There are almost as many insomnia treatments as there are insomniacs. Here’s what some now well-rested folks did to overcome those sleepless nights.
Listen to your inner cave man
Former attorney and current health coach, Jeff Hughes, had insomnia for most of his life. It started when he was a child, and lasted well into his 30s—that was 25 years, and a lot of trial-and-error insomnia fixes ago. “How did I move beyond it? Unfortunately, there was no quick fix. I tried and tested lots of things, until I developed a routine, that worked for me. The main elements included not drinking alcohol right before bed, not having caffeine in the evening, meditating regularly, and using blue-light filters on my electronic devices, since blue light suppresses melatonin production,” he says. All those habits are highly effective bedtime hygiene techniques, but for Hughes, the most important change was learning to respect his circadian rhythms. “Humans evolved to wake up when its light outside, and to fall asleep when it gets dark. In modern times, we create our own schedules, often staying on our electronics 24-7. The body is more comfortable with the Stone Age pattern, which I now follow, on both weekdays and weekends,” he explains.
Combine M&Ms: meditation and melatonin
Jennifer Bright Reich, co-author of The Mommy MD Guide to Getting Your Baby to Sleep, started experiencing insomnia herself, when her boys were five- and three-years old. Her theory is that her newfound insomnia was caused by a very-common combination of stress, and perimenopause. “Ironically, when my boys were little, and didn’t sleep well, I could fall asleep at the drop of a hat. Then, suddenly, I couldn’t. I started to do two things: take melatonin and listen to meditation tapes. Both worked wonders,” she says. Reich takes ten milligrams of melatonin, in the form of gummy bears, each night before bed as a treat, and now has sweet dreams, instead of sleepless nights. Here’s what science has to say about meditation’s benefits.
Movement specialist Janis Isaman is committed to helping people achieve health and wellness, but when it came to her own insomnia, she was at a loss. Isaman’s fatigue was unending, and partially explained by a rib that dislocates habitually, causing her physical pain. She also experienced random periods of unexplained wakefulness, which had her up for two-to-three hours a night. “I typically woke up between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., and stayed awake, unable to get back to sleep until 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. It was basically misery, because at that time of night (and day), there’s nothing to do. I sometimes listened to yoga nidra, or Deepak Chopra meditations, and I sometimes read. But I also sometimes lay there, tossing and turning,” she says. Isaman’s physician realized she was consistently tired, after multiple checkups in a row, and asked if she was sleeping properly. Upon learning of her ordeal with insomnia, he suggested she try magnesium, essential for helping the brain to settle down, as a first line of defense. Isaman’s doctor suggested a dosage of three 100 mg. pills for her to try—and it worked. Even a slight lack of magnesium can have detrimental effects.
Try cognitive behavioral therapy
Like many people, Mary Kaarto’s unending bouts with insomnia left her too exhausted to exercise, or to work. An author, Kaarto found herself unable to put two words together, because her decision-making abilities were too compromised by her lack of sleep. “For years, I was treated solely by my primary care physician, who prescribed various sleep medications. Most of them worked for a while, until my body developed a tolerance for them.” Frustrated, Kaarto turned to a board-certified sleep specialist, with little success. Then, she learned about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on her own and started working with a CBT therapist who specialized in insomnia. CBT is a powerful form of therapy, designed to help patients identify, and change, negative thoughts, and actions. “My CBT therapist assured me I would be cured, and that she would make sure of it, no matter how long it took. The confidence she had helped give me the faith, confidence, and hope I needed so desperately,” says Kaarto, who has been cured of insomnia for two years.
I scaled back on coffee
Mary Ladd was cursed with a spouse who could sleep through anything. “My insomnia was so lonely, because I could hear him sleeping in bed next to me. The fact that he could sleep through the night, and I couldn’t, reminded me that my eyeballs felt dry, and tired. I begin to tally up the things I did wrong that day, or stress over what I needed to do the next. Ironically, my mom’s death brought some relief, because I had been worrying so much about her, while dealing with my own post-breast cancer symptoms,” she shares. The San Francisco native dealt with feelings of anger about her insomnia, and then, was able to create a change. “What works for me is visualization—picturing myself being cocooned in a nice, fleece blanket, and meditation, to decrease stress, and anxiety.” The 43-year old mom also keeps to a solid sleep schedule, which includes waking up when her body wants to wake up, instead of when an alarm clock says it’s time. “I also had to scale back on booze, and caffeine, many medical folks told me that my two-to-four bowls of daily coffee may have been seriously injuring my chances of a good night’s sleep. At least they didn’t take away chocolate ice cream, or runny Brie cheese, because then I would really have nothing to live for!” she laughingly adds.
