A (fairly) light-hearted look at insomnia ~ scourge of my life and that of others

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.

11 thoughts on “A (fairly) light-hearted look at insomnia ~ scourge of my life and that of others

  1. It’s almost 4 am and I’ve been awake (unwillingly) for the last hour so this was a nice read. My sleep has been lousy lately because my days have different times that I have to be awake. I tend to not sleep well on nights I have to be awake early, waking every hour and then only sleeping a few hours in general. The opposite days I take some kind of sleep aid because I don’t have to be awake until later in the morning. To make matters worse I work night shifts a few times a month and I tend to worry about my work performance which messes up my sleep. I’m typically awake at this time of the morning 2-3 times a week up from 1 time every couple of weeks. This has been since the new year started. I have a tendency to not go to sleep in a reasonable amount of time for varies reasons as well.

    Sorry to write a comment that’s like a novel delineating my terrible sleep patterns. I really need to fix my mild anxiety/occasional depression before I’m not sleeping at all.


    • It’s nice to see you even if it is a late hour for you. I also have different work start times, often starting at 1am for a long day, so getting a few hours before going is horribly hard.
      If you do find any help, let me know. My depression etc is getting bad again.
      Sweet dreams if you can and thanks for visiting.


      • Viv,

        If you don’t mind, could you please clarify what work it is that require’s you to show up at 1:am? I ask because, as a former nurse,whilst working on night duty, I was totally sleep-deprived, and, if I had continued that schedule, I could see that my rest patterns could have been so disturbed, that I might have had a true sleeping disturbance.

        Of course, if it”s too personal a question, we’ll leave it.

        Be well!!


  2. Light-hearted but not lightweight. Thanks for this Viv: might be able to use some of these for Ben, who always has trouble getting to sleep, and getting good quality sleep. Could you tell me more about the blue light box, please?


  3. Thanks for this post Viv. I’ve tried most on the list, with the exception of exercise and meditation- this last for exactly the reasons you cite. As you say, some or most can take the edge off the sleep crisis short-term but you hit a plateau and then they cease to be of any help, even the next time your sleep goes for a burton. I have heard about the light therapy thing and maybe I’ll give that a go, although as you say, I’d wondered about its effect on my partner in bed.

    Thanks again for the post.

    M x


  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences… I started finding it difficult to sleep during my divorce some 17 years ago – and still have issues with poor sleep patterns. Being awake at 2-3 am has become a really bad habit – not helped by the fact that my husband is a terrible snorer.
    I’ve tried some of the remedies that you suggest, but not others – thank you for a very comprehensive list – I’ll be experimenting with the lavender oil, which I love, anyway, and I hope that you find some relief, soon.
    Have you found any seasonal flutuations? I seem to find my sleeplessness far harder to manage in the winter, when I spend a large amount of the day staggering around feeling wiped out, whereas in the summer, I can manage on a lot less sleep without too much difficulty…


  5. not seasonal so much for me, but I notice when I’m on school holidays with the kids & not at work, my sleep is a disaster area. I think my body needs the routine and energy spent at work


  6. I’ve been a chronic insomniac for years. I’m the type that can’t stay asleep — I can fall asleep in three minutes flat if I choose to, but then wake up at 2AM and can’t get back to sleep. Unfortunately, my wife’s the opposite — can’t get to sleep, but once asleep she sleeps like the dead. As a result, we’re ships passing in the night…

    I have tried a lot of things, with no real lasting success. I’m a bit of a gym rat, so the exercise thing is there, but haven’t noticed any difference between days I work out & days I don’t. Valerian and melatonin might as well have been sugar pills. And I agree, the heavy stuff leaves me feeling logy for several hours after I wake up — although I usually at least can get eight hours in.

    Anyhow… great post. Nice to know I’m not alone… misery loves company…




  7. Vivienne:

    Hubby is suffering horrible bouts of insomnia over the last few months and like you, we feel like we’ve tried everything.

    I like that you talk about treating the symptom.


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