(Updated 3 am Sunday morning 11/10/20)
"Hey there Gary,
I've been having a bit of Insomnia for the past week with struggling to get the body to sleep.
I've covered good sleep hygiene like not being on phone before bed, cool room etc with not much luck."
I do not sleep well most nights. It has gotten worse with age. We had family over last night for dinner. I ate too much, I had too much on my mind and I could not sleep as a consequence, so I decided to get up and make good use of all of this mental energy by updating this article about insomnia.
Put that mental energy to good use, rather than lie there and get all worked up about not being able to sleep
So, here I am, sitting here in my office. It is 3.14 am Sunday morning. I have the big cyclocross race series finals later in the morning. I'm currently in 5th place overall in the series placings which is pretty sensational given my age. Am I worried about not being able to sleep the night before such an important and intense competition? Not at all. I've done heaps of racing over the last 50 years and few things to do with athletic competition ever phase me these days. Besides, to quote my sister, Lorraine, Olympian and the rest: "Nobody ever fell asleep during a race". Wise words, indeed and very true. I'll turn up at the race several hours from now and put in my best performance. I'm not sweating it over the lack of sleep.
I must qualify what I'm writing about here by saying that I am in a rather privileged position nowadays. I have a lot of control over my hours of work. I'm "retired", I do not have to work but I choose to. For long hours. Retirement for me is doing the work I love while discarding what I don't enjoy. I do not have to drive a long way to work. I work from an office at home. I do not have to sit at a desk watching the clock for 8-10 hours. I do not have children at home any more. If I have to, I can take a nap during the day. My daily productivity is at its highest ever despite the poor sleep.
One good thing that has come out of this COVID Pandemic is many workers now have more flexible working conditions, including being able to work from home, or to work remotely from the office. Is there any reason why you can't polish off that project submission at three in the morning, then have a nap later on during the day?
The worst thing we can ever do is be "struggling" to get to sleep at night. It is partly a matter of changing one's mindset.
"Nobody ever fell asleep during a race" (Lorraine Moller)
Focus on your productivity the following day
The first thing is to focus on how well you function during the following day. If you manage to get in a good day's work then not being able to sleep well the night before is not a big issue. The next thing, when lying awake in bed, is to not worry about getting to sleep. This is counterproductive. Think about relaxing your body. Even if you can't fall asleep, you are at least resting physically.
Compare down - not up
I learned this from my son-in-law, Dr Paul Wood: when times are hard, such as when tossing and turning during the middle of the night, think of those who are much worse off than you. In the case of sleeplessness, I find it helpful to be thankful that I'm not incarcerated in a North Korean Interrogation bunker, having my fingernails pulled while under glaring lights and screeching noise, sleepless for weeks on end.
Here is Paul's article on the concept of comparing down:
Hit the Big Red Reset Button
Even if it is two o'clock in the morning and I can't sleep I find it helps to hit the proverbial big red reset button the is in the deep recesses of my brain. I do this now and then if the night is proving to be sleepless, by getting out of bed and doing a few chin-ups, stomach crunches and hanging about from the chin-up bar like an Orangutan for a minute while stretching out the rib cage and relaxing. The full duration is about five minutes. Then I go back to bed. It usually works. I think it works by taking the mind elsewhere and the short, intense burst of exercise might be resetting the serotonin-dopamine neurotransmitter balance. Whatever, it works for me more often than it doesn't.
Have a power nap or siesta
Always have what is called a nap, catnap, or siesta during the middle of the day. If you do this then insomnia is a non-issue. Remember that the entire planet used to have a siesta. We are not designed to go for 18 hours without a proper mental and physical break.
While there are a few people who sleep like a log their entire lives, most people sleep less and more poorly as they age. I think this is a normal evolutionary-based change. Think about it: the young ones must sleep soundly to be ready for the hunt, the battle, bringing in the harvest, the baby-making and so on; whereas the few older matriarchs and patriarchs of the tribe are better deployed in caring and advisory roles. One role may be as the sentinels during the night, listening for the rustle of a snake or a raiding party, while the young ones snore away. Any woman who has gone through menopause well knows this change in sleeping patterns. Men appear to go through the same change in sleep patterns, but more subtly. You can appreciate the value of the midday siesta, even if it is limited to just a 20-minute power nap. Industrialisation with the non-stop production line has pretty much killed off the siesta these days but our physiology can not be ignored: we are not designed to go all day without a nap. Adrenal fatigue and exhaustion are now the new normal.
Too Tired but too Wired to sleep
Parents know all about this when children become so tired, but still so wired that it is impossible to get them to sleep! Adults are not immune to this. A typical scenario of the tired but wired is feeling exhausted by the end of a busy day and falling asleep on the couch before dinner, but not being able to stay asleep at night while in bed. These are the people who send me emails at 2 am - "Hey Gary, I was thinking about ...." Or, it might be me who is doing the writing at 2 am!
This is where "sleep hygiene" rules are important: rules such as relaxing during the evening, avoiding stimulatory foods such as spices, chocolate and caffeine close to bedtime, avoiding bright light, during the last few hours before sleep, including computer screens.
What about sleep medications?
I do not recommend any at all, not even melatonin. Anything that is taken must support the body's natural processes and not replace them or interfere with them. There is an additional risk of addiction with many sleep-inducing drugs and attempts to stop them may have severe symptoms, including terrible insomnia. Most sleep drugs that may knock a person out may prevent normal sleep cycles such as REM and deep sleep which is not good. It is always better to use non-drug remedies.
What about sleep aid supplements?
In close to 40 years working in this area, I have yet to find anything that gives consistent results, although there are many that might assist, but each person is a little different. The best advice I can give is to experiment with what is available out there. Take one at a time for as long as three months then sit down and evaluate just how effective it has been. Natural therapies are usually very slow to kick in so you must be patient. If you decide it was not effective, it is time to do a three month trial with a different product. As a general rule of thumb, do not mix your remedies. Do one at a time and evaluate as you go. If a little assistance is needed with getting to sleep, here is a special product that is worth trying for up to three months.
Here is the link to purchase the product: