A (fairly) light-hearted look at insomnia ~ scourge of my life and that of others.
If there is one thing guaranteed to get people talking on social media (and we shall exclude certain subjects for reasons of simple decency) it’s insomnia. It’s far from a simple subject, as this article from Wiki shows but when people start discussing it, you really would think it was simple. Don’t drink caffeine, stop worrying, lavender oil on the pillow…. the advice is endless. I’ve doled out enough of it myself to deserve to be punched.
Those who have never suffered with more than the occasional missed night of sleep are lucky. That said, I’d not wish it upon them.
The definition of insomnia is ambiguous too: Insomnia is often defined as a positive response to either of two questions: “Do you experience difficulty sleeping?” or “Do you have difficulty falling or staying asleep?”
Now I’d answer a resounding yes to both questions. Once you start looking more deeply into causes, that’s the point when you realise that it’s not a simple matter of applying head to pillow and shutting the eyes. Insomnia can be fatal (though this is rare) and it is far more debilitating that folks who never suffer can imagine.
I’m going to run through a number of the things I have tried over the years. Some of them work for a while, and some are tried and tested sleep aids. If any of them are things you haven’t tried, do consider trying them.
Herbs (teas, tablets and tinctures): usually people suggest camomile for this and it is indeed very relaxing in small quantities. Over use of it produces the opposite effect. Other herbs that are beneficial for sleep are valerian and hops. The downside is that both of these have a depressant effect. Many herbal sleeping tablets contain both. Not advisable if you suffer with depression. Another good herb is passiflora; this works as a muscle relaxant so if you have a heart problem this one is out. I concocted a herb tea made with about 15 different herbs, all known to have relaxing, soothing and sleep inducing properties: wild lettuce, (which was used to treat the Emperor Augustus of a life threatening bout of insomnia; to such effect he put up a statue in its homour) wood betony, vervain, violets, lavender, passiflora, Californian poppies, limeflowers, camomile, rose petals and St John’s wort among a few others. The tea does work but to make up the mix costs a fair amount of money and you make a pretty large amount. You can’t store herbs for very long without them losing their potency, so when certain herbs like limeflowers undergo chemical changes (after two years they produce chemicals that induce the effects of intoxication) after a year or two, making a blend needs to be done in small quantities at regular intervals. This works for acute insomnia but not for chronic.
Sleeping pills: both over the counter remedies and prescribed ones can be very effective for acute insomnia. One of the most readily available brands has the option of one OR two tablets. I keep these in for desperate measures. On the leaflet it warns against using them habitually and also if you have kidney damage. Those nights I do take them, I find the next day I have significant pain in the kidney area. Prescribed ones I have taken usually produce such a heavy, unrefeshing sleep that takes hours to emerge from that I’d prefer to avoid them.
Cutting down on caffeine: worth doing. I don’t drink any caffeine-rich beverage after a certain time and drink only a certain amount during the day.
Exercise: taking some form of exercise each day does help. However, according to research, too much exercise can increase insomnia. How much is too much? Exercising immediately before bed will certainly not help.
Aromatherapy: there are many essential oils that have soporific effects. Using one of these (lavender, camomile, rose, jasmine etc) will aid acute insomnia. However, in my experience, long term they don’t do much.
Hot baths: this works by relaxing the muscles with heat. However don’t get into bed until the body temperature has returned to normal. The body’s sleep mechanism is triggered by the body temperature falling slightly, which is why it’s best to sleep in a room that is slightly cooler than usual room temperature.
Crystals: no, don’t laugh. Using certain crystals to aid sleep goes back a long way. Amethyst that deep purple gem is often suggested. It’s also supposed to give deeper and more restful sleep. I have a fondness for crystals and I have found using them helpful. Placebo, maybe but don’t diss it. Again, it may help with short term acute insomnia.
Meditation: this helps to come to a kind of quiet space. Used regularly meditation has immense benefits for a lot of people. My problem is finding the motivation to do something that takes discipline and determination.
Music: I have a good dozen cds of music to help sleep. Some are excellent and some I just find annoyingly bland. Once more, they help through an acute phase but long term efficacy is poor.
Flower essences: yes, I know, another one many find flaky. I’ve used them and found them helpful. Might be placebo but if it helps? Again, short term efficacy.
Blue light: I was given a funny little box that emits a softly pulsing blue light. The idea is you match your breathing to the pulsing and you drift off. Surprisingly effective for acute phases, especially when suffering with severe anxiety. It’s battery powered and I keep forgetting to charge the battery. It also may annoy the person you share a bed with.
Incense: burned some time prior to bedtime, smoke stimulates serotonin production in the brain. I use a very lovely lavender incense from Greater Goods. If nothing else, it makes your bedroom smell wonderful.
I’ve tried a lot of other techniques that simply don’t work for me, including the old favourites hot milk, sex, reading a boring book (I just get bored!) hot toddys and many more. Contrary to what people have assumed, I don’t lie in bed worrying. I’m usually not a worrier. I’ve lain there and quietened my thoughts till they are all sitting there obediently being silent and STILL sleep wouldn’t come for hours. This is not about mind over matter.
It comes down to what is causing your insomnia. If you are treating a symptom without knowing it’s cause, it’s going to be far harder. I read through the article of wiki and this line jumped out at me:
“Major depression leads to alterations in the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, causing excessive release of cortisol which can lead to poor sleep quality.”
Oh. So we’re back to the Black Dog again. What a surprise.