My sleep has always been up and down, yet it usually tended to work itself out eventually. That was until 4 years ago, when, seemingly out of the blue, I just woke up one morning and didn’t go back to sleep. For DAYS. This went on for what seemed like forever. It had been weeks since I’d had a “normal” nights sleep by the time I saw my doctor, who immediately put me on sleeping tablets. However, their efficacy wore off pretty quickly as well as leaving me groggy most mornings and long into the day. This set me on a path to try to discover why my mind and body just refused to shut down at night. Here. I’ll share some of the things that helped me get to a place where sleep comes a lot more easily.
Check your Melatonin
Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It’s also known as your sleep/wake cycle. Melatonin is involved in the synchronization of the circadian rhythms including sleep-wake timing, blood pressure regulation, seasonal reproduction, and many others. Melatonin, is a hormone that is produced by the pineal gland in humans and animals and regulates sleep and wakefulness.
For most adults, the biggest dip in energy happens in the middle of the night (somewhere between 2:00am and 4:00am, when they’re usually fast asleep) and just after lunchtime (around 1:00pm to 3:00pm, when they tend to crave a post-lunch nap). Those times can be different if you’re naturally a night owl or a morning person. You also won’t feel the dips and rises of your circadian rhythm as strongly if you’re all caught up on sleep. It’s when you’re sleep-deprived that you’ll notice bigger swings of sleepiness and alertness.
By checking my hormone levels I was able to see that, for whatever reason, I was deficient in Melatonin. In Ireland we have to get a prescription for Melatonin supplements, but in the UK, USA and much of Europe, Melatonin is available over the counter in health shops, chemists and even some large supermarkets.
Switch off from blue light at least 1 hour before bed
It’s not news that we spend an unhealthy amount of time connected to our screens and that scientists have been cautioning against using light-emitting devices before bed. According to Scientific American, The light from our devices is “short-wavelength-enriched,” meaning it has a higher concentration of blue light than natural light—and blue light affects levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin more than any other wavelength. Recent studies have shown that shifts in our circadian rhythm can have devastating health effects because it controls not only our wakefulness but also individual clocks that dictate function in the body’s organs. In other words, stressors that affect our circadian clocks, such as blue-light exposure, can have much more serious consequences than originally thought.
Leave your phone out of the bedroom at night. If you live in a one room space, charge it away form the bed out of arm’s reach. Try to avoid watching TV in bed, or looking at anything with blue light. Disassociate your sleeping area with blue light electronics.
Helps your mind, body and soul align for sleep. I’m vocal about my belief in yoga as a healing tool and there’s tons of online articles regarding the proven benefits if you want to dive into some research. You can find tons of free online practices on youtube. My favourite channel is “Yoga with Adrienne” but if you want to avoid video at night there are tons of printouts available on Pinterest. For example:
Switching off doesn’t mean staring at the walls begging for sleep to arrive.
Reading before you sleep could relax you significantly. A study by the University of Sussex raised a number of participants stress levels and then attempted to reduce them. Cognitive Neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis found that ‘reading worked best, reducing stress levels by 68 percent’. It was better than listening to music (61%), drinking tea or coffee (54%) and taking a walk (42%). It only took 6 minutes for participants’ stress levels to be reduced.
This is because, when reading a good book, your mind is distracted from daily stresses and worries that causes tension. Stories give your mind the option to be somewhere else for a little while. This means you can leave your own troubles behind. Reading also allows your muscles to relax and slows down your breathing, leaving you feeling calmer.
Additionally, reading can be an almost hypnotic action characterized by rhythmic eye movement, a relaxed physical position, and a focused attention. When you’re in this state, your body becomes passive and your alertness decreases unless the topic that you’re reading requires you to use your mind like mathematical calculations, deductive thinking, reasoning etc. in this way, your body easily gets tired thus resulting in sleepiness.
Create a bedtime routine
Bedtime routines aren’t just for kids. A night time ritual can move us into a mind-frame of winding down. A nightly ritual of a warm (caffeine-free) drink, relaxing bath and a few minutes of reading in bed can act as a cue to your body and mind that it’s time to go to sleep.
“It’s possible to train yourself to associate certain restful activities and smells with sleep and make them part of your bedtime ritual,” says Jade Wells, a Physiologist at Nuffield Health.
For me, that routine includes, but is not limited to:
Infusing/burning lavender oil or sprinkling lavender on my pillow
Drinking chamomile tea prior to going up to bed
Leaving my phone downstairs and journalling before bed. This empties any circular thoughts from my head and places them onto the page instead. A daily detox of emotion!
Reading by a dim bedside lamp. Check how bright your bulb is and see can you healthily (too dim can be damaging for eyesight) go lower.
I insert my mouth guard before I even get into bed. Definitely not necessary for everyone, but if you are sleep deprived ask your dentist next check up if they think you may be grinding your teeth at night.
Eye mask! Darkness is my friend. Some people may need a light on to sleep, or a door ajar. See what works best for you and prepare your space accordingly before melting into bed with your book.
Insight Timer is an App I cannot live without. So much so, that I got a cheap as possible Android tablet for my room so that I can use apps without bringing my phone to bed. With all the best intentions, I would still end up scrolling Twitter til 2am when I brought my phone up. So my €50 tablet is my sleep aid only, with no other apps but kindle, insight timer, screen dimmer and some other meditation apps. I have the screen dimmer app switched on at all times. Speaking of:
I use Night Owl at present on my phone and Flux on my laptop from 8pm onwards. Let your body know that night is drawing in.
If listening to sleep aiding meditations before bed aren’t for you, maybe try a pair of silicone earplugs. These are my go in if I’ve woken up in the middle of the night or if construction starts nearby at crazy early o’clock. I order the below brand online in bulk as it works out much cheaper than what’s available in shops near me.
It can take a lot of time and a lot of trial and error to find what helps for you. Our lives are so particular and our needs are extremely specific. But we are animals that are meant to sleep, and there is hope to get more than we currently are when dealing with insomnia. Speak to your doctor if you are struggling. There may be psychological issues keeping you up at night – worries, anxieties, fears, that can be aided by medication as well as psychotherapy and counselling. Working out our deep-rooted issues and releasing our anxieties are key to a good night’s sleep. A settled mind is clearly one that sleeps better. While the above tips may benefit sleep hygiene, if you are still finding a good night’s sleep difficult to come by, particularly if your dreamworld is quite unsettling (anxiety dreams or repeated upsetting imagery) maybe it’s time to get to the root of this unconscious material with psychoanalysis. Find a therapist you feel comfortable with and see how it feels.
Wishing you all the loveliest sleeps x
If you would like to schedule a therapy session with Bébhinn, either online or in person, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: I am not being paid to advertise any particular products, this is simply what has helped me at times.