Is anything better than waking up refreshed? Are you unable to answer that question because you don’t remember what waking up refreshed feels like? We can relate. Read on if you or anyone you love needs tips on how to get a good night's sleep.
Tips From an Insomniac
I have had trouble sleeping my entire life—since I was four years old staring at the ceiling trying to avoid my nightmares. As an adult, I am still sometimes reduced to tears because my body will NOT allow me to get to sleep. Good lord give me the peace of unconsciousness! There are a few things, however, that have really helped me with this problem. While I still have the occasional sleepless night, for the most part I sleep much better now than I used to.
You know all the basic tips for sleep hygiene—going to bed and waking up around the same time; ensuring the space is warm, dark, and quiet; avoiding eating or drinking too late at night. These tips don’t address the real problem—for me, anyway—which is that I lie awake ruminating.
Set Aside Time to Think. When we don’t give our minds any space to think things through during the day, the brain takes the first opportunity it can find: when we lie down in bed at night and close our eyes. The mind can’t let us sleep because it has things to do. Giving myself specific times to think during the day, usually with journaling and meditation, takes the pressure off that time at night.
Trust Your Unconscious Mind. Our unconscious minds have their own way of working through problems. As I’m lying in bed, I mindfully surrender my problems to my dreams, trusting that a well-rested brain with time to be unconscious will help me find a solution way better than a tired, awake mind.
Feel. One way to help us move out of the mind is to shift our awareness to the body. Focusing on relaxing the belly while we breathe, or even focusing on the sensations of an emotion without getting into the story of that emotion (which is a meditation technique that takes a bit of practice), can help us calmly accept where we are and drift away. Sometimes I remind myself: “This is a place for feeling or for dreaming, not for thinking.”
Rest. You know that cycle where you lie awake, check the clock to see how long you’ve been awake, panic because you haven’t been sleeping, and then lie awake worrying about how little sleep you’re getting? Yep. Been there. Keep in mind that resting is almost as good as sleeping. The right kind of rest can be worth a few hours of good sleep. Focus on relaxing your body and breathing deeply, and whether or not you fall asleep you will still get the benefit of rest. Don’t panic about not sleeping. Rest better instead.
Guided Meditations. Guided meditations are so helpful for getting out of our heads. They give our minds just enough to do that we don’t hook onto our problems, allowing us to slip into unconsciousness. I have many guided meditations for sleep available at spiritualityhealth.com. —JULIE PETERS
7 Non-Pharmaceutical Sleep Supplements You May Want to Try
Before trying any of these supplements, be sure to check with your healthcare provider to discuss potential side effects and possible interactions with any other medications.
1. CBD. Research suggests that CBD is useful for getting deeper sleep, possibly because it has been shown to ease anxiety and pain, both of which can get in the way of sound sleep.
2. Melatonin. Most effective when used in the short term, melatonin has been found most useful for people traveling across time zones and for shift workers.
3. Reishi and Ashwagandha. These adaptogens have a balancing effect on your endocrine system, which is responsible for regulating hormonal output. They are most often recommended for use in times of stress.
4. Glycine. An amino acid that functions as a neurotransmitter, glycine supports a number of functions that keep the body strong and healthy. Preliminary research shows that it can lower body temperature and increase serotonin levels, both of which can help with sleep.
5. Magnesium. Studies on this mineral have shown that it can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest pathway), as well as support production of melatonin. Magnesium also shows promise in keeping anxiety and depression at bay, which can promote healthy sleep cycles.
6. Passionflower. Extracts made from this exotic flower have been shown to increase the amount of time spent in deep sleep.
7. Kava. The root of this South Pacific plant has been turned into supplements that have been shown to decrease anxiety and insomnia. —KALIA KELMENSON
The Sleep of Grief
I love sleeping. There is nothing like waking up after a delicious night of deep sleep, feeling ready to conquer the world. One of the hardest parts of having babies for me was not getting a full night’s sleep. But as the wee ones got older and began sleeping through the night, I also started getting back to my normal amount of shut eye, until grief turned the wee hours upside down.