Keep a sleep diary
A sleep doctor gave Amy George, a former insomniac, life-changing advice. “Three years ago, I spent the summer seeing a sleep doctor—a psychologist, not an MD. I didn’t want to keep relying on drugs like Ambien, which is addictive, no matter what anyone tells you. She had me keep a sleep diary, so I could see that I was nodding off on the couch, when I should be going to bed! She also said something I still remember, and think of – ‘Don’t put sleep on a pedestal.’ In other words, stop making it so important. Tell yourself if you lose sleep it’s OK. You’ll still function. You’ll still get through the day. Sometimes that’s what you need to do to calm down and go to sleep.”
Try essential oils
Painkillers, muscle relaxants, and anti-anxiety medications..Lynn Julian Crisci had tried them all, and none could provide relief from her 10-plus years of insomnia, following a head injury. “I could only get a few hours sleep in a row, each night. Nothing helped. Last year, I tried hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a proven treatment for multiple medical issues.” Hyperbaric oxygen therapy refers to the administering of pure oxygen, in a pressurized room, or tube. Crisci feels confident that the treatment helped heal her brain tissue, starting her on her journey of sleeping through the night. But that’s not all she did, to get the result she was hoping for. “I added CBD oil, made from hemp, to my morning, and nightly supplements. CBD oil is a neuro-protectant which is thought to protect brain tissue, aiding the part of the brain that controls sleep. Recently, I added CBD oil made from cannabis, to my nightly routine. This has a low dose of THC in it. Since then, I sleep through the night every night and wake up rested. I live in Boston and obtained a medical marijuana card, to get the cannabis-derived CBD oil,” she explains.
Learn to recognize when you’re sleepy
Dr. Sally Nazari is a well-established psychotherapist, but her many years or practice were not enough to provide what she needed to conquer her own insomnia. “I had a significant amount of trouble falling asleep and none of the home remedies were working for more than two or three nights. I learned about cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) which was only a six-session treatment,” she explains. Nazari’s sessions involved learning about cues that affected the way her brain and body responded to her bedtime routine, and rituals. Knowing this, she was able to make modifications that helped her structure her routine in a way that let her wind down, and notice that she was sleepy, instead of just tired. “CBT-I also focused on working through the thoughts related to how I reacted to the possibility of yet another sleepless night and, instead, be more ready for a better night of rest. Without those concerns, I can more easily settle into the night and let my body’s natural sleep rhythms take over,” she adds.
Focus on work-life balance
Marketing and publicity are hardly low stress fields. Even so, Jasmine Powers started not one, but two, agencies, doing that very thing. “Around 2010, I suffered terribly with insomnia, and also had trouble eating. The anxiety from my first year of full-time self-employment, and client demands, made it hard to relax, so I worked around the clock. What helped was taking anti-anxiety meds, and working with higher paying, and lower stress clients. Now, I work part-time, balancing that with lots of time outdoors, practicing mindfulness, and aligning my sleeping times with daylight,” she explains.
Invest in a new mattress
“In my experience, it’s not just one factor that must change when you are addressing insomnia in your life. Insomnia made me short with my kids,” says Hilary Thompson is a freelance writer, and former insomniac. “I was struggling at work, to keep up with demands. I got up every morning desperate for more rest. The desperation drove me to seek a solution. It turns out I had to change several things I was doing to finally get that coveted full night’s sleep,” she explains. For Thompson, those changes meant more daily exercise. “I found that if I didn’t get enough exercise every day, my body was just not worn-down enough to go to sleep. I also gave up having caffeine later in the day. When I chose to restrict my caffeine consumption to nothing after 4:00 p.m.. I was able to fall asleep at the time I wanted,” Her biggest change may have been her mattress. “My mattress was everything. I tossed and turned a lot, and was sore when I woke. I experienced low back pain, and realized that part of my insomnia was due to my inability to get comfortable. There are lots of mattresses on the market for different sleep issues and back pain. I chose a new one and added a Tempurpedic topper, and that’s what made all the difference.” Here are seven signs its time for a new mattress.