Laying awake in bed as the minutes tick past and turn to hours despite desperately trying to just fall asleep is agonizing and exhausting. No amount of coffee can make up for the utter sleepiness restless nights create. Unfortunately, sleepless nights aren’t limited to exam time or welcoming home a new baby.
Insomnia, or difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep, is one of the most common health complaints and affects over one third of all adults at some point or another.
Widely different underlying causes all produce insomnia. Anxiety or excitement often causes difficulty in going to sleep. Depression has the opposite effect, tending to wake you up early in the morning, tired but unable to sleep. Of course, chronic pain makes sleep difficult and some people (like me) have always had difficulty getting to sleep.
Thankfully, there are many things that we can do to overcome insomnia.
Develop good sleep hygiene: Oftentimes the main culprit for insomnia is simply poor sleep habits. Although some circumstances make it impossible, for most of us, our sleep patterns are a choice.
- Get up earlier, consistently: the point is more sleep, but by consistently getting up earlier, you start to get your body into a rhythm and are actually able to fall asleep come bedtime.
- Spend time outside, in the morning: not only are the UV rays less damaging before the sun reaches it’s hottest, morning sunshine helps get your body into circadian rhythm and initiate sleep at night. On the other hand, if you’re waking up too early, try getting sunlight later in the day.
- Exercise regularly: The benefits of exercise are abundant and one of them is that exercise helps you rest better… just make sure it’s not too late in the day. Exercising close to bedtime can pump too much adrenaline into the body and make falling asleep more difficult.
- Get comfortable: A good pillow makes a big difference. In the winter, make sure you’re warm enough before heading to bed.
- Go to bed at a reasonable time: a good schedule makes getting to sleep much easier. Plus, if you wait ’til you’re “beyond tired” to get to bed it can be more difficult to initiate sleep.
If you have trouble getting to sleep, find a relaxation method that works for you.
- Read a book: If your mind begins to race the moment you hit the pillow, bring a (non-fiction) book to bed. Not only does it whittle down the “must-read” pile, but keeps your mind from replaying the events of the day for the fiftieth time.
- Listen to music or a story from Librivox: Like reading, it relaxes the mind, but you get to have your eyes closed. Just make sure the story isn’t overly intriguing. A boring station on the radio works wonders too!
- Meditate on a passage of Scripture or poem you’ve memorized.
- Breath deeply: deep, cleansing breaths help calm the body.
- Relax your body systematically: start with your face and methodically work down to your toes to release the tension that builds throughout the day. Relax your eye brows and sink your fingers into the pillow. My midwife coached me in this during my long labors but it works wonderfully for inducing sleep too!
- Keep paper and pen by the bed: That way if a nagging thought or great idea comes to mind you can write it down and deal with it in the morning.
Certain foods and herbs can improve sleep.
- Eat light at night: While we sleep our digestive system is hard at work, so lighter evening meals make the body’s job easier and produce more restful sleep. Avoid food right before heading to bed.
- Foods high in calcium, carbohydrates or tryptophan (a sleep-inducing amino acid) like dairy, whole grains and nuts make especially good dinner and evening snack choices.
- Aromatherapy: the scents of lavender, chamomile or ylang ylang supposedly induce sleep, quickly.
- Valerian, a hardy perennial herb, works as a natural sedative. When all other methods failed for me, Valerian has worked. Unlike Unisom (my previous measure-of-last-resort), it does not make me feel jittery. Just calm. Even if circumstances out of my control, like a sick baby, keep me from getting a full night’s sleep, I still wake up feeling calm and rested. Deemed a safe, non-toxic herb, there are still a few possible side effects, and should be used in moderation.
Do you ever struggle with insomnia? What do you do to overcome it?
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