Sleep…it consolidates our memories, cleans up free radicals, fights cancer, and helps us look and feel younger and more energetic. And when sleep goes wrong, it impacts every aspect of our lives: mood, memory, appetite, heart health, and more.
I’ve had insomnia in differing degrees of hideousness ever since I hit perimenopause about 12 years ago. In fact, I’m writing these words at 3:30 AM. Sigh.
If you struggle with sleep, you know that insomnia is a double whammy, making life miserable both while it’s happening — e.g., at 2 AM, when you wish someone would hit you over the head to render you unconscious — and the following day, when you’re either (A) drowsy or (B) amped up on cortisol and caffeine. Whoohoo!
I never have trouble falling asleep because I’m always exhausted, but I sleep lightly, with a lot of blanket-adjusting and pillow-repositioning, and I get up 3 or 4 times a night to pee. Some nights (like tonight) I fully wake up for a couple of hours too, usually starting around 1:00 or 2:00 AM.
Even if I get 8 or 9 hours in bed without the 2 AM awakening, I usually wake up tired because of my light, fragmented sleep. When I’m truly desperate, I nap under my desk at lunch — just 20 minutes helps me survive the day.
What can we do about this? Fixing my insomnia is one of the toughest problems I’ve ever struggled with, and I haven’t solved it yet.
A list of stuff I’ve tried is below — let me know your thoughts, solutions, and suggestions in the comments. I’m always looking for new ideas! Sleep is too important to give up on.
What I’ve tried so far
Bear in mind these were not-very-scientific experiments with an n of 1 (me). As they say, “Your mileage may vary.”
- Exercising a lot: E.g., 3 workouts in one day. It seems counterintuitive, but a day featuring deep-water pool running, a brisk walk, and a tough cross-country ski session didn’t stave off insomnia (though I’m sure it had other health benefits). I’ve noticed this after other tough workouts, too. “Tonight, I’m sure I’ll sleep well!” I say to myself, ever optimistic. But no. Friends who are ultra-runners reported a similar effect: after a 50k race in the mountains, they slept more lightly than usual. Maybe it’s the stress hormones?
Verdict: Didn’t make any difference.
- Avoiding caffeine: I started drinking coffee (1 cup, super weak) only about 2 years ago. For a while I was a nuisance to my friends, telling them excitedly, “Wow, this stuff really makes you more alert!” (Who knew!?) After a few bad weeks of insomnia, I recently gave up coffee, switching to green tea. I feel somewhat calmer, but it might be because I also gave up Google News at the same time. (I told you this wasn’t scientific!) Research shows that consuming caffeine can delay sleep onset, and that caffeine can stay in your system for a while — for most people, its half-life is about 4-6 hours, which means that after that time, half the dose you ingested is still there in your system, waiting to party come bedtime! As well, humans seem to have 3 possible different levels of sensitivity to caffeine. Where do you think you stand?
Verdict: Helpful, but like many things in this list, giving up caffeine isn’t a magic bullet to fix my insomnia on its own.
- Bioidentical progesterone: Progesterone is a naturally occurring hormone that helps women’s bodies prepare for and maintain pregnancies. (Obviously this particular insomnia hack is available only to women — sorry, guys!) I was inspired to try this when I realized (1) my insomnia started at perimenopause (2) I always slept well when pregnant with my son, even though that was a stressful time in my life. There had to be a hormonal connection. And indeed it seemed there might be: see this great post from one of my favourite bloggers. My doctor took a bit of convincing, but now I take 2 or 3 100-mg capsules of promterium every night at bedtime. When I first started it, it made me very drowsy during the day, so I had to scale back the dose.
Verdict: Definitely helpful. Worth a try if you’re a woman with good medical coverage (it’s quite expensive).
- Festival o’ supplements: Mornings: Rhodiola , for stress/cortisol management; Bedtime: Magnesium glycinate (the most absorbable form of this mineral); Natural Factors Stress-Relax Tranquil Sleep; plus sometimes valerian tea with a few drops of California poppy extract. The Natural Factors contains l-theanine (calming amino acid derived from green tea), 5-HTP (helps increase production of the calming neurotransmitter serotonin) , and melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep/wake cycles.
