How I finally fixed my sleep issues (for once and for all)
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In the not-so-distant past, I used to struggle with insomnia. I would go to bed, and then toss-and-turn for what felt like hours. I’d peek at the clock and groan when I realised I had to be up in 5 hours. I’d toss and turn some more, then I’d look at the clock again. Up in 3 hours.
Finally I would drift into an uncertain sleep, only to be destroyed by the sound of my alarm going off. I would hit snooze until the last possible moment and then drag myself out of bed.
“I’m just not a morning person”, I said. “I’m a night owl. That’s a thing.”
And it is a thing. I am a night owl. However, I also have a job that requires me to get up early and a life that I want to enjoy. I set myself the task of improving my sleep, and after a lot of trial-and-error I managed to sort myself out.
Sleep is one of the the areas I consider fundamental to living a happy life. Lack of sleep affects everything from your weight to your productivity to your mood to your immune system.
My sleep is still not perfect. If I drink too much coffee, or let my routine get disrupted for too many days in a row, I will start to sleep badly. Then I’ll have to patiently re-set my sleeping patterns. The difference now is that I am in control. If I want a good nights sleep, I know how to get it.
So, what did I do?
Fix your sleep issues: One – change the framing
That thing where you lie in bed tossing and turning and worrying about how little sleep you are getting? That’s bad. Your body starts to associate your bed with worrying and insomnia. Instead of your bed being a safe-haven, it becomes a place of stress. The more you do this, the stronger that link becomes, and the harder it becomes to fall asleep. You might be tired, but the second you climb between the sheets your brain prepares itself for insomnia.
Here’s how to change that:
- If you can’t sleep, get up. There’s no point in lying down in bed if you aren’t sleeping. If you go to bed and don’t fall asleep within about ten minutes… get back up. Do something productive. If you start to feel sleepy, you can return to bed.
- Don’t think about how tired you are going to be the next day. Instead, remind yourself that a bad night isn’t going to kill you. If you need that sleep, you will fall asleep. If you can’t sleep, worrying about it isn’t going to help.
- Change your bedroom around. Break the link between your bed and the worry of a broken night. Get new bedding if you can afford it. Change the smells in the room, by adding a lavender candle or some essential oils.
- Stop doing anything in bed that isn’t sleep. Don’t read, don’t play with your phone, don’t use your laptop. You want to create an unbreakable association between your bed and sleep.
Fix your sleep issues: Two – establish a routine
In order to let your body know when it should start to relax and feel sleepy, you should establish a sleep routine. That means you go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Even at weekends. Especially at weekends.
Life, of course, is more complicated than this. But if you can manage one month of going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, you’ll establish enough of a routine that you can afford the occasional late night or lie in. The key word there is ‘occasional’. If you find your routine starts to slip, re-commit to another 30 days.
To help your body relax, a ‘wind down’ routine is a good idea. About an hour before it’s time to go to bed, try the following:
- Switch off screens. TV screens, smartphone screens, computer screens all give off light that makes your body think it’s still daytime and stops melatonin from being released.
- Have a relaxing bath or shower. Try lavender bubble bath – lavender is known for helping you sleep, and a strong smell at bedtime will become associated with sleeping.
- Dim the lights. I like to leave just a lamp on after 9.30pm.
- Read a ‘gentle’ book. I like to read non-fiction books in the evening. Fiction often engages me too much – if it’s a page-turner, I end up staying up half the night to finish it!
The actual details of this routine are up to you. You could do a gentle yoga routine. You could rub your feet with aromatherapy oils. You could go for an evening stroll. You could drink a cup of horlix. The key is to do the same things each evening, so that your body knows it’s time to sleep.
Again, this can feel inflexible. Commit to it for at least 30 days, so that it becomes a routine. Then you can adjust your routine to work with the rest of your life.
You will want to avoid anything too energetic. Bedtime is not a good time to do a HIIT workout, or start a really engaging and demanding project.
Fix your sleep issues: Three – get rid of ‘sleep destroyers’
Caffeine and sleep
When I got serious about trying to fix my sleep issues, I signed up for Sleepio. One of the things they asked me to do was give up caffeine.
I am not going to lie. It was HARD. I had headaches. I missed coffee. I missed tea.
But I slept a lot better.
After a few days, the headaches died away and I stopped feeling like I was the walking dead. I started to fall asleep almost as soon as I got into bed. I was impressed!
Later, I started to drink caffeine again and I realised that if I drank tea or coffee after about 10am, it would affect my sleep that night. These days I have a cup of tea first thing in the morning, but then switch to decaf and herbal teas later in the day. Every now and then I treat myself to a ‘real’ coffee – but it is just that. A treat.
Alcohol and sleep
Caffeine is a well-known sleep destroyer. Another one is alcohol. I’ve never been a big drinker – I’ll have a couple of beers maybe once a month or so. As such, this wasn’t a big contributor to my sleep issues. However, if you regularly use an alcoholic drink to wind down and relax in the evening, you’ll want to rethink. Alcohol does help you fall asleep quicker – but it also wakes you up early, and lowers the quality of your sleep so you feel less rested.
Another chemical that affects your sleep is nicotine. Nicotine is a stimulant, which means it wakes you up. I don’t have personal experience of smoking, but if anyone has successfully given up or cut back, please do post about your experience in the comments!
Medications and sleep
Some medications also affect sleep. These include antihistamines, and some prescription medication such as anti-depressants. If you think medication is contributing to your sleep issues, please talk to your health care provider. They might be able to tweak your dosage, or suggest an alternative.
Antihistamines can make you sleepy, but you increase your tolerance quickly. They can also have side-effects such as making you groggy during the day. I take anti-histamines to deal with hay fever season, and it always makes me feel more tired during the day. It isn’t a great solution to insomnia because of this.
How have you tackled your sleep issues?
The things above worked for me. But I would really love to know what has worked for you. Did lavender essential oil end up being the thing that worked? Have you ever tried the ice bath method? Do you do bedtime yoga? Let me know in the comments!