By now we all know how important sleep is for our health, both in terms of how we feel and function day to day, and on how it impacts our long-term health and longevity. Not to mention our immune response – when we are run down and not sleeping well, we are so much more vulnerable to virus’ and infections.
A night spent tossing and turning instead of sleeping leaves us tired, irritable and not our best performing selves the next day. A second night of poor sleep just makes everything worse. Most people will occasionally experience a random night of poor sleep or even two, but generally it will resolve and the body will sleep deeper the next night to return to normal.
For many of us however, poor or not enough sleep is not an occasional thing at all, but something that happens regularly.
According to Sleepfoundation.org there are several types of insomnia, and some overlap:
- Acute insomnia – this is the occasional type of insomnia caused by a stressful life event, and it usually resolves fairly quickly.
- Chronic insomnia – this is an ongoing pattern of sleeping issues. It is defined by difficulty falling or staying asleep 3 nights per week or more, for 3 months or longer.
- Comorbid insomnia – this is insomnia that accompanies another diagnosed medical condition i.e. anxiety or depression, arthritis, pain, that makes it challenging to sleep.
- Onset insomnia – this is when you have issues with falling asleep at bedtime
- Maintenance insomnia – this is when you fall asleep but wake during the night and then have difficulty getting back to sleep.
I have personally struggled with sleep since even before my teens – and I am in my late 40’s now so I consider myself fairly experienced. I remember being quite young, like 12 or so, and begging my mom for Gravol at bedtime – I just loved that feeling of drifting off and sinking into sleep and had a hard time getting there a lot of the time. My mom naturally wasn’t keen on giving me Gravol but occasionally allowed it when I had exams in high school. She remains a pretty good sleeper most of the time, and it can be hard for good sleepers to relate to insomniacs.
My issue is, and has always been, an inability to turn my brain off. This is exacerbated by stress of course, but even when I am not terribly stressed it can still be a challenge. My “busy brain” is both a blessing and a curse – I’m an awesome problem solver both personally and professionally, and even for friends and family, because whatever I’m worrying about is always running in the back of my mind somewhere, so solutions come quickly and are generally well thought out. I also run a million scenarios in my mind so am pretty good at forward thinking and selecting the best option from a menu my brain has created. My mind is almost always racing towards future issues, opportunities and outcomes. This makes being truly present very, very difficult, which is not good. That can lead to missing out on or not fully experiencing moments, and being fully present for friends and family.
I have participated in sleep studies, done a ton of reading, resorted to prescription medication at several times in my life, and have literally tried almost every combination of natural supplements and good sleep hygiene available.
There were several periods in the last 20 years when I slept only 3 or 4 hours per night or not at all, for months at a time. This is not sustainable and so incredibly unhealthy. If this is where you are, please ensure you talk to your doctor. I got a lot of colds, which didn’t help, and drank a lot of coffee. I could still function at work and home but was tired all the time and was always working to manage irritability.
I’m happy to say my personal sleep journey is now in a very positive place. I do work at it though, and know that I always will have to. I fall asleep easily and then fall back asleep quickly after using the loo in the wee hours. I wake feeling rested and don’t have a “low” point in the afternoon. My daytime energy levels are pretty even. There may be one night per month that this doesn’t happen and usually it is a combination of cyclical hormones and something especially worrying. But now when that happens, I’m pretty grateful as it is a reminder of what most nights used to be like, which is just not the case anymore.
So, if this sounds anything like you, and I know I am not alone here; modern life places a lot of demands on us and we also have high expectations for ourselves and how we meet those demands, I certainly hope you find these strategies helpful. I’ve been honing them for years and this is what works for me 98% of the time. After all Sleep is the ultimate and most crucial piece of Self-Care.
- Sleep hygiene
This is the single most important part of getting good sleep. And I know you’ve heard all this before. But there is a reason for that: it works. Be disciplined because it is worth it. And if you practice disciplined sleep hygiene most of the time, you can get away with the odd late night or big sleep in here and there, so long as it is the exception not the rule. These are the ones that work for me. Find what works for you and stick to it.
- Keep your bedtime and waking time very consistent – try not to vary either by more than 30 minutes. For me this is best helped by being in bed by 10:30pm and asleep by 11pm latest. I wake each day between 6:30 and 7am. I think earlier would serve me better but I have a business and a family and this is what I can manage. There really are never enough hours in the day!
- No screens or work 60 minutes before bed – and by that I mean no TV, laptops, social media. If you have glasses with blue light protection (I do) then you may be able to read on a tablet without negatively impacting sleep. But don’t try this until you are sleeping well regularly first.
- Wind down 30-60 minutes before bed. Hot bath, a face mask, a meditation (guided by app or on your own), a podcast, a massage for or from your partner, quiet conversation – anything that is not on screen or stimulating.
- Read before bed. Seriously this works. Make it an actual book unless you have “graduated” to a tablet with blue-light protective coated glasses. I keep 2 or 3 books on the go – one fiction, and usually two non-fictions either business related or life-improvement. On restless nights the non-fiction is best.
