Fact: Insomnia sucks. Getting out of bed the morning after tossing and turning and fruitlessly praying to whatever sleep gods you may believe in is no fun at all. And chronic insomnia? It can suck the life right out of you. You feel depleted, short-tempered, cranky and overwhelmed. Your level of resilience starts to tank until simple things like making dinner or doing the dishes seem like more than you can handle. Parenting can feel like a Herculean effort, self care goes out the window, you forget things, double book yourself, get snappy with your partner and you might even start to cry if the grocery store is out of your favorite yogurt.
Part of the current insomnia epidemic is due to the fact that we live in a world that’s riddled with things that cause stress. This, in turn, over-extends our adrenals and causes cortisol (the stress hormone) to surge through our bodies. Our flight-or-fight response, which is a much needed perk of evolution, doesn’t shut off like it used to, and it’s creating alllll kinds of issues, both physical and mental.
My insomnia journey started years ago when husband and I were traveling from Seattle to NY on a very cold and snowy winter day and our flight was delayed — by about 13 hours. By the time we arrived in NYC it was 3 AM. It had been a grueling trip and we were exhausted. I lay in bed waiting for sleep to come but it never happened. I chalked it up to travel but the next night, after falling asleep just fine, I woke up wide awake after only four hours. I rolled around in bed. I plumped my pillows. I tried to relax. Nada. No more sleep that night. This went on for days. As it turned out, that episode was because my thyroid levels were elevated by something called Graves Disease. At the time I didn’t even know where my thyroid was let alone what it actually did in my body. Long story short, I got it sorted out and moved on. I thought it was over.
So imagine my surprise when insomnia cropped up again two years later after the birth of my first child — and I’m not talking about the usual kind of of sleep deprivation that comes with a new baby. I’m talking about my baby lying there, sleeping peacefully, and me lying there, night after night, exhausted but wide awake next to my snoring husband. I tried to sleep when my baby slept but it usually didn’t work. I went to my ND where I learned that insomnia during the postpartum year is not at all uncommon due to, among other things, hormonal shifts and adjustments.
Cut to the birth of my second child, which sadly coincided with the death of my closest friend. Adding grief into my postpartum mix made my adrenals go bonkers. I was a walking, talking, barely functioning mom of two kids under the age of three who was averaging three to four hours of sleep per night. Eventually I managed to get things back to “normal” but it never lasted long.
It seemed that there were many reasons insomnia was triggered. Every time I disrupted my status quo, even a smidge, I would find myself wide awake at some crazy hour. Sometimes I couldn’t even fall asleep at all. I tried anything (and everything) over the course of years and years of chronic insomnia. You name an over-the-counter sleep remedy and I can almost guarantee that I tried it. Plus the list of prescription drugs was long and included some familiar names like ambien, klonopin and trazadone. For nearly two years I was taking ambien every single night until it finally stopped working. This led me to see an MD who, after having me fill out about 50 pages of medical history, actually accused me of negligence, drug abuse and hysteria and suggested that I see a psychiatrist (he was fired from the clinic very soon after that appointment, thank goodness).
My quest to solve my insomnia finally led me to Dr. Line Fine at Seattle Sleep Medicine. She was incredible! She helped me get off prescription medication as well as change some of my long-term sleep habits and implement a few new ones. She helped me understand how important it can be to be patient with yourself while you are making changes like this. When changing a sleep pattern or behavior, give it seven to ten days before throwing in the towel. It takes at least that long for your body to adjust and adapt to the changes.
Whether you have problems falling asleep, staying asleep or both, here are some strategies I’ve learned over the years that can hopefully help you if you struggle with insomnia.
Relaxation is key.
Whatever relaxation tools live in your personal tool kit, it’s time to actually use them. Breathing exercises, meditation apps, aromatherapy, Yin or Restorative Yoga poses (I love Viparita Karani or legs up the wall pose), or my new favorite TRE can all be helpful.
Unwind your mind.
Sometimes there is so much stuff accumulated in our heads at one time that it can be helpful to do a brain dump. Journaling or making a to-do list helps get things out of of our minds which can be both a relief and a perspective shaker. Also consider starting a gratitude practice — when you are in a state of gratitude it’s almost impossible to be in a state of stress. I like to think of it as a thank you note to the universe.
Improve your sleep hygiene.
There are lots of ways to do this, including getting blue-light blocking glasses if you need to be on a screen after dark, keeping the bedroom a screen-free zone, using it for sleep and sex only and keeping it cool and dark with either black out shades or an eye mask, re-setting your body clock by going to bed and waking up at he same time every day (yes, even on weekends) and shutting down all screens, including your phone, for 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. Dim the lights, put your phone on Do Not Disturb and take a bath or curl up with book. Other things to consider include a white noise machine, new pillows, a better mattress or more breathable linens (100% cotton is always best).
Watch your diet.
Sadly, if you booze you might not snooze. Ever had too much to drink and then wake up in the middle of the night? Yeah, me too. Avoiding large meals late in the evening can also help and if you must have a late night snack, keep it to protein. It’s also helpful to say goodnight to sugar for a while if you are dealing with a bout of insomnia, especially refined sugar which can add to adrenal fatigue and be a general stressor to the system. What you can try adding in is a delicious bedtime beverage like golden milk or moon milk or even some herbal tea. You might also try substituting one or more of your daily cups of coffee with matcha which is lower in caffeine and has the added bonus of an amino acid called L-theanine which promotes relaxation.
I’m a huge fan of using adaptogens to quite the nervous system. Ashwaganda is my personal favorite but moringa and tulsi are also good choices. Other herbs to consider include magnolia bark, valerian root, kava, hops and chamomile. You can also try over-the-counter sleep aids like 5-HTP, GABA, melatonin or L-theanine which I mention above. Note: It’s always a good idea to check in with your health care practitioner before you add in supplements — especially if you have an autoimmune condition or anything else pre-existing.
Hire a professional.
If you are still stuck in a rut, I highly recommend hiring and expert to help. Work with an ND or a Functional Medicine doc and get a full hormone panel done. Acupuncture can also help, as can homeopathy. For a look at broader lifestyle changes in conjunction with insomnia consider hiring certified health coach and if you are really circling the drain with your insomnia, look into finding a doctor who specializes in sleep issues like the Seattle Sleep Medicine Clinic.
If you want a downloadable PDF with my top tips to beat insomnia, you can find it here