What better a place to begin a post on insomnia than at four in the morning, typing into the glow of my laptop at the tail-end of a sleepless night? I've struggled with sleep for my entire life. My mom claims that all of my baby photos are of me sleeping because it was so rare that she would snap a photo any time it happened. In elementary school, I went to a therapist who recommended I try "counting sheep," as if the imagery of bellwethers prancing over a fence was the key I'd been missing. In high school, I went to a sleep specialist who essentially confirmed, "It looks like you're a restless sleeper."
My inability to sleep is like an "on" or "off" switch I don't have access to. On "on" nights, I don't fall asleep for even a second. And when I do manage to sleep, I'm an incredibly light sleeper, so that if my cat so much as sneezes in the next room, my eyes basically fly open like Jon Snow being resurrected.
The turning point for me came in college, when I spent three full consecutive nights without sleeping for even a minute. I felt exhausted like I never have in my life and collapsed into bed each night, but never reached the point when I could slip into sleep. Getting out of bed after that third night, I felt so terrible I thought I might go insane, or suffer major health ramifications, from lack of sleep. I zombie-walked to my college health center and got my first prescription for sleeping pills. After taking one, I slept for 14 hours I was so exhausted.
Before that moment, I'd regarded my insomnia as an inevitable, annoying fact I just had to deal with, but from there I began to take a much more proactive approach with my treatment of it. I've since improved my insomnia significantly. While I used to suffer from one to three completely sleepless nights a week from childhood through college, I now only have about two sleepless nights a month, and lose maybe eight additional, but not consecutive, hours to insomnia each week (a huge improvement for me). Read on for the changes I've made to combat my insomnia:
If I stick to the following routine perfectly—what's now vogue to call 'sleep hygiene'—I usually don't suffer from insomnia. Amazing, right? The thing is: The tips below are extremely rigid, and difficult to follow perfectly because life gets in the way all the time. There are weeknights when I have way more than one glass of wine, and evenings when I'm digging into a bowl of ice cream at 11 PM while watching West World, but I really do try to follow as many of the tips below as possible every day. It's truly a 1 to 1 tradeoff—the more guidelines I'm able to follow, the more hours of sleep I'm able to get. (In retrospect, the reason my insomnia was so aggravated in college is because, in addition to stress, I didn't have any semblance of a routine.) Here are my 'sleep rules':
Work out every morning. I usually do a cardio workout—like a bootcamp style class, or a run or fast walk—to get my heart pumping, and ensure that my body is tired enough to fall asleep that night. If I don't work out and spend most of the day sitting at my desk, I often find that I'm just buzzing at bedtime from excess energy. If I work out in the evening, I try to stick to something relaxing like yoga so that I can unwind after work.
Stop drinking coffee by 10 AM. I've never met an insomniac who doesn't love their coffee (there are days when it's genuinely the only thing keeping my eyes open), but I always stop by 10 AM sharp, whether I've finished my cup or not.
Don't watch television within two hours of bedtime. I try to avoid watching television on weeknights, unless I get off from work early enough that I'm able to watch a show and turn it off before 8:30 PM. And the show should be something relatively action-free, i.e. This is Us, not Game of Thrones. On that note, I also plug my phone into its charger as soon as I get home and don't look at it until the morning. Minimize screens any way you can.
Don't drink alcohol. This is (quite literally) a buzz-kill, but it's one of the biggest things that's helped me sleep. While a glass of wine can help me unwind after work, I often find that it also wakes me up in the middle of the night. I still drink on the weekends, but try to avoid it on weeknights.
Eat a full dinner, early (before 8 PM). I like to go to bed sated, but not entirely full, so I aim to eat a big, healthy dinner around 7 PM.
Avoid desserts at night, and drink tea instead. I'm pretty sensitive to sugar rushes, so I avoid it completely at night. Instead, I like to drink either an herbal tea like chamomile with Moon Juice's 'Dream Dust' mixed in (no honey added) or the Four Sigmatic Reishi Hot Chocolate, blended with a tablespoon of coconut butter to make it creamy. I'm not positive they aren't placebos, but they still never fail to help me relax.
