Once upon a time I would sleep like a log – falling asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and waking up refreshed seven hours later. But after, like many mothers, suffering years of broken nights, followed by the onset of perimenopause, I ended up with chronic insomnia. It would either be impossible to drop off, or I’d wake several times during the night, which was having a predictable effect on my health, productivity and family life. After reading the entire Internet and taking advice from fellow sufferers, nutritionists and naturopaths, these are the tips and strategies that have helped me sleep through the night again. Dip into this grab bag, experiment a little and craft your own personalized plan to beat the insomnia demon. You won’t solve it all at once, but I found that the effects were cumulative – the adage ‘sleep begets sleep’ works for adults too.
Your Sleep Environment
- Start with the basics and make your bedroom quiet, dark and cozy. My Sleep Master eyemask blocks out all light and is invaluable during the summer months, and I swear by Quies wax earplugs, which mold themselves to your inner ear, and are much more comfortable than plastic ones. A new mattress might help too, and I love my buckwheat pillow which provides great support for side and front sleepers.
- Apparently the optimum bedroom temperature for sleep is around 65°F, and focusing on achieving this had a magical effect. After experimenting with fans and portable units, we ended up installing air-conditioning, which was expensive but oh so worth it. Don’t let yourself get too cold either. In winter I snuggle up under a thick quilt and wear socks, rather than turning up the heating – it’s easier just to remove covers or socks if it gets too warm.
The Run-Up to Bedtime
- I used to be able to drink a double espresso after supper, but nowadays any caffeine after noon is a no-no for me. Remember that even decaf coffee is not totally caffeine-free, so don’t drink it too late in the day
- I always sleep better if I’ve exercised, but I make sure I schedule strenuous exercise for earlier in the day. For a while I was doing Crossfit in the evenings and could hardly sleep a wink, my system was so flooded with adrenaline. Nowadays I find vinyasa flow yoga to be a good bet, it’s vigorous enough to make me tired but has a soothing meditative quality that calms my brain. Gentle restorative or yin yoga in the evenings is also very soothing. And nothing beats a walk out in the fresh air for grounding your system.
- The weirdest therapy I tried was Tension Release Exercises (TRE) where you literally shake out any tension you might be carrying in your core muscles. It’s bizarre in the extreme but totally eliminated the beginnings of Restless Leg Syndrome for me and transformed my sleep patterns. It’s a newish therapy and there are currently no practitioners in Seattle, but search for books and videos online or contact Dr. Louise Rose in Portland, she comes to Seattle often.
- In the evenings I try to eat easily digestible foods – not too much fat, spice or alcohol for me - and give myself at least three hours between eating and heading for bed. A few healthy carbs in the evening, such as brown rice or quinoa, help me wind down without blood sugar bumps.
Your Bedtime Routine
- There’s a reason childcare experts recommend a regular bedtime routine to help kids sleep and it makes sense for us insomniac adults too.
- You know I’m going to say this, but yes, unfortunately too many blue screens before bed don’t help. Consider going on an evening digital detox, ensure at least that you have screen-warming software installed, and make sure any TV shows are not too aggravating or stimulating. Instead a warm bath, an herbal tea and a good book makes for a relaxing end to the day.
- Contrary to popular opinion, I find a small snack before bedtime is sometimes helpful. Our brains are busy while we sleep, so give them something to chew on with some fat and carbs – a couple of apple slices and almond butter or carrots with hummus or guac.
- Go to bed the minute you start yawning. Our sleep goes in cycles, so if you try to power through the sleepiness, it might be another 90 minutes before you feel sleepy again.
- I tried to overcome my insomnia without drugs, but do find melatonin to be helpful. It’s been clinically proven that smaller doses are more effective, so try to stick to 1mg or less. Time-release melatonin is good if you’re prone to waking during the night and make sure you take your melatonin an hour or two before you want to sleep.
- When I finally go to bed, I like to read a non-stimulating book (non-fiction is good) for a bit and then prepare myself for sleep with a meditation app (I like Buddhify). I even bought a Thync electronic wearable which zaps your brain with a soothing electronic ‘vibe’ meant to stimulate sleep hormone production. I can’t speak to the science, but it does really seem to help me sleep more deeply.
- Finally, as I’m lying waiting for sleep, I deliberately take slow, cleansing breaths and focus on my breathing, which more often than not nowadays leads to drowsiness and a good night’s rest.
What To Do If You Wake Up
- The best advice I received when I was waking in the night was not to force things. Try a meditation tape, Thync vibe or deep breathing, but if they don’t work get up and do something repetitive and boring instead of tossing, turning and stressing about the next day. Activities such as knitting, ironing, flicking through a magazine, folding washing or emptying the dishwasher all help to distract from the frustration of insomnia, without being too stimulating. Just don’t get engrossed in a riveting novel, avoid screens and make sure you try sleeping again the minute you start yawning.