Learning to Sleep Again

I’ve had cats all my life. Unfortunately, their ability to sleep never rubbed of on me.

My struggle with insomnia began after the break-up of my first marriage in 1988. Yes, 1988. I would fall asleep with no problem but wake up around 3am. Staying awake for two hours or more during the night was common.

For years I pushed myself through the sleepless nights. I held down a demanding corporate job. I raised my daughter. I functioned mostly normally, but almost always with sleep deprivation.

The past few years my insomnia worsened. I’d have to take a nap just to get through the rest of the day, especially when I had a gig in the evening. My temper was often short from lack of sleep. My lack of sleep became the biggest factor in how my husband’s day would go.

Last year, I decided that nothing was more important than learning to sleep again. I started tracking my sleep using an Apple Watch (I hate the idea of wearing a watch to bed, but I had to do something). I bought books. I bought apps. At one point my doctor told me I should take half an Ambien just to get enough sleep to function. I started using the BrainWave app. I practiced mindfulness. I listened to Wholetones and many other supposedly sleep-inducing recordings. Some of it helped for a while, but nothing made a significant change in my sleep.

Then, finally, the pieces started falling into place. This June I found a book that offered the steps I needed:
Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to A Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success
by Shawn Stevenson. Between the strategies in this book and a couple other changes, my sleep started to improve.

I’d always considered seven hours to be a full night’s sleep. My typical night gave me four to six hours. As I made made small changes, my sleep started to increase. Now I get between seven and eight hours most nights. My ability to work effectively has skyrocketed. My husband no longer has to be on guard for my bouts of sleep-deprived anger.

Here is a summary of the changes that had the biggest impact. Everyone is different and the steps that worked for me might not work for you, but this is what changed my life.

Lose the Electronics

This may be the most important change I made, and it has two parts.

  • I banished electronics from the bedroom. My phone and even the clock are in the bathroom. I can’t tell you for sure whether the distance from EMFs made the difference or it’s just not having something electronic to distract me when I wake up at night. My husband is laughing as I read this to him…he’s been telling me to get the phone out of the bedroom for years. My only concession to electronics is wearing my watch as a sleep tracker.
  • I turn put away electronic devices and use a lamp with a night mode–a soft yellow light instead of blue light–at least an hour before bed. You can find all sorts of articles about how blue light interferes with sleep. Here’s one from Harvard Health.

Cool Down

We got a super warm comforter as a wedding gift. Turns out it’s too warm. The body likes to be a bit cool for sleep. We switched out the comforter for flannel sheets and a lightweight blanket. The flannel sheets are cozy, and I don’t wake up roasting during the night.

Spritz on Some Magnesium Oil

Magnesium has a reputation for promoting sleep. I’ve found spray-on magnesium oil to be more effective than pills. Here’s my favorite,  which is cost-effective and not greasy. I recently forgot about the magnesium oil and found I was waking up for longer periods at night. As soon as I spritzed on some magnesium before bed, my sleep immediately improved again.

Ditch the Alcohol

I’ve long known that if I have more than one glass of wine in the evening, my sleep suffers. I might sleep all night long, but my deep sleep goes down to next-to-nothing. (Thank you, sleep tracker!)

Take an Herbal Supplement

No, not melatonin. While natural melatonin is great, there’s all kinds of research about the harm melatonin supplements can do. I avoid taking anything to help me sleep, but if I do wake up during the night and it seems I won’t fall back to sleep, I take a supplement that is primarily valerian root and passionflower, similar to this one. It works better than anything I’ve tried with no hung over or groggy feeling the next day. For my friends in Guatemala and other Latin American countries, you can buy Pasinerva in any farmacia. (As a side note, I tried ashwagandha after reading about the beneficial effects for sleep. My sleep got much worse when taking it.)

If you struggle with getting enough sleep, I hope some of these strategies work as well for you as they have for me.

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