Insomnia has become an increasingly large part of millions of people’s lives. A little sleeplessness here and there is no problem, but for many people, getting to sleep and staying asleep has become deeply challenging. Insomnia often leads to daytime symptoms of lethargy, fatigue, anxiety and depression. To cope with this illness, many turn to sleep medications and then to stimulants such as caffeine and sugar to combat the fatigue of a poor night’s sleep.
Though sleep medicines often work symptomatically, they also can become addictive and have side effects that further worsen our basic good health. And the stimulants that keep us going make it increasingly hard to get a good night’s sleep by keeping us wired even though we are tired.
Insomnia can have a number of causes and patterns but we at Hearthside Healing believe the main key to overcoming this illness is to restore the nervous system through a number of basic lifestyle changes. By changing our patterns to focus on destimulation and restoration, the body will naturally move towards self healing and finding its natural equilibrium. So lets take a look at some of these basic changes.
1. Regular sleep schedule.
The best time to go to bed is around 10 and to wake up around 6, give or take a half hour. If at all possible, it is best to train your body to go to sleep at the same time each night. Irregular sleep schedules confuse the body’s own internal clock so try to aim for sleeping at the same time each night. In Chinese medicine, getting to sleep before 11pm each night restores the body’s basic vital essence, which decreases inflammation, speeds healing, and calms the entire nervous system.
In the modern world we tend towards wanting to increase stimulation through a constant barrage of media, news, television, phones, movies, the Internet and gaming. Over time, the constant feeling of being plugged in” makes it increasingly hard to “turn off” at night. It is especially important that we reduce or even eliminate screen time in the evening hours after dinner, but its also important to reduce excessive screen time during the day as well.
3. Caffeine, Sugar and Alcohol.
Yes. I know. They are really hard to give up, but yes, they are likely contributing to your insomnia. Lets start with caffeine. Even if you only drink a cup of coffee in the morning, or only drink green tea, caffeine stimulates your adrenal glands and encourage a boom and crash pattern which over time stresses and can destabilize your nervous system. Caffeine does not allow your body to naturally be at rest and restore itself and instead pushes the body into overdrive and over time wears down the body’s ability to be calm and at peace. Drinking a caffeinated beverage is a lot like taking out some debt on a credit card. You get the energy now, but you crash later with interest. Your body ends up more depleted than when it began.
Likewise, sugar is problematic for most people, but especially challenging for those with insomnia. Sugary foods and carbohydrates like white flour muffins, bread, bagels and white rice that convert to sugar quickly tend to destabilize the body’s natural blood sugar levels and lead us on a roller coaster of ups and downs, emotional lability, worsened immune functioning and a more fragile nervous system. Unfortunately when we are tired, one of the first things we look to is eating sugary foods and foods high in carbohydrates.
Because it is a very simple sugar, alcohol also leads the body through the classic boom and bust pattern. It taps the adrenals and has a tendency to cause sleep to be disturbed. Strongly reduce it or avoid it altogether. So yes, if you want to sleep better, radically reduce or eliminate these things from your diet.
4. Slow Down and Breathe
Many people who suffer from insomnia have a heightened nervous system and are more sensitive to their environment and surroundings. Some have experienced trauma that have left them in a higher state or arousal and awareness that makes it difficult to settle down at night. For these folks, it is key to train the mind and body to become more grounded and mindful. Breathing exercises that elongate the exhale are especially helpful. I encourage taking three ten minute breaks during the day to do long deep belly breathing. Try the simple exercise of breathing in four counts and exhaling 8 counts during this ten minute period. This is especially helpful at night before going to bed.
5. Whole Foods Diet
A whole foods diet is a diet that consists of unprocessed ingredients such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and tubers, legumes and free range animal products if you are a meat eater. By eating these natural ingredients and preparing meals from scratch, you will ensure that your body will receive the best nutrients, vitamins and minerals to optimize your health. In essence you will be strengthening and nourishing your body at the core and adding a level of resiliency that will help it to remain at ease throughout the night.
Processed foods in the form of preservatives, dyes, additives and artificial sweeteners add a level of stress to the body as it tries to process them leading to discomfort when you are sleeping. For some people, allergies and food sensitivities may be keeping you up at night. Some of the biggest culprits are dairy, wheat, corn and red meat. If you think this might be the case, try eliminating these foods for a few weeks and then reintroducing these foods and see if you notice a change.
Exercise is a key component of sleeping well at night but not all forms of exercise are good for those who have insomnia. In general it is helpful to moderately exercise, not overdo it and try to get as much fresh air and sunlight as possible. Walking, hiking, light biking and gardening are wonderful ways to get some aerobic exercise that does not overly tax the body. Yoga and tai chi are wonderful ways to gently stretch, twist and bring grace, agility and peace to an overtaxed nervous system. Avoid exercising after dinner.
7. Preparation for Sleep
Gently and naturally preparing for sleep is essential for getting good solid rest at night. To prepare for sleep, it is important that he bedroom become like a sanctuary, as dark and as quiet as possible, not too cold or hot with as few distractions by animals, telephones or media as possible. At dinner, it is best to try and create a peaceful ritual. Taking a warm bath with a few drops of essential oil of lavender while drinking a cup of warm soothing tea such as chamomile or lemon balm is very helpful. Avoid all distractions and try ten minutes of belly breathing before going to sleep.
8 Putting it all Together
Healing from insomnia is a lot like losing weight. It takes time, effort, diligence and patience to see results pay off. Often patterns and poor habits need to be replaced with healthier habits over a period of time before healthy sleep patterns return. But given enough time and care, I believe anyone can find healing and relief. May you sleep peacefully!