Verdict: I suspect these do help my sleep a bit. I’m nervous about removing any of them from the mix to properly test this assumption, though, or to identify which ones are helping.
- Sleeping pills: I took Zopiclone 4 or 5 times a week about 9 years ago, during a stretch when I was sleeping only 3 or 4 hours a night. #funtimes! The drug did turn off my consciousness, but it didn’t feel like real sleep. As well, the zopiclone messed with my long-term memory — a lot of memories during that time were never permanently saved. As a result, there are big chunks of my son’s teenage years that are permanently lost to me.
Verdict: I would never take Zopiclone again. However, it was the only sleeping pill I tried, and it’s possible there are others that would work better. Because of my Zopiclone experience, though, I’m very wary.
- A weighted blanket: Weighted blankets are supposed to have a calming effect, and can help increase serotonin production. From the website of Gravid*, a weighted-blanket manufacturer: “According to a 2009 study by Temple Grandin, Ph.D in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, DTPS [“deep touch pressure stimulation”, like that caused by a weighted blanket] has a calming effect in children with autism and ADHD, and a similar relaxing effect in adults without a medical diagnosis.” The Gravid blanket my husband and son spoiled me with this Christmas (thanks again, guys!) does help me feel more relaxed, but only if I’m somewhat relaxed already. If I’m tense and wired, the blanket can’t fix that on its own.
Verdict: Useful if used with other relaxation techniques.
- Meditation/relaxation: These are not the same thing, but I’m lumping them together because for me, meditation leads to relaxation. Research shows that mindfulness meditation can definitely help sleep. My sleep is a bit better when I meditate regularly, but it doesn’t completely solve the problem. I suspect my insomnia may be due to stress plus some other yet-to-be-identified factor. As well, I haven’t been very disciplined so far in my meditation attempts. On the days I do it, it’s usually for only 5 – 8 minutes. This is something I would really like to work on.
Verdict: If you think stress is contributing to your insomnia, meditation may make a significant difference. Headspace is a guided meditation app I tried for a while and liked. I also like the guided body scan by John Kabat-Zinn, who’s the author of classic book Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (strongly recommended). However, the body scan meditation takes 45 minutes, so I don’t do it very often. For more ideas, see this article on the best meditation apps.
- Sleep hygiene: This means having a cool, dark, quiet bedroom with no distractions; using the bedroom only for sleep and sex (no reading, no TV or web surfing), avoiding bright lights before bed (especially those from screens), and more — see details in this useful post from Harvard Medical School. I’ve been doing all of this ever since my insomnia first hit years ago. My insomnia would be probably be harder to deal with if I *didn’t* do these things, but they definitely didn’t solve it.
Verdict: Didn’t help me a huge amount, but might be worth a try for you. (When it comes to sleep, everything’s worth a try!)
A possible solution?
Lately, I stumbled on three facts that could be a game-changer for my insomnia:
- I snore — not much, but still…I tracked my snoring with the free SnoreLab app for iPhone.
- Women who are not overweight can still have sleep apnea. The typical image of someone with sleep apnea is an heavier person (often a man) with a large neck who snores loudly, but apparently it’s more about the architecture of your mouth, jaw, and throat than your weight or size.
- My city has a sleep clinic! I wish I’d know this sooner.
It might seem strange that I hope I have sleep apnea, but…
- It explains my constant waking to pee
- It explains my fragmented, unrefreshing sleep
- And most importantly, it’s FIXABLE. Imagine not being tired all the time!
For how I followed up on this, watch for these posts:
- Fixing my sleep, Part 2: First visit to the sleep clinic
- Fixing my sleep, Part 3: The overnight sleep study
- Fixing my sleep, Part 4: Results of the overnight sleep study
Cross your fingers for me!! #nevergiveup #sleepisworthfightingfor
*Do they know their company name means “pregnant” ??