Insomnia is a condition that tends to build upon itself in a vicious cycle and often gets started due to a "cumulative load" effect. This means that frequently, insomnia doesn't take root due to one individual trigger, but a multitude of different, seemingly innocuous factors that accumulate until a point is reached where the body can no longer compensate and poor sleep results.
Unfortunately, once insomnia kicks in, the natural tendency of people to worry that they won't get enough sleep can further exacerbate the problem until it becomes chronic and seemingly permanent. Your anxiety is giving you insomnia, and your insomnia is giving you anxiety. You are stuck in a vicious cycle that makes it nearly impossible to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake rested. Short of knocking yourself out with a sleeping pill and facing the next morning in a zombie-like state, is there ANYTHING you can do? Fortunately, there is a series of simple steps you can take to overcome your insomnia and enjoy restful sleep.
These are what I believe to be the top 5 correctable factors that contribute to insomnia and what causes them.
1. Retraining the Brain with Light & Dark Cues
The circadian rhythm is our 24 hour sleep-wake cycle that responds to light cues.
Circadian rhythm degradation has been an ongoing phenomenon since the invention of electricity and greatly increased with the advent of "screen time," our modern tendency to constantly be staring at televisions, computers, phones, and tablets. Why is so much screen time a problem? The blue wavelength light that screens emit tells the brain to WAKE UP. Exposure to bright light is the number one cue that prompts our bodies to stop the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone) so cortisol (the awake hormone) can take over.
The Fix: Ideally, you should STOP looking at anything with a back-lit screen at least 1 hour before bed. Read a book, listen to music, journal, or meditate. Can't bear to part with your nightly screen routine? Try using a screen dimmer app like "Twilight."
2. Active Reflection on a Regular Basis
Insomniacs commonly remark that despite feeling exhausted, as soon as their heads hit the pillow, their brains start looping a mile a minute over the day's events, work stress, and tasks to be completed the next day. Why does this sudden onslaught of intrusive thoughts occur, and what can be done to stop it? Due to the hectic nature of our modern lifestyle and our constant propensity to distract ourselves with games, Facebook, and TV shows, we very rarely, if ever, get a moment during the day to stop and reflect. Rather than eat lunch in silence and use breaks as an opportunity to talk ourselves through our daily stressors and fears, we often resort to distracting ourselves from them by scrolling mindlessly through social media. It's no surprise that by the time we are trying to fall asleep, our brains are trying to "catch us up" on things we need to think about.
The Fix: Start taking small, 10-15 minutes breaks throughout your day to reflect. If this is difficult for you to do, or if you feel your mind start to spin out of control, consider using a guided-meditation app like "Headspace."
3. Stabilize Your Blood Sugar
Blood sugar stability is a major problem associated with eating the Standard American Diet. Very carb-dense meals like pasta, pastries, bread, and cereal cause rapid increases in blood sugar followed by a precipitous drop 1-2 hours later. This cycle repeats several times throughout the day, following every meal, with the last one often right before bed. Do you enjoy eating a "bed time snack?" The sudden spike in blood sugar after your nightcap can keep you wired while you're trying to fall asleep, and the subsequent drop can even wake you in the middle of the night! Drops in blood sugar cue the body to release cortisol, the "wake up" hormone.
The Fix: Eat a non-grain based, complex carbohydrate and healthy fat 1-2 hours before bed to keep blood sugar stable during the night. For example, enjoy a mashed sweet potato or butternut squash with plenty of grass-fed butter or coconut oil as your last meal before bed.
4. Stop Drinking Caffeine Past Noon
Many people erroneously believe that drinking caffeinated beverages late into the afternoon or early evening won't affect their sleep. In fact, you should ideally restrict caffeine to 1-2 hours past your normal wake-up time. Having a cup of coffee late in the day as a pick-me-up may seem harmless (and maybe necessary,) but this habit can severely impact your ability to get to sleep as soon as you go to bed.
The Fix: Restrict your caffeine intake to before noon. Remember that coffee (even decaf), soda pop, and black & green tea all contain some amount of caffeine. Need something to give you energy and prevent that mid-afternoon crash? Consider taking an adaptogenic herb and always make sure you are well-hydrated.
5. Stop Laying Awake in Your Bed
One of the most common habits of insomniacs is to stay in bed despite the fact that they cannot sleep. This is based on the belief that laying awake with the lights out is "better than nothing." On the contrary, if you find yourself unable to drop off after 15-20 minutes, you should get out of bed! Falling asleep promptly upon going to bed doesn't "just occur naturally," it happens because of a very specific set of cues that your brain receives to induce sleep. If your brain doesn't associate your bed with sleep, you have a crucial cue missing.
The Fix: If you find yourself unable to fall asleep after 15-20 minutes of laying in a completely dark, cool room, GET UP. Try going to your living room couch and lay down in very soft light, and do something boring! Listen to soft classical music, read a textbook, or meditate. When you feel yourself unable to keep your eyes open any longer, go to bed. The first few times, it may take several hours! Remember, "time in bed" should be the same as "time asleep."
As a Naturopath, it is my job to take a thorough history and try to determine the underlying cause of my clients' insomnia and take measures to remove factors that are prompting the brain to loop endlessly over repetitive thoughts and keep the person in a state of wakefulness in the middle of the night. If you feel like you've "tried everything" to address your insomnia and nothing has worked, please schedule your first appointment HERE.
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