Go to bed at the same time every night. I usually keep a "last possible bedtime" in mind, i.e., the time I have to go to bed in order to get eight hours of sleep, and I try to get in bed thirty minutes before that time to begin to unwind. For me, my "last possible bedtime" is 10 PM, since I wake up at 6.
On that note... wake up at the same time every morning, even on weekends. My daily alarm is set for 6:05 AM so that I can keep my sleep rhythms consistent (I usually try to go to bed by 10 PM). And while it's tempting to sleep in on the weekends, I try not to unless I feel like I absolutely need it. It does help though that mornings are my favorite time of day—I prefer to wake up closer to 5 the morning after relaxing nights at home. If you're a night owl, I highly recommend reading this recent NYT article (by Joanna Goddard's husband!).
Give yourself more time. When I'm running 5 minutes late for everything, all day (which I am most days), I have a really hard time switching gears once I'm home. As soon as I started adding a buffer between things, say giving myself three hours to write an article that I think will take me two, I was able to relax much more—and still somehow get everything I need to done. I've also gotten into the habit of taking ten minutes to meditate everyday. More than anything, just allowing myself to have ten minutes free works wonders.
Get yourself accessories. I'm an incredibly light sleeper, but what's helped for me is sleeping with ear plugs and an eye mask that doesn't slide off easily. Find what works for you and use it!
Have a boring or calming book on hand. Reading alone often doesn't work for me, because I can get so into a book that I stay awake just to read it. For nights when I don't feel tired heading into bed, I read from the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi because it's weirdly relaxing to me, but have heard that books like Harry Potter (as long as you've already read it) are also effective. Also, if you're reading and feel a wave of sleepiness—take it! I find if I continue reading even a paragraph after I feel tired, I'm no longer able to fall asleep.
I take a 1:1 CBD / THC tincture when I need it. I have tried every sleep aid in the book—Nyquil Zzzzz (a.k.a., overpriced Benadryl), sleeping pills (more on that below), melatonin, herbal remedies—but the one that I've found to be most effective, without making me groggy in the morning is weed. I love the 1:1 tincture Professor Snook's makes of CBD and THC. (Note: If I have too much THC, I wake up in the middle of the night the same way I do with wine.) I take the recommended dose, which is 5 drops, or 8 if I really need it. If you don't live in a state with legal recreational marijuana, I suggest trying a CBD tincture to see if that alone works for you!
A quick word on sleep aids... First of all, if you're considering prescription sleep aids, you should talk to your doctor about all of the options because there are so many. All I can share with you is my personal experience with them: In college, I was prescribed Ambien, which I took so rarely that I still have about 15 from the bottle of 30 I was prescribed. That being said, it worked like a charm and could knock me out in 30 seconds flat (really). A subsequent doctor told me that Ambien may be linked to Alzheimer's and instead prescribed me Trazodone, an anti-anxiety medication that's less effective for me but, according to my own doctor, safer. The only time I ever take Trazodone is to help me sleep on long flights, but I usually just take my THC/CBD tincture at home.
Counting sheep doesn't work, but this does... The most important thing about waking up in the middle of the night is training yourself to recognize it right away, then do the following trick while you're still groggy, before you've started going through your mental to-do list. My boyfriend's mom taught me to think of a category like "Things you'd find a farmers market" and begin naming items that you'd find there, that start with each letter of the alphabet in order ("Apples, beets, carrots, Daikon radish..."). It takes up just enough brain capacity that it holds your mind on it, and off of your racing thoughts, until you're able to fall back asleep.
If it's been a few minutes and your mind is racing... the best thing you can do is get out of bed—without looking at a screen. I get out of bed, and go to our couch where I'll turn on a dim light and read until I feel tired enough to fall back asleep.
I'd love to hear: Do you struggle with sleeping? If so, what are some of your favorite tips for battling insomnia?