Sleep – something so easy for one person can be a nightmare for another.
There are as many causes of sleep disturbance as there are insomniacs, so what works for one person may not be effective for another. Likewise the same person may have different episodes of sleeplessness with varying causes and remedies.
Some common causes of insomnia
Environment – too hot, cold, noisy, light, uncomfortable! Ideally we need to be slightly cool and have a comfortable bed in a dark, quiet, room (easy, huh!)
Moods – depression and anxiety can be both causes and consequences of insomnia. Pharmacological drugs used to treat these conditions can also alter sleep architecture and compound the problem.
Stimulants – this might be obvious but coffee, tea, green tea, cola, chocolate, guarana and other caffeinated drinks cause us to be more alert and therefore find it more difficult to sleep. In a sensitive individual, a cup of coffee even 12 hours before bed can stop you from falling asleep! Nicotine also has this effect.
Alcohol – While a drink or three before bed might make you fall asleep more easily, ever noticed how you wake up a few hours later? Other than nocturia (needing to pee at night), alcohol rearranges your sleep phases interfering with restful sleep and exacerbates low blood sugar. Sometimes you wake up because you are actually hungry but don’t know it. Or maybe the kebab you had before bed has triggered a dose of reflux.
Drugs – almost every recreational drug known to man has some kind of negative effect on sleep patterns in the long or short term. While taking amphetamines and E have an obvious side effect of keeping us awake, using marijuana to get off to sleep in the long term tends to create a psychological (and possibly physiological) dependency – creating a situation that we believe we won’t sleep unless we smoke.
Some health conditions and medication – PMS, menopause, heart disease, GERD, thyroid disorders, cortisone…to name a few.
Cycle disrupters – travel, shift work, irregular work/life hours, parenting, being a primary carer.
Sleep apnoea – a condition where the soft tissue in the back of the throat swells or sags while we are trying to sleep – disrupting the air intake causing the brain to wake us up, repeatedly throughout the night. Snoring is associated with this, but also being chronically tired on waking. Being overweight, drinking alcohol, various nose and throat abnormalities and high blood pressure are some of the issues associated with this condition.
Some ways of working with your sleeping problems
Create the most ambient environment you can to sleep in. Try cotton sheets and cotton or wool blankets rather than feather doonas (they can cause your core body temperature to raise during the night). If you can’t wear earplugs think about creating white noise. Get blackout curtains. Change the orientation of your bed and see if that helps.
If your pets or partner disturb your sleep – try sleeping in another room if that is possible (you can love them more after a restful night’s sleep).
Make sleep a priority – create a routine where you have sufficient wind down time before bed and at least 8 hours in the sack. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
Try not to watch TV, use a computer or play screen based games for an hour before bed. Never have a TV in the bedroom!
Have a week without caffeine, alcohol or nicotine and see how if it helps your sleeping pattern. See a hypnotherapist to help you quit smoking.
Note: nicotine patches and gum can cause insomnia
Have at least half an hour (preferably much more) in natural light every day to stimulate melatonin production and exercise during the day.
Get some extra help relaxing – try yoga, massage, warm baths, relaxation cds.
a hot footbath before bed can help you feel grounded and sleepy
Try “brain dumping” doing some free writing in a journal, or even writing a list.
There is a plethora of sleep inducing herbs, homoeopathics, essential oil blends and other goodies on the market. Here are some favourites.
Herbs: Scullcap, passionflower, chamomile. A good strong cup of organic, loose, chamomile flowers half an hour before bed is the safest option if you are on medication (note: if you have an allergy to any member of the daisy family avoid chamomile). St Johns wort is a great relaxant, but shouldn’t be taken with any prescribed medication unless it has been cleared by your herbalist or doctor. Likewise chaste tree berry, not traditionally thought as a sedative – might reset your sleep clock.
Essential oils: Lavender, jasmine and chamomile are relaxing oils. But like with herbs, quality is important. Of the three lavender is the cheapest but make sure it is a pure essential oil. A drop in the bath, oil burner or on your wrist.
Homoeopathics: Over the counter blends are the easiest way to try these. Check your local healthfood store or pharmacy. There are also combinations for jet lag that are worth a try.
Supplements: A balanced B vitamin is useful to take for stress. It’s best to be taken during the day, away from caffeine. Before bed magnesium, zinc or a combination of magnesium and calcium can help relax muscles. These are especially good if you feel tense or suffer from “Restless Legs” or cramps.
Don’t fight insomnia. Try not to get fixated on the holy grail of an 8 hour, uninterrupted sleep. The anxiety that comes from obsessing on not sleeping is counterproductive. Think positively. If you can’t sleep try meditation or a relaxation exercise and focus on the positive benefits from these exercises. If you have no pathological reasons for your insomnia, realise this is a phase and believe it will pass.
Stop feeding the insomnia monster!
More info on sleep patterns, stages, insomnia, side effects of drug and other treatments – from an orthodox medical viewpoint