For once, something seems to be going well, health-wise.
Knock on holy wood.
I’ve been sleeping better lately, after a lifetime of not, and I was wondering why. Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken some steps to improve the likelihood of a decent night’s sleep. I kind of threw the kitchen sink in addition to the rest of the kitchen at the problem, so who knows how much of this is really necessary. Now I’m superstitious about it all, though.
I remember the first time I sought medical help for my sleep issues. The doctor advised me that everyone had a bad night once in a while. You don’t understand, I tried to tell her. There’s nothing once-in-a-while about this. During that particular period I was lucky to get 2-3 hours per night.
Who knows how long this nice ride I seem to be taking will last. But other than times when I’ve been taking a lot of sleep medication, this is the longest period of regular sleep I’ve experienced.
Here are some of the changes I made, in case any of them sound like they might be helpful to others struggling with insomnia. With some key exceptions, noted below, I really wanted to move away from “taking something,” whether it was a natural remedy or a pharmaceutical one.
- Got off Ambien. It helped me sleep, but I felt that after several years (about eight) of use, it made me feel less sharp during the day. Easing to zero from 10 mg/night was by no means a quick process. I think it took almost a year. Instead of creating a lot of anxiety about “quitting,” I just removed a sliver at a time and gave myself permission to stay at a certain level for a while. Maybe one sliver down, stay there for a month, remove another sliver, etc. After all, I’ve been sleeping poorly my entire life. Why shouldn’t I take my time adjusting to a new regimen? I’m entirely off it now, though. Full disclosure: very occasionally, if I have to get up super early and can’t get to bed early enough to get to sleep in time, I take Sonata (whatever it’s called generically), which is another hypnotic that wears off in half the time as Ambien. I try not to take it more than twice per month, though. It’s just that there are times when it’s necessary to be rested, and I feel it’s important to have a realistic balance regarding all my goals, which include reducing medication.
- Added magnesium. I was already taking my RDA of magnesium as part of a food-based calcium supplement, but I tried some Natural Vitality CALM samples and they seemed to help. At Vitamin Cottage/Natural Grocers I found a cheaper brand of LIQUID calcium-magnesium-zinc, and although I can’t say why this would be more effective than the tablets I was taking before, it just was. However, I found that all liquid and powdered magnesium supplements made me a little queasy after a while, so eventually I switched to magnesium oxide powder IN FOOD, usually in a smoothie at the beginning of a day. I have no idea if mag oxide is supposed to be worse or whatever. This seems helpful though.
- Got more serious about meditation. I don’t do a lot of it, but I try for 15-20 mins daily (I’ve been working up, following the Ambien titration pattern in reverse). I don’t worry about what time of day I do it, I just try to do it more days than not.
- Began studying craniosacral therapy with the hope of becoming a practitioner one day. I have received treatments in this modality for nearly three decades, off and on, and noticed that it helped my nervous system a great deal. I also noticed that the people I received treatments from seemed to benefit from giving sessions. While “skeptics” insist on categorizing this modality as “quackery” (many “skeptics” also question acupuncture and even chiropractic care), I find that clients attuned to their bodies and who click with a practitioner will be able to see for themselves how they benefit. (Our local hospital employs a fulltime craniosacral practitioner.) I find as well that the practice sessions and the trainings are helpful to me. So, when I meditate, I focus on the sensations in my body that are related to what we are studying in the trainings.
- I started hormone replacement therapy. I read up on the controversies and decided that rather than being a “natural phase of life” for women, in my view, menopause is really a natural phase of dying. Key processes are shutting down. It’s all right with me to be losing my reproductive capabilities, but screw the assumption that this has to be accompanied by a lot of other losses, including of sleep. Anyone else’s mileage may vary, so there’s no point in sharing the exact details of what I’m doing in this area—if you want to go this route, your doctor can help you figure out what’s best for you. No comments on whether hormone replacement is a carcinogen, please. I’ve done the research into the pros and cons. It’s protective against Alzheimer’s and heart disease, which kills far more women than breast cancer does.
- I got Flux for my computer screen, which possibly helps cancel out the blue-light spectrum toward the end of the day (blue light interferes with melatonin production). Even if all Flux does is turn my screen red, it at least relaxes my eyes and reminds me to shut down my computer and go to bed.
