As an Occupational Therapist and chronic illness suffer, I am passionate about sleep. After all, sleep truly is the most important occupation you will ever engage in throughout your life. Sleep is vitally important for us to heal and rejuvenate, but for some of us, it has become a near impossible endeavor.
Sleep can be impacted by several factors including extreme stress, illness, hormonal imbalances and a poor sleep regime. I first became an extreme insomniac in 2010, when I lost the ability to sleep altogether due to Chronic Neurological Lyme Disease. One day, I was sleeping 10-12 hours a day. Two month later, I was no longer able to sleep at all. In a quest to one day return to a blissful night’s rest, I have combined my own professional understanding of the mechanics of sleep with numerous books, articles and consultations with experts in the fields of Sleep Medicine, Lyme Disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Adrenal Fatigue. In part one of my post, I have compiled a list of basic sleep strategies recommended to help promote sleep. In addition to treating the underlying condition triggering your insomnia, it is imperative that you tighten up your sleep hygiene to ensure it is not contributing to your inability to have a refreshing night’s slumber. My hope is that you will find at least a few unique tips that you have not yet tried in your mission to overcome insomnia.
Finding Your Sleep Rhythm
1. Find time to go outside during the daytime hours, preferably in the morning, to get exposure to natural light. An average of 20 minutes of exposure without wearing sunglasses is generally recommended. The sunlight needs to reach the pineal gland in your brain via the optic nerves in your eyes. This exposure to sunlight will increase your brain’s production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, which remarkably, is a precursor to melatonin. Warning: Do not stare directly at the sun when outside. Doing so can increase your risk of developing cataracts.
2. Give your body the opportunity to establish a daily and nightly rhythm by going to bed and getting up at the same time each day.
3. By 10:00pm, you should stop watching tv, using the computer or your cell phone. The light from those devices may cause your body to still think it’s daylight and may halt the production of melatonin to induce sleep.
Dietary Considerations for Insomnia
1. If you have not already done so, you should quite smoking. Nicotine acts as a stimulant which can make it difficult to fall asleep. Also, nighttime nicotine withdrawal can cause you to awaken.
2. Do not consume alcohol before you go to bed. For a variety of reasons, this can decrease the quality of your sleep.
3. Do not consume caffeine after 4:00pm. This includes stimulating coffees, sodas, teas (besides herbal teas) and chocolates.
4. If you have frequent nighttime urination, reduce your consumption of liquids near bedtime.
5. Eating a small snack of protein and fat, such as a handful of cashews or walnuts, before sleep can be very helpful. This can promote a more restful night’s sleep by stabilizing your blood sugar. Low blood sugar in the middle of the night can create a surge of adrenaline causing you to wake up. If you find yourself waking in the middle of the night, eat another small snack normalize blood sugar before returning to bed.
Your Bedroom Environment
1. You should not use your bed for watching TV or doing work.
2. You’re room should be a cool, comfortable temperature.
3. Make your room as dark as you can or consider purchasing a sleep mask to keep out as much light as possible.
4. Continually watching the clock can perpetuate sleep problems so be sure to place the clock at an arm’s length and facing away from you.
5. If you have a partner that snores, you may need to consider buying a pair of ear plugs. If the snoring can still be heard through the ear plugs, you may want to sleep in a different room until you can find another method that enables you to sleep soundly despite the snoring.
Preparing for Sleep
1. Incorporate some mindful breathing when you first lay down to sleep to help relax the mind and body. Place one hand on your heart and the other hand on your belly. Inhale through your nose as you direct your attention to the rising of your belly as your lungs fill with air. Exhale through your nose as you feel the lowering of your belly as oxygen is gently expelled from your lungs. Repeat this sequence for 5-10 minutes.
2. Practice Corpse Pose. Lie on your back with your neck comfortably supported and your arms out to the side with your palms facing upward. Straighten your legs and let them roll outward. Allow your body to become heavy on the bed as you inhale and exhale with the natural flow of your breath. Permit your body to sink even further into the bed as you come to a state of total relaxation. Remain in this position for 5-10 minutes.
3. If you find your mind racing, worrying or problem solving while trying to fall asleep, get up and take a few minutes to write down all of your thoughts in a journal until you cannot think of any more. Set those concerns aside and return to bed. Repeat this exercise as often as needed to calm an overactive mind.
Natural Sleep Aids
The following is a list of supplements often recommended by Integrated Health Practitioners to assist you with getting a restful nights sleep. Please consult with your physician regarding dosing, side effects and drug interactions before incorporating any of these into your nighttime routine.
1. Valerian Root
6. Magnesium Glycinate
7. Passion Flower
The following three books are books that I personally have found to be particularly useful in my mission to beat my chronic insomnia.
1. From Fatigued to Fantastic, Jacob Teitlebaum, M.D.
2. Revive, Frank Lipman, M.D.
3. The Triple Whammy Cure, David Edelberg M.D.
In my next post, I will provide some additional tips and resources for those of us whose insomnia, despite having a solid sleep hygiene program, continues to persist. Don’t lose hope! This can be a frustrating situation to endure, but it is one in which improvement can, and often is, found.