A Year Without Dreams Part 2: How I Cured My Insomnia Naturally
Although this post has been a depressing one, I’ll be the first to admit it, I want to remind you that this story has a happy ending! These days, I’m sleeping great almost every night and I now know what I need to do if I am having a hard time falling asleep.
In this post I’m going to break down everything that I tried that gave me relief in some form or another from insomnia. Some of these things I still use today, others are better for you if you’ve been dealing with insomnia for an extended period of time and just need to do whatever it takes to get some good-quality shut-eye.
I’m also not going to go into too much detail on each tool and technique listed below. I’m simply writing this to tell you what worked from me based on the research I did for myself and I know as someone who’s suffered with sleep deprivation that sometimes you just want to be told exactly what to do, rather than a long-winded explanation of why you should do it. You can use this as a bit of a checklist if you want.
1. Sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene is square one when it comes to improving sleep quality and quantity. These are basic but important changes you must make if you’re having a hard time falling or staying asleep. Your bedroom should be quiet, dark (as close to pitch black as possible), and on the cooler side (I like it less than 18 degrees Celsius). If your room has too much light coming in through windows, like mine, wear something over your eyes.
One of the most important things to consider if you can’t sleep is what else is in the room with you. Your room should NOT contain any electronics with screens. This includes your iPhone. Ideally, you should have a battery-operated alarm clock to wake you up but if you must use your phone, keep it on airplane mode. Some people are sensitive to EMFs (I definitely am) and if there’s a computer and cellphone and Bluetooth speaker and whatever else in your room, you may find it more difficult to sleep.
You should also be mindful of what you’re using your bedroom for. Your bedroom should only be used for sleeping. No watching TV, scrolling through Instagram, studying, working, or even reading if you’re dealing with bad insomnia. You should only be entering your bedroom after your power-down hour (see next paragraph) once you’re ready to go to bed. This sounds extreme but I’m telling you if you are having trouble sleeping and you do any of the things above, you will notice improvements if you stop.
Finally, making sure you have a power-down hour is essential. This is a full 60 minutes of screen-free relaxation time to get yourself ready for bed. During your power-down hour you can read, take a bath, journal, have some herbal tea, or whatever else you like to do to relax.
2. Lifestyle changes
If you’ve made all the changes above and you still aren’t sleeping, it’s time to make some lifestyle changes. To optimize your circadian rhythm, you should be waking up and going to bed at the same time everyday and getting some sunlight as early in the morning as possible. Personally, I noticed a huge difference when I started waking up at 6:30 a.m. every single day no matter how tired I was or how little sleep I got the night before. Eventually, my body started to learn and my sleep quantity increased.
The two other big lifestyle changes that made a huge impact on my sleep quantity were meditation and exercising. I noticed that on the days I went hard at the gym and my body was physically exhausted, my mind wasn’t able to keep me up with endless chatter as it normally would. Meditation was a game changer on the nights I just couldn’t fall asleep. If I got up from bed after 20 minutes of tossing and turning to go meditate to some relaxing music for at least ten minutes, it would be way easier for me to fall asleep once I got back to bed. Meditating outside of the bedroom is key if you’re trying to break the pattern of laying in bed and not sleeping.
An aside: Something you have to come to terms with when you’re dealing with insomnia is attachment to sleep. A lot of us make the mistake of laying in bed for hours on end just hoping that at any moment you might fall asleep, but if you have any experience with insomnia, you know that just isn’t the case. One of the best things you can do for yourself if you aren’t sleeping is making a deal with yourself that if you haven’t fallen asleep within 20 minutes of laying down for bed, you’ll get up, leave the room and do something relaxing like meditation or reading a book (with minimal light on). Don’t let that number on the clock or the calculation of how many hours you have left to fall asleep scare you. Wouldn’t you rather have four hours of deep sleep instead of seven hours of laying in bed with your mind racing?
The final piece of the insomnia lifestyle puzzle is caffeine. You should not be consuming caffeine after noon if you have trouble falling asleep. If you’re really struggling with insomnia, it could be worth it to start transitioning towards no caffeine consumption at all, and only reintroducing it once you’ve got your sleep under control. My go-to coffee substitute was Dandy Blend with a few drops of coffee bean essential oil. It’s crazy how much this herbal, caffeine-free substitute tastes like coffee – especially with a bit of cream or dairy-free creamer!