- Use a sleep mask. Not only does this block light but the act of putting it on becomes a habit that supports letting your brain know that it’s bedtime, and a cue to slow down.
- Changing your insomnia attitude and approach
This is hard but so important. On those nights when you can’t fall or stay asleep you cannot just lay there and ruminate on it. It absolutely doesn’t work and we know this, but it’s so common to just lay there and “try” to sleep while your mind counts the hours left and focuses on how awful the day ahead will be. But seriously, don’t. Sleeping is the one thing you can’t just try harder at to improve. Get up, move to the couch and try reading something dull with a small reading light, not an overhead light. When you can’t keep your eyes open (even if that takes an hour, move back to the bed. Repeat as needed. Years ago, I read an amazing book by Canadian Sleep Expert (she has a Ph.D in this!) Colleen Carney called Quiet Your Mind and Get to Sleep. Highly recommend. One of my biggest takeaways was shifting my mindset - no one ever died from one sleepless night, and we can all get through the next day if we need to. Obviously, it’s not pleasant, and long-term it’s bad for your health but focusing there does not help. Remind yourself you have managed before for the day, and that the next night you will amplify your sleep hygiene and have a better sleep.
- Good nutrition
Whether your diet is plant-based or omnivore or something in between, make it a balanced, whole food diet that is low in sugar and simple carbs with healthy fats and protein at each meal. As Michael Pollan says, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Avoid processed food and cook as much as you can.
- No caffeine after noon.
I know, most guidance says no caffeine after 2pm, but if you are reading this blog you already struggle with sleep. Your cut off is noon. And watch for less obvious caffeine sources like chocolate, green tea, and soft drinks (which hopefully you don’t drink – see #3).
- Natural sleep supplements
Many people worry about taking anything to sleep, usually touting a concern for becoming dependant or feeling groggy the next day. While prescription sleep aids do have their place, they also come with negative long-term side effects, and can be addictive. Natural sleep aids generally don’t have these drawbacks and are not habit-forming. But they aren’t all the same either. There are many different sleep formulas combing many different sleep ingredients. And sometimes it is trial and error finding the one that works for you, which can be frustrating and costly.
The best-known natural sleep aid is probably melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone your body produces naturally to regulate your sleep patterns (so you sleep at night, not during the day) and that some people don’t produce enough of. I find it amazing for travel and changing time zones, but have never found it terribly effective for turning my busy brain off, or supporting stress-related sleep issues. I have definitely experienced that unpleasant next day melatonin hangover (which is still way better than not sleeping), which may be a sign of too much. There are definitely better natural ingredients for supporting stress-related sleep issues. Niyama’s own Sleep Like Buddha is a very personal combination of the ingredients that I used to take separately (so many pills!) that were most effective long, and short term for improving my own sleep. It is melatonin-free so there are no groggy mornings. It contains Passionflower to help you relax and fall asleep, L-theanine to calm that busy brain, and 5-HTP to allow your body to make more serotonin (the feel good and safe hormone) to balance the increased cortisol we make at night when lives are stressful (so always pretty much). I take one capsule 30 minutes before bedtime, and if it’s an especially crazy day I might increase to two capsules. Always follow package directions and read all warnings (they are on inside of the peel-back label). Allow one full week for full benefit. Your brain has to get back into a good sleep rhythm and that won’t always happen the first or second night. Stick with it for a week – it is worth it.
- Daily movement
I’m partial to yoga but find what you love and do it. Even if it’s 15 minutes when you are too busy to get to a yoga class or the gym. We can all fit in a 15-minute mini-practice at home with sun salutations, a forward bend or two, a twist and a closing posture. Or a brief run, a walk, or whatever home workout you like. Better if you can get in regular full workouts a few times per week but when you can’t ensure you do your mini at home.
- Time outside
Fresh air and nature are a balm for insomniacs. Time outside reduces stress and improves mood. Try a walk at lunch time or after dinner whenever you can. Bonus: if it’s a brisk walk it can also serve as #6.
- Stress response management
We can’t really control or manage stress – it is part of life. But we can manage our body’s individual stress response. Doing so will also help support better sleep at night.
How? By supporting our adrenals (the glands that produce the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenalin) during the day we can reduce cortisol production at night, and manage the daytime overwhelmed, stressed out feelings that aren’t fun and will also make sleeping harder at night. Niyama’s Daytime Zen contains 3 adaptogens (natural plants that help the body adapt to stress): Ashwagandha, Rhodiola and Bacopa as well as L-Theanine to reduce the perception of stress and support healthy adrenals.
It is my sincere hope that these tips help you. I’ve been there and I know that poor sleep quality and not enough sleep are awful and impact every part of life. My advice is to try the above tips, as most of them are pretty universally helpful, but also read as much as you can and be open to trying new approaches. Once you find what works for you, stick to it. Life is pretty awesome on the other side of insomnia, even on the days when it isn’t awesome – if you get what I mean.