Immediately after my father’s death, I began waking up in the middle of the night with a start, feeling shocked and wracked with emotion. I would settle back down, but as the weeks and months went on, the time I spent awake grew longer. I would start to dread the early hours, just past midnight, when I would jerk awake and spend the next few hours tossing and turning, in equal measure yearning for the light to begin to brighten the sky and dreading how I would feel when I got out of bed.
As the months passed, I knew I had to get help. My nervous system was on constant high alert, and my mental capacity was suffering.
Acupuncture. A friend referred me to an acupuncturist who specializes in women’s health. Her first needle felt like it let loose a dam of emotion and left me sobbing on the table—in a good way. Over the course of a few months, I went regularly, adding her Chinese herbal formulations to my regimen and finally, blessedly, began to slowly be able to fall back asleep when I woke in the night. Research suggests acupuncture is an effective treatment for insomnia and can also help with sleep apnea.
Sleep Stories. The Calm app delivers stories where nothing much happens. They’re narrated very slowly. If I woke up, I would turn one on as a way of keeping my brain from spinning. There’s something especially soothing about having Matthew McConaughey’s slow drawl ease me back into dreamland.
Earth Energy. Deborah Kremins, who teaches intuitive medicine, taught me a technique to help me fall back asleep that also works to fall asleep to begin with. As you lay in bed, take some deep breaths. Feel your connection with the earth’s energy. Draw up the energy from the earth through your legs, into your pelvis and belly, and then draw it up into your chest. Let the energy flow back down into the earth, and continue to feel, sense, or know an experience of deep grounding. This one takes some practice, but it is highly effective. —KALIA KELMENSON
For a couple of decades, I thought of myself as someone who has a hard time getting out of bed, drinks a lot of coffee, and likes to take long naps on the weekend. I envied sleep minimalists who could buzz around at night, sending emails or cleaning the house, but I figured that I was just naturally, permanently, on the other end of the spectrum. Eventually, with kids and a demanding job, I felt completely worn down all the time, tired to the point of being sick.
During a physical, my doctor surprised me by asking if I often felt tired. I nodded yes and stifled a yawn. He told me I should have a sleep test. I had a narrow air passageway (whatever that meant) and might have sleep apnea (whatever that was).
I dutifully signed up for the test. The person on the other end of the phone explained that on the night of my test I should arrive around 8:30 with some toiletries and a change of clothes.
I walked into the lobby at the start of my overnight stay and encountered a collection of grizzled, gnarly men. They rubbed their eyes, bent over, gazed into space. One of them had his change of clothes in a garbage bag. “These are my people!” I thought to myself—only half-jokingly.
The test confirmed I did have sleep apnea and set me on a life-changing journey in pursuit of a good rest. Now I’m something of a sleep-test evangelist. Do you like naps? Do you yawn all the time? Do you snore? Sign up for a sleep test. It’s one night of your life that can change your life.
By the way: I’m not necessarily a sleep-medicine evangelist. But a sleep test is just data. You can take the data to any sort of doctor, healer, or therapist you want. You can ignore it or question it. The test itself isn’t any sort of commitment to any program.
If you do take a sleep test, be aware that you’ll only be able to fall asleep for a few hours. You’re dressed in a robe with what seems like hundreds of electrodes stuck to you. You’re also, unnervingly, constantly monitored. Whisper “hello” into the dark room in the middle of the night and within a minute a nurse arrives to unstrap you so you can visit the restroom. But as long as you fall asleep for any amount of time, all those sensors can do their work and see what’s happening in your brain and body while you sleep.
A sleep test can uncover all sorts of sleep ailments; sleep apnea is the most common. In obstructive sleep apnea (the most common kind) the muscles of the neck relax and sag during sleep. Air is cut off. The body startles itself awake so it can breathe. Then, as sleep resumes, the muscles sag, and the whole process starts again. Someone with sleep apnea can wake up dozens of times in an hour—without even knowing it. (Personally, I had no idea any of this was happening.)
Signs of sleep apnea include snoring and excessive fatigue during the day; risk factors include being older, being male, and being overweight, as well as having a thicker than average neck. —BEN NUSSBAUM