I have had chronic insomnia for nearly five years. It was triggered by an unstable relationship followed by the sudden death of my daughter, both of which collided with menopause.
OB/GYN’s say insomnia is the most common complaint of the menopausal women they treat. They also report chronic insomnia can be set off by intense PTSD and grief. Only now, after several years, am I starting to get more and more consistent good sleep.
Here’s what my insomnia looks like. I wake up three to four hours after I fall asleep. I’m so wide awake I could play a hand of cards, compose a business letter, or go organize my closets. It takes hours to fall back to sleep.
I’ve tried nearly every remedy and read every book out there, some of which work better than others. I even took a seminar for health professionals about insomnia and the ‘over stimulated brain’.
I’m not one to turn to sleeping pills, sedatives or even medical marijuana as they only mask the problem. Once you stop taking them, your insomnia is still there … waiting patiently for you.
To that end, here’s the drug-free list of alternatives that have worked for me so far.
1. F.Lux. Mounting evidence says the blue light from phone and computer screens can keep you awake. The light tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime, even when it’s not. However the F.Lux app automatically removes the blue light from your phone, computer or other iOS device on a schedule that you set. This actually works! (And it’s free for Mac users.)
2. No simple carbs at night. Simple carbs like cookies, candy, cereal, potatoes, white bread and baked goods can wake you up in the middle of the night when consumed in the afternoon or evening. “Reverse meals,” advised one doctor. Eat a big lunch and just some light protein and veggies, soup or fruit for dinner.
3. Keep a sleep log at night. This helps you track just how your behavior affects your sleep. Make columns for date & sleep percentage, time to bed, time you fell asleep, number of times you woke, total time awake, final time awake, time you got out of bed, and quality of sleep from 1 to 5. At the end leave a column for notes on what varied from day to day.
Update your sleep log each morning. Then calculate this:
# of minutes slept ÷ # of minutes in bed
Keep your log for a while, then track that sleep percentage each day relative to how your behavior varies. When you get at least five days of sleep over 90% you’ll know what’s working.
4. Create a dark cozy sanctuary with an eye pillow. Removing light pollution from your bedroom is often a key to a good night’s sleep. The best way I’ve found is with a small silk bag that’s like a beanbag filled with flax seeds. Eye pillows lay across your eyes keeping the light out from, say, a partner who likes to read after you go to sleep, or light pollution from the street.
5. Write down your worries. Keep a worry log and you’ll find out just how worried you actually are. If you write these thoughts down at dinnertime and put them away, you will naturally move them through your brain more easily at night. It also helps to schedule a time when you will resolve some of these concerns.
6. Exercise daily. Even a 20-minute walk can help … but don’t work out just before bed. I find exercise takes the edge off of my natural anxiety and helps me chill out. Then I’m truly tired by bedtime.
7. Avoid alcohol. Yeah, we all know this one … personally I find it very true that when I have a glass of wine it will revisit me in the middle of the night and mess with my sleep.
8. Eliminate caffeine completely. One M.D. told me that we become more sensitive to caffeine as we get into mid-life. Furthermore, caffeine has been found to have a ‘half life’ that stays in your body an average of 5.7 hours after the buzz is gone. Certain genetic variants can keep the buzz going far longer so you sleep far more fitfully.
9. Take ground flax seed and flax seed oil for hot flashes. I avoid hot flashes most of the time by avoiding sugar. If I do, I double up on ground flax seed in yogurt. I also use a nice salad dressing of meyer lemon juice, lemon pepper and flax seed oil at lunch.
10. Keep your window open at night and use ear plugs if you need to. Simple but true. The body rests more deeply if slightly chilled. If you have ambient noise outside, silicone ear plugs are actually very effective.
11. Practice sleep restraint and keep a consistent sleep schedule. This is the single most effective remedy I have found for my insomnia. By keeping a sleep log (see #3) you will come to learn how much sleep you actually need to feel good. (Note: By mid-life, most of us tend to need less sleep than when we were younger. The average for people over 50 is actually 6.5 hours.)
Sleep restraint is modifying how long you stay in bed each night. It means getting up within three minutes of naturally waking up … whether you want to or not. So if you go to bed at 10AM and you wake up at 5:30 of 6AM, you get up, turn on the lights and start your day instead of rolling over. By the same turn keep yourself awake at night until your consistent bedtime arrives. If you have trouble staying awake, go for a brief walk. This will be uncomfortable at first but give it a few days and your body will adjust — and you’ll begin to stay more consistently.
Much of good sleep has to do with learned habit and association. So this teaches the body to use more of its time in bed actually sleeping.
12. The Relaxation Response. When my mind is racing in the middle of the night, I lie in bed and use Herbert Benson’s ‘Relaxation Response’. It’s basically a way to methodically calm the mind and relax the body. And it’s often the last thing I remember when trying to fall back to sleep.
May you find something helpful here in your quest for a good night’s sleep. I’d love to hear what has worked for you, so please leave any thoughts in a comment below. Thanks.