If you are suffering bad sleep you will know how debilitating it can be. It affects literally everything in your life - you cannot function properly while going about your day, everything seems a little foggy and muzzy, your relationships suffer, your tolerance level suffers, your bodily health suffers, your ability to perform at work suffers. You have no energy for a social life.
I know this. I was a chronic insomniac for upwards of fifteen years. I would go two or three nights in a row without sleeping, started to fall asleep at work, made bad mistakes while driving.
The day I started to drive my car straight into a red light and into oncoming traffic was the last straw for me – I went to a sleep clinic.
They told me I had “primary insomnia” which is not a genetic or medical insomnia, but a “learned” one. I had literally taught myself to wake up when I went to bed, and associated wakefulness with lying in bed.
There’s so much different advice out there that it’s hard to know what to do. More dangerous is the “levelling” – where your bad sleep just becomes normal and accepted, and you give up trying to find a solution.
I’ve researched a lot of reasons for insomnia and tried a plethora of cures, and if I’ve learned one thing about bad sleep it’s that there are often a few combined causes, not just one. You have to look at all of them.
Here are the things I believe you need to check out, plus the things that you can do:
Food: dairy and sugar were a large part of my sleep problem. I had no idea I was intolerant to both, given that I hadn’t had a problem in early years. Food intolerances (different to allergies) can develop at any time in life. I went to a good naturopath and had salivary and blood tests done to check for cortisol levels and food intolerances. As soon as I cut sugar and dairy from my diet, I started to notice improved sleep.
Stress: many women suffer from adrenal fatigue – it’s when you are in “fight or flight” mode throughout your day, reacting to stressors. Your adrenal glands are pumping adrenalin into your system to deal with the stressors and over time, they have nothing left. Cue fatigue. Your whole system will be higgledy-piggledy, your mind will race at night. You need to look at the ways to reduce stress immediately. Cut out all unnecessary stressors, meditate and exercise, take time in the evening to slow down and clear your mind. Write stuff down. Don’t exacerbate stress with bad foods that place more strain on your body.
Waking up at 2 or 3am: this is the time of night your liver is performing its function. It needs fuel to work. If that fuel is not there because you have been operating on high stress throughout the day, it will ask your adrenal glands for some fuel. They’ll happily oblige with some adrenalin, which wakes you up. Work on getting stress and food right, but for a band-aid, eat a banana late at night to give your liver the sugary fuel it needs. If you simply Google “Why do I wake up at 3am?” you will get a whole batch of articles on this.
Emotions: often the least addressed problem. You need to look at if you are being true to yourself. Are you speaking up for yourself? Are you treating yourself with respect and value? Are you living a life that feels true to you and in line with your values and passions? If you are not then your unconscious and subconscious mind will be sending you signals. These signals can be illnesses, physical symptoms, moods, depression, or affected sleep. Listen to what your body is trying to tell you and begin to work on the root causes.
All of that may take a little while, so here are the nightly bits and pieces you can do to encourage sleep:
Take a hot shower last thing at night. Rapidly cooling body temperature assists going to sleep.
Keep your bedroom cool, ideal temperature is between 18-21 degrees.
Keep your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible.
Do not have electronic equipment in your bedroom – the backlighting from TV’s, iPads, laptops and smart phones will stimulate sensors that tell you to wake up.
Do not keep your phone next to your bed.
At least an hour before going to bed, turn off the TV (and any other backlit stuff) and lower the lighting. Do something relaxing for that time.
Write down everything that is on your mind. Once it’s on paper you will feel less need to think about it as you’ll know you can pick it up again first thing in the morning and nothing will be forgotten.
Stick to the same hours to get up and go to bed. Routine for your body and mind is really important.
Avoid caffeine, or really any processed food for a few hours before going to bed.
Make your bedroom a place of calm. Keep it uncluttered and peaceful.
Turn off any electrical equipment at the wall. Electromagnetism can play havoc with your health.
Have some good air-filtering plants in the bedroom.
Keep the air moving with a small fan.
Eat a banana before bed.
Practice 4-7-8 breathing when you get into bed: breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 7, breath out for 8. Do this repeatedly.
Do not have a clock in your bedroom. This encourages you to keep track of how long you stay awake and will convince you your sleep is worse than it was.
Don’t continue to lie in bed if you are awake. This associates wakefulness with bed. Get up and do something non-stimulating, then try going back to bed.
If all else fails, you may have to do what the sleep clinic told me to do: Sleep Restriction.
This is where you estimate the amount of sleep you collectively get per night. I said 4 hours if I added up all the broken bits. Then decide what time you want to get up each day. I said 6am. So my new bedtime was 2am. 6am minus 4 hours.
The theory is that
you will be so tired by the time your new bedtime arrives, that you will sleep the full four hours (or however many).
You MUST go to bed no earlier than your agreed time, you MUST get up at your agreed time, and you MUST not nap during the day. You will be like a bear with a sore head for a couple of days, and you will be so exhausted when you get to bedtime that you will sleep like a log.
When you can sleep your four hours (or whatever your restricted time is) solidly without waking up (and believe me, you will!), then you move your bedtime earlier by 15 minutes. When you can sleep that solidly, then you move it forward 15 minutes again, and so on and so on until you reach a more normal time to go to bed and are getting a solid 6-8 hours.
It literally retrains you to sleep when you’re in bed.
I did sleep restrictions and turned my sleep problem around in 3 nights. Yep, that’s all it took.
Overall, good sleep requires a few focuses. You need to maintain a routine so that your mind and body get into a habit. You need to eat well and avoid food and drinks that are difficult for your organs to cope with, or that overload your system with toxins. You need to work on being happy with yourself. You need to slow down and manage stress.
It’s a bit of a challenge, but the rewards are huge. Living each day alert, focused and full of energy is worth the effort.
Stephanie Chan is a Sydney based Life Coach, Dating Coach and Presenter.
Her passion is in working with people to improve self-worth, confidence & strength in all areas of their lives.
For daily tips, articles and insights, follow Steph on Facebook