Insomnia is something that has been part of my life for a looooong time now. I’ve never been a night owl or someone who can sleep in till noon but I did used to have a healthy sleep pattern and wake up feeling refreshed. Somewhere along the line this got disrupted and I’d say for the last 5 years my sleep has not been great. I’ve probably averaged around 5-6 hours a night and after a while it really started to take its toll. Its only been in the last month or two that I finally feel more balanced and that I have a healthier relationship to sleep so I wanted to share a few things I learned along the way.
What are the types of sleep disturbance?
In my experience there are 3 main types of sleep disturbance:
- Not being able to fall asleep
- Not being able to stay asleep (or waking up too early)
- Not getting quality deep sleep
These can be acute (short term) or chronic (long term) and can happen for many reasons. I tend to fall into the second category, I can fall asleep easily but I often wake up in the middle of the night or very early in the morning and struggle to get back to sleep. However I have spoken to lots of people who have the opposite problem and lie awake into the early hours not being able to fall asleep then struggle to get out of bed in the morning. The third type is probably more common than most people realise as it has become the norm to not feel refreshed in the morning then plough through the day using coffee to keep us awake.
What causes sleep disturbance?
So many things are at play in the quality of our sleep that its hard to say the “true cause”. Often its a combination physical, psychological and environmental factors. Many people today are stressed with the high pressure, busy lifestyles we lead. Anxiety and worry as well as other mental conditions can lead to sleep disturbance or insomnia. For others it could be physical such as pain or discomfort, caffeine or alcohol intake, blood sugar imbalance or nutritional deficiencies. In some cases environmental factors such as too much noise or light in the bedroom, use of phones or laptops in the evening or being too hot or cold in bed.
For me, it is mostly psychological and definitely related to stress and my “type A” personality of wanting to do things well. This means I often have things on my mind even when I don’t realise it and can wake up in the night planning what I need to do the next day. Anxiety around sleep also doesn’t help as worrying about how much sleep I am missing out on and how tired I will be just exaggerates the problem and keeps me awake.
What can we do to improve sleep?
There are some absolute basics of “sleep hygiene” which I think is always a good place to start:
Make sure you have a blue light filter installed on your phone/laptop if you use them in the evening. The blue light emitted from screens makes our brains think it is day time and can mess with your body clock and sleeping patterns. Even better, switch off all devices at least an hour before bed
Again on the topic of light try to dim the lights as much as possible in the evening. Lamps, fairy lights and candles are all great to help you wind down in the evening and get ready for sleep. Himalayan salt lamps are really beautiful and are said to boost energy, clean the air and aid better sleep. When you actually get into bed it should be as dark and cave like as possible. Blackout curtains are great, especially if you live somewhere with a lot of artificial light or where it gets light early in the morning. I also sleep with an eye mask as I find it comforting and part of my sleep routine. I found a super comfy cotton one (here) which doesn’t put pressure on my eyes and it’s really made a difference.
Our body temperature actually drops to its lowest point during the night as we are not moving or digesting food to generate heat. The recommended bedroom temperature for optimal sleep is 16-18°C (60-65°F). Check you don’t have your heating set too high in the winter and try to keep your bedroom as cool as possible in the summer. I’ve never tried it but apparently putting your sheets in the fridge is helpful
If you live in an apartment or on a busy street it could be something as simple as noise keeping you awake. Its not something you can easily control unless you want to move out into the countryside but I have found ear plugs really helpful in getting a better night’s sleep. I have tried all sorts of different ones so you might need to try a few until you find a comfy pair. I like the mouldable silicone ones (these) as I sleep on my side and the foam ones stick out and feel uncomfortable
If these don’t work what can I try?
Everyone is different when it comes to caffeine and only you know your body best. I used to rely heavily on caffeine, even more so when I was struggling with sleep as it was the “only way” to get through the day when I was feeling exhausted. I managed to decrease to one coffee in the morning so I thought this couldn’t possibly be affecting my sleep over 12 hours later but actually caffeine takes a long time to break down in our body. It has an average half life of 6 hours which means if we drink a coffee at 10am then half of that will be in our system at 4pm and a quarter still at 10pm. Who would drink a quarter coffee before bed an expect to get a good nights sleep?? Once I managed to quit coffee altogether it really helped my sleep and energy levels during the day (after the first few difficult days!). If you don’t know if you are sensitive to caffeine give it a try for a couple of weeks as this could be the key.