- I bought a pair of amber welding glasses for reading at night with either a lamp and a print book or with an LED-lit ereader. My husband calls them the “contraceptive” glasses, not that conception is an issue for us at this stage of our lives. Ah well. I can feel my eyes relaxing much sooner. They also help when I get up to go to the bathroom and turn on the overhead lights. I also use the Beam ’n Read with the red filter for reading after lights-out in our house.
- Started wearing a sleep mask so that if I do wake up, I’m not disturbed by ambient light from the street or the sky.
- I got rid of AC currents during the night. Everything is unplugged, and there are no little lights glowing. Alarm clocks are battery-operated and cell phones are left in another room.
- Okay, this might be a little woo-woo, but per feng shui suggestions, I draped a cloth over a mirror that was facing the bed. Kitchen sink, as I said.
- I increased my dose of N-A-C (N-acetylcysteine) from 1200 mg to 2000 mg daily. NAC is great for a lot of things, among them arresting spinning thoughts. I let myself obsess earlier in the day because it’s good for my writing life. All artists must be a little obsessive. But around mid-afternoon I take 1000 mg to start the wind-down, and I take the other 1000 mg at bedtime.
There are other things I’ve done for a while, and that I’m still doing. I exercise aerobically for about an hour per day, I walk on a treadmill desk while I’m writing, and I try to do yoga and some pilates exercises daily. I also try not to consume sugar (which, story of my life, I’m always trying to reduce or eliminate, anyway) or other stimulants after noon.
My guess as to what’s most effective for me, of all these changes: The CST training and regular practice; the amber lenses; the HRT; and the N-A-C (if you’re considering using N-A-C, be sure to consult your doctor, by the way). So, sometimes “taking something” is helpful. I just try to avoid using specific sleep aids, including melatonin, California poppy, valerian, kava, and other supplements. After all, Ambien is a lot cheaper than those other options, so if I’m going to “take something,” it might as well be something my insurance covers.
Caveats: My life is a lot less stressful than it used to be. I no longer have a child at home, my relationship is going well, and I no longer work fulltime at a job I feel no passion for. I’m able to get some creative work done, and there’s enough flexibility in my life to allow for exercise and meditation on good days. All of these externals may have simply allowed my nervous system to relax somewhat, perhaps for the first time in my life. My ability to fall asleep sooner may be as simple as these improvements in my parameters, improvements I could not have made when I was a mom in a shaky relationship, working fulltime. (And currently I trade all these positives for another major life stressor—NOT ENOUGH MONEY. Perhaps at some point this stress will become less bearable; for now I’m glad I can sleep.)
I have no doubt that were I to reintroduce any of those other stressors, specifically deadline pressure, I would return to my crazier self.
And, as another caveat, I may be sleeping more regularly, but in terms of hours, it’s still not quite enough. I don’t think sleep will ever come naturally to me—my stress hormone setup was too screwed up in childhood and thereafter—or that I will ever be a morning person. According to Goodreads, I read over a hundred books per year, which does not include the literary journals, articles, and other printed and digital input I consume. Only an insomniac could do that! Even with all of the efforts outlined above, I do not fall asleep before midnight, and there are probably one or two nights per week where I fall asleep at two or so. I may wake up at seven or eight, but sometimes I sleep till nine. I have a lot of nightmares, and even my innocuous dreams are so vivid that I often have to lie in bed for a while recovering—sorting out whether I have a husband or not, whether he’s still living with me, whether my son is alive, where he lives, where I live, what I do for a living, how many pets I have, etc. But it’s a lot better than it used to be, and perhaps that tells you something about how it used to be.
Sadly, my night owl ways used to pay off in that I would get a lot of creative and intellectual work done at night. Now I have to get it done in the afternoon. Because I’m useless in the morning and as I age I find that at night I’m only good for reading.
No doubt people will write to me about all the things I’m doing wrong (HRT, I’m sure) and all the OTHER things I COULD be doing if I wanted to be a perfect human being with no impact on our healthcare system. But this is what’s working for me. For now, as I said. I’m sure I’ll have to readjust in the future.
If you have sleep issues and something’s been working for you, I’d love to hear about it.