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Insomnia SOS, An 8 Step Action Plan

BY ELIZABETH BORELLI

Several summers ago just after turning 50, I hit bout of insomnia that can only be explained by a combination of heat and hormones. After 5 torturous nights I began to see sleep-deprivation for the sanity-testing problem it can become.

Before this my sleep plan was simple; keep a regular schedule, no caffeine after noon, unplug at least an hour before bed. I had recently even adjusted my regular sleep schedule so I was getting up earlier and getting more done, which was nice. Looking back, I suppose I was feeling pretty smug.

Suddenly smug no more, I found myself reduced to tears at 3 am after a week of sleep deprivation.

It was the same every night; falling asleep, no problem. Staying asleep? Bloody hell. I tried all my usual tricks and practiced the deep breathing techniques that typically work. Nothing.

I take my slumber very seriously, and given the studies associating lack of sleep with all kinds of unpleasantness, from weight gain to depression, I was determined to resolve this, fast.

I found an article written by Dr. Shelby Freedman Harris, Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine program at a highly accredited medical center in New York. Since reliability on these matters can vary and there are dozens of suggestions for cures, I thought Dr. Harris’ advice was both succinct enough to manage and safe enough to trust.  Steps 1-5 of the Action Plan below are based on her suggestions, and I added a few more culled from various sources to incorporate the additional measures that in combination delivered results.

Insomnia SOS, An 8 Step Action Plan featuring 8 proven practices for falling and staying asleep:

1. Dim your lights an hour before bed time to start winding down, but not so dim you can’t read. A good magazine is an easy-reading treat if you don’t have a good novel.

2. Avoid looking at anything with a screen. This includes phone and TV. This is the most challenging suggestion for me, since I like to watch videos to relax before bed, which clearly was not the right strategy.

3. Practice a body-scan meditation right before bed to help you to relax. Here is a link to a good one:

4. Then try these simple breathing exercises to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

5. If that’s not working, try getting out of bed and repeating the body-can meditation again. As counterintuitive as it sounds, Dr. Harris recommends staying in your seated meditation until you’re sleepy.

These exercises did help somewhat. But again I found myself up for close to 2 hours over the course of the night.

I knew needed to step it up so I did some more research.

6. Light therapy It turns out that just by looking into the morning sunlight (or in Oregon, the morning cloud cover) within an hour of waking up triggers the production of the stress hormone cortisol. If you’re able to get out for a morning walk for 30-45 minutes, you’re capitalizing on two sleep practices; light therapy and exercise.  If you’re stuck indoors much of the time, letting the sunlight in or using a light therapy lamp during the day also helps.

These strategies helped me tremendously, as did the following tip:

7. Take a hot shower or bath right before bed.  Health News Research suggests a warm bath or shower an hour or two before bedtime can help you unwind and fall asleep faster. Why? It will help lower your core temperature, and that’s a circadian sleep signal.

I also recognized another possibility right there in front of me; supplements. I’ve read both positive and negative reviews about the efficacy of sleep supplements, so I thought I’d better review the options. It was hard to find valid research concluding that herbal sleep remedies really work. In fact according to an expert on Harvard Health Publications, the studies are actually inconclusive:

8. Valerian root “Some studies suggest that valerian is mildly sedating and can help people fall asleep and improve their sleep quality. But the evidence is mixed. An analysis of multiple studies of valerian’s effect on sleep published in 2010 concluded that people fell asleep only about a minute sooner than with a sugar pill.”

L-Theanine and the other commonly recommended natural remedies fared no better in terms of scientific evidence.

Regardless, I had to give it a fair shake and I purchased a bottle of valerian tablets right away. As I’m posting this, I’ve had 2 successful nights of sound sleep for which I credit my combination of relaxation techniques, including the morning light exposure, light therapy, and a valerian root supplement. Sometimes it takes a village.

I’m cautiously optimistic, but just to be on the safe side I’ve also gone 100% decaf. I can thank this little experience for teaching me to work a good night’s sleep into my daily routine, because now I know first-hand, few things are as important to happiness and well-being.

This medically reviewed article provides more information on light therapy. Highly recommended!

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