We are always bombarded with messages these days telling us to drink more water to be healthy. I do agree that hydration is important but we can over do it. If you are peeing every hour and it is clear, you are probably overdoing it. I know I have definitely gone through periods of waking up during the night to go to the bathroom and for a healthy person this shouldn’t happen. If this is you then try to have your last drink after dinner, maybe a herbal tea or other relaxing drink, a few hours before you go to bed. Make sure you are drinking during the day and taking in hydrating fruits and vegetables but there is no need to drink pints and pints of water as your body will be unable to absorb it.
This one is not always easy but allowing yourself to “wind down” before bed is really important. Give yourself half an hour to an hour before you head to sleep to sit quietly and listen to music or read a book. Maybe do some stretching or yoga if this is your thing or find another relaxing activity that you enjoy. Try to avoid intense tv programs or heated debates before bed as this can increase your stress hormones and keep you awake. If you have a family to look after it can be hard sometimes to find this time but having a routine before bed can help to program your brain and prepare for better sleep. It can be better to stay up an extra 30 minutes to give yourself this time and get better quality sleep that to head to bed in a stressed out state worried about not getting enough sleep.
It might seem cliche but writing in a journal before bed can be a great way to empty your mind and allow your brain to relax into deep sleep. Try to get any worries and stresses of the day out of your head and onto paper. Even if you are resistant to writing at first just start and over time it will get easier. If you are someone like me who tends to run through their to do list in the night, try to write it all down before bed. What needs to be done, what have you done so far to work on it and what will you do tomorrow? Close the book and put it away in a drawer before you go to bed and that will signal to your brain that it is safe to relax until the morning.
Moving our bodies is necessary part of a healthy lifestyle but can also help with sleep. Using energy and getting the blood flowing helps our bodies to detoxify and release tension. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme but getting 30 minutes of movement on a daily basis can really help improve sleep quality. Walking, yoga, dancing, jogging, cycling… anything which seems fun to you just give it a go and see how you feel. On the other hand if you are working out intensely in the evening, this could be contributing to sleep issues as it can raise cortisol levels. Exercising in the morning is best but if the evening is the only time available to you try to get your workout in before dinner and allow your body a few hours to relax again before bed.
I’ve tried all of this what can I do now??
Relaxing scents such as lavender can help to calm down your nervous system and prepare for sleep. Try scented candles or oil burners, oil diffusers or have a relaxing bath with essential oils and salts added in. You can also get lavender sprays for you bedroom or pillow which can help you brain to associate the scent with sleep.
I have tried over the counter sleep medications in the past and not enjoyed the experience. They would help me to sleep through the night but I never felt refreshed adn would often feel more groggy and foggy headed than if I’d been awake all night. On the other hand I have found herbal remedies and supplements to be effective. My favourites contain chamomile, valerian root, sour cherry, lemon balm and lavender as well as B vitamins and magnesium which both help with relaxing the nervous system. Two I like at the moment are “Bee-rested” and “Melissa dream” which can be found in the UK but there are many similar products out there.
I’ve saved this one till last but it is actually one of the most important ones and that is your attitude towards sleep. I know I have been in a panic and tears many times in the morning after having barely any sleep and having to get up and go to work. But I start to question myself and think “so what if I’m tired, what is the problem”? This raised so much resistance in me at first but actually I realised that the pressure and worry I was putting on myself was making the problem worse. I was defining myself as an insomniac which was programming my mind to attach to the problem and prevent me from getting back into a normal routine. Once I accepted the situation and stopped panicking when I woke up in the night I started to feel and sleep better.
What should I do if I wake up in the night?
Finally I want to give a few tips about what to do if you wake in the middle of the night or early morning and can’t sleep. I know I have been there and it is a very frustrating, isolating and lonely time. I used to toss and turn in bed sometimes trying to sleep for 4 hours before having to drag myself out of bed. Now I never stay in bed longer than half an hour if I’m not asleep. The best thing to do is to get up, go into another room and sit quietly in dim lighting until you feel ready to sleep again. Try reading or journalling or any other activity. Instead of worrying about being awake, see it as bonus peaceful time.
I hope some of these tips can help any of you struggling with sleep. It can be the most frustrating thing and it really affects our quality of life and don’t have the energy to do the things we enjoy during the day. If you have any stories or extra tips please share in the comments as I think this is a really important topic 🙂