3. Natural sleep supplements
Now for the topic I’m sure you’ve been curious about – natural sleep aids. These played a major part in my recovery from insomnia, but it’s important to understand how they work because they can do more damage than good on sleep quality if you don’t use them wisely.
First things first – let’s talk melatonin. I’m sure everyone with sleep issues has experimented with melatonin at some point. If you tried it after many sleepless nights, like me, you probably noticed that it either did nothing or kept you up for even longer than had you not taken it. This is because melatonin doesn’t make you sleepy, contrary to popular belief. When scientists give rats (which are largely nocturnal animals) melatonin, they scavenge for food with more intensity. The melatonin actually gives them energy. That’s because melatonin actually works by improving the body’s nighttime function, whatever that may be. So if your body has fallen into a pattern or tossing and turning all night, melatonin will make you toss and turn even more, which means it isn’t an ideal sleep supplement to start with.
Instead of melatonin, I recommend trying magnesium bisglycenate. Taking 400mg of magnesium bisglycenate half an hour before bed is great if you have trouble sleeping because your mind won’t relax. I still take magnesium every night before bed because it helps so much to relax my body and mind.
A couple of other natural sleep aids I’ve used with good results are full-spectrum CBD and AOR’s Orthosleep. Aside from magnesium, full-spectrum CBD is my favourite sleep supplement. The only downside is it’s hard to find in Canada and it’s pretty expensive. Even though cannabis is legal in Canada, full-spectrum CBD is tough to find, unlike in the states, most Canadian health food stores do not sell CBD (and you can’t find it in cannabis stores at this point in time). You can, however, find it online.
The other natural sleep aid I recommend is Orthosleep. It contains the amino acid l-theanine, GABA, valerian root, and melatonin – basically the A-Team of a kickass sleep. I recommend taking magnesium with Orthosleep (or any other comparable supplement) if you’re really having a hard time sleeping.
4. Sleep restriction therapy
This is the mack-daddy of insomnia cures. If you’re like me and have tried everything to help your insomnia with little to no success, sleep restriction therapy may be your only hope. A warning – it’s not easy, but if you do it consistently, you will be sleeping through the night within a couple of weeks. Hooray!
Here’s how it works:
STEP 1: Keep a sleep diary for a week. Make note of what time you went to bed, what time you woke up, how many times you woke up during the night, and the approximate amount of time you were awake each time. Use this information to calculate the approximate amount of time you actually spent sleeping each night for seven nights. For example, if you went to bed at 11 p.m. and got out of bed at 6:30 a.m., but spent about three hours laying awake, you slept a total of 4.5 hours asleep. You’ll use this number in step 2.
STEP 2: Now that you have the average number of hours you’ve slept per night over the past week, set a definite wake time for yourself. Using the average number of hours of sleep you get per night plus one hour, count backwards from your wake time to determine your new bedtime. For example: if you want to get up at 6:30 a.m. and you averaged 4.5 hours of sleep per night, your new bedtime will be 4.5 hours + 1 hour before 6:30 a.m., which is 1 a.m.
STEP 3: For at least one week, you must obey your new bedtime, no matter how tired you are. You must also make sure you’re sticking with your power-down hour before bed. If you find yourself laying in bed for 20 minutes or longer without sleeping, get up and stay up for at least 20 minutes before trying again. Chances are, though, that if you’re successfully staying up to your new bedtime, you’ll be falling asleep right away (especially if you’re using some sleep supplements to help!)
STEP 4: After a week with your new bedtime, you can slowly start adding 30 mins to your sleep time, always making sure to get out of bed if it takes you longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep. Ideally, within a few weeks to a few months you’ll have worked yourself back up to sleeping a full 7 to 8 hours!
This technique worked wonders for me but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done! Nowadays, I make sure not to get into bed until I’m tired enough and have taken my magnesium capsules. If I’ve had a particularly stressful day (which always leads to a poor sleep, for me) I also take an Epsom salt bath and meditate before going to bed.
If you struggle with insomnia, I hope you’ve found this post helpful! If you have any questions about anything I’ve covered in this post, please add them to the comments section below! And if you know anyone who would benefit from this post, please feel free to share this with them!