ahead of time so you can access them at those difficult and discouraging times of sleeplessness. Make it something that brings you comfort and/or lots of joy!
One last thing I will say on the topic of emotions is to be aware of your entertainment choices. Sometimes the stimulating TV shows (or news), frightening horror movies, high speed video games, and even thrilling books are choices we make to keep a familiar (though unhealthy) dose of feelings going. You may still be able to enjoy these things, but maybe earlier in the day/evening. Personally, I decided to cut off reading my typical health-related stuff in the evenings and have bought a couple of just fun, lighthearted books to read instead. What we feed our minds matters, too!
12. Let It Go - This is by far the hardest one on the list. I have spent tons of time worrying, in my insomniac hazes, about all of the damage sleep issues are probably causing me, but that really only made it harder for me to get back on track. Thankfully these sleepless episodes always pass (though, some take longer than others), I have survived every time :-) …AND all that I have listed in this post gave me a plan! Sleep issues no longer have the power over me they used to, because I have tools to replace the old helpless feelings. Instead of laying there frustrated, focused on those “oh no” thoughts, and worrying about how long the flare-up would last, I have learned to dance with it. If I am not going to sleep, then I get out of bed and write in my journal, read, or do something else that I enjoy. I kind of embrace the attitude that I might as well make the most of it! Symptoms are usually trying to tell us something, and we can learn a lot if we use our courage to face them and listen. There is no sense in fighting it, or trying to run away. Trust yourself and the unfolding of the process.
*Phew...here I am at the end of my list! It is very important for me to add that if you cannot get your sleep issues to a manageable place, it is ALWAYS worth setting up an appointment with your most trusted practitioner to get things checked out- thyroid, allergies, sleep apnea, environmental toxins (like mold), etc. Prioritizing sleep is important for healing any current health issues you have as well as maintaining overall optimal health as you go through life.*
I never mean to overwhelm or bombard with info, but I have tried so many things on my healing journey, and I want to share them all in case even one thing helps someone. No approach is one-size-fits-all, which is why I have given you a buffet of options. Try one or two things here that really resonated with you (something that stood out to you while you were reading = intuition, so follow it). You can always come back for more later. It is a process of trial and error when trying to find the “perfect fix” for you, and that takes patience. Remember, with more natural approaches results sometimes take a little longer, but they usually get to the root of the problem which means a lasting solution and healing! Wishing you deep, satisfying sleep and sweet dreams tonight and always!!!