I’ve struggled with insomnia for my entire life, and despite all of the work I’ve put into battling it, I go through waves. I had to give a talk about my sleeping tips a few weeks ago, and I’ve recently put some new tricks into practice that have been helping a lot, so it’s been top of mind lately. I realized I haven’t actually written about my insomnia for years and it was high time for a comprehensive post with all of the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way.
For people with real sleeping problems, it can be frustrating to read all of these articles that saying that if you sniff lavender and do some breathing exercises, you’ll sleep like a baby. So I’ll say it from the get go: These tips have helped me a lot but it’s an ongoing battle that requires a lot of work! I always say if I could have one magical power, it would be the power to fall asleep on command and stay asleep for eight straight hours.
My history with insomnia:
As a kid, I was terrified of the dark (still am actually!) and would get awful nightmares which caused me to be up and scared for much of the night. But before that, my mom said I was never a good sleeper, even as a baby. As I grew into a teenager and throughout college, my anxiety starting coming to fruition and that affected my sleep in a big way. I would lay awake with a racing mind every night with no idea how to stop it… That, in addition to my fear of the dark made for a special and fun combination that resulted in, you guessed it, insomnia.
Finally in my 20’s I became interested in wellness and bettering myself (as in no more college-style binge drinking!), and I realized it was time to take control of my sleep situation. I could eat all the kale and quinoa in the world but without sleep, I wasn’t a healthy person. I focused a lot of time and a decent portion of the little income I had at the time into sleep therapy and hypnotherapy. And with the suggestions of my therapists, I learned to sleep decently (not perfectly) for the first time in my life. My only regret was not doing it sooner!
Based on the extensive work I’ve done both on my own and with various therapists over the years, there are a few things that help my sleep the most:
1. A really strong bedtime routine that works for you
2. A bedroom that makes you feel safe and comfortable for a solid sleep
3. Working on daytime stressors that lead to insomnia
4. What you eat and drink at night
5. Natural sleep remedies
The bedtime routine is the easiest piece of the insomnia pie to bite off, in my opinion. As long as you actually do it, the little rituals and routines make a big difference. I’ve noticed that on nights when I don’t do it or try to cut corners, my sleep suffers. It’s a time to shut down your brain, unplug from the world, and set yourself up for a successful night.
Remember that what works for me might not work for you, so play around with a few different routines and stick with the ones that make you feel the most relaxed and comfortable. Here is my current bedtime routine:
Turn off devices an hour before bed. For me, the full hour is important. If you have to use your phone or computer for work, use the night shift option. If your device doesn’t have that, you can get amber goggles to block the blue light while you work. Yes I have these, and yes they’re very unsexy. But sleep is sexier so I use them anyway when I need to. That said, I usually just use an amber light bulb in the lamp next to my bed for the rest of the routine. It gives the room a really nice warm glow that isn’t too bright.
Get ready. I’ve recently realized that an important part of this routine for me is to wash my face, shower, and brush my teeth before I do the rest of this list so that after I put down my book I can go right to sleep. I shower at night because I hate going to bed dirty. It’s a habit I picked up when living in NYC. Am I the only one? Anel and I are both oddly obsessive about this!
Journal. I’ve done some journaling in the past, but my current therapist suggested it again as a part of my bedtime routine about a month ago because I have a hard time turning off my mind at night. It has been shockingly helpful. My rule is that I only write for one page and I use the top half of the page as a brain dump, basically a stream of consciousness, and I use the second half of the page as a to do list. This is the most helpful part for me because I know that in the morning I can look at the list and not forget anything important that I think of before bed. Before I started this practice, I’d go over to do items in my head over and over or have to turn my phone back on to write them down.
Read a book. Reading a novel with an interesting story that has nothing to do with my own life is an integral part of my routine because it takes my mind off of my own stuff. I’ve always been a big reader, and when I don’t read before bed my mind races a lot more! Reading is my favorite part of my bedtime routine. Lately I’ve been into WWII novels but I’m taking a break this month for some lighter reads.
Gratitude prayer. This one might sound cheesy but after we turn off the light and I say goodnight to Anel, I like to silently say to myself three things that I’m grateful for that day. It often involves more than one moment with my daughter and brings a smile to my face. It’s a good attitude shift right before sleep.
A safe and cozy bedroom
While doing my bedtime routine, I like my bedroom to feel really comfortable, clean and safe. Here are a few of the ways that I do that:
Essential oils: I diffuse lavender oil which makes our room smell like a spa. Studies have shown that lavender can increase slow-wave sleep; the deep sleep where your heart rate slows and your muscles relax. Plus it smells amazing so win/win.
Lighting: As I mentioned above, I use my amber light bulb which is not only good for calming me down, but it also just makes the room feel like a cozy cave, almost like candlelight.
Bedding: I get really hot when I sleep so breathable sheets and bedding is hugely important to me. I learned at an event a few weeks ago that the higher the thread count, the less breathable sheets actually are. I was shocked because I always thought that higher was better! And it is, unless you’re a night furnace like yours truly.
Temperature: The temperature of the room itself is also important. I’ve read and heard time and time again that it’s actually better for you to sleep in a cooler temperature so we keep our room on 68 at night and I usually have the fan going as well.
Clutter: For a while I became obsessed with feng shui and reading about how it works. There is so much more I could say on this topic but one of my main takeaways is that clutter creates stagnant energy and you don’t want that anywhere in your house, but especially in your bedroom. A clean bedroom is a must for me.
In therapy, we talk a lot about how what I do in the day affects my sleep at night. Everyone always says if you just exercise during the day you’ll sleep better but that doesn’t help me at all. I get insomnia even on workout days, trust me! Obviously a lifestyle that consists of a healthy diet and plenty of exercise is good for your sleep, but there are other things you can do during the day that make a difference. For me, working on my anxiety has made a world of difference for my insomnia. And if I have something stressful going on during the day, I try to take moments throughout that day to breathe or take a walk or calm down.
What you eat before bed
Obviously caffeine, alcohol, and sugar play a role in sleep, but I find that if I eat anything that’s too fatty or acidic, it also makes a difference. But the real kicker for me is alcohol. Even one glass of wine at 7pm makes me wake up feeling slightly groggy. Man that makes me feel old, but it’s true! When I stick to a clean diet and include salad and lots of fiber and veggies with dinner, I fall asleep easier and wake up feeling fresher.
This isn’t always possible, obviously, but it’s always in the back of my mind and I’ll ask myself if that drink or that dessert will really be worth it the next morning. And I personally can’t have any caffeine after 12pm or forget it!
Natural sleep remedies
I’m pretty sure that I’ve tried each and every natural sleep remedy on the market, but there are only a few that really work for me. One is Melatonin which I take before bed if I’m feeling really wired. The other is Lemon Balm which I take in tincture form every night before I brush my teeth. It’s a natural stress reliever and helps with sleep. When it’s cold out, I also like to drink a mug of chamomile or nighty night tea while we watch TV before my electronic dead zone. Everyone tells me to use CBD oil but anytime I’ve tried, it’s had the opposite effect on me, making my mind race like crazy!