During one of the phases when my younger sister, Emily, and I shared a bedroom growing up, i complained about my inability to fall asleep. In all of her 11-year-old wisdom, she told me to lay in one position as long as I could, no matter how uncomfortable. In fact, the more uncomfortable, the better. When I had nearly gone crazy from laying in one position, that’s when I was supposed to shift into a new position and the relief of discomfort would put me to sleep. Miraculously it worked most of the time.
Years later I recounted that story and asked where she learned that trick. She had made it up on the fly. We laughed so hard, especially over the fact that I used that tip for at least ten years.
Various reasons have made it difficult for me to fall asleep as an adult and at times, stay asleep. Stress or anxiety is a pretty common thief of relaxation and I know that has been my problem in large part. In addition, I sometimes have little bouts of restless leg syndrome (RLS) that make me feel like I need to move my legs every once in a while, preventing my body from ever relaxing.
I’ve learned that food is a big culprit for me. My body is very sensitive to everything I put in it and the way I treat it. Digestive issues create a delicate balance of needing to not overload my system with food while struggling to give it enough at times to chill out and relax. It’s mostly after an exhilarating round of Mexican food that I find myself too full to digest anything. It’s so worth it. I live in San Diego and might die without Mexican fare. I will usually make peace with the aftermath of a post-Mexican dinner situation because tacos and chips are worth a little less sleep for the night. On the other side, I can’t count the number of nights I’ve laid in bed for a few hours trying to fall asleep knowing I need a little morsel of food. Miserably, I eventually concede, eat a tiny bowl of oatmeal with almond butter and within minutes I’m asleep like a baby. When will I learn my lesson on both sides!
And hormones. [Major eye roll here - why are these things so complicated??] I’m working hard to embrace my 28-day cycle and learn to use it to my advantage. I know I will experience 3-4 nights every month when sleep is just not going to come and chances are that I will wake up a few hours later and be unable to fall back to sleep. It’s great for catching up on my Netflix binging (if only that was a goal of mine). The dream is that I will eventually use those extra hours of consciousness for something productive, although as I think about it I probably need that Netflix binging time to balance out my constant go-go-go mentality.
Let’s say I’ve mastered falling asleep. My body then decides to challenge me by waking up in the middle of the night. Just wide awake. Hanging out. Probably for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. In recent months, after another conversation with my sage of a sister, I think I’ve managed to overpower the need for food. In my defense, when I’m running a lot, sometimes that just happens where my body runs through it’s available resources and decides to remind me at 3am that it wants more fuel. Just say no. A motto for more than declining drugs, including those midnight food urges. Most Americans don’t need to worry about feeling hungry for a little while. It won’t hurt you.
Every person is different, so you definitely have to experiment and find what works for you. Over the years here are the practices I’ve adopted to help me fall asleep and stay asleep. I don’t do all of these every night. Cycling through various habits helps keep your body on its toes. Just like anything, you can become adapted to certain habits and the impact on your body will be lessened.
Always consult with a health professional when adding supplements to your routine. I once had a bout with kidney stones, which I’m convinced was the result of supplementing without proper education.
I started using Natural Calm magnesium powder to help with digestion. Magnesium has relaxing benefits, including everything related to digestion. It also can help you fall asleep. Magnesium is necessary for other bodily functions and may even help with PMS symptoms. I drink the recommended dosage in about ten ounces of water an hour before I go to bed. I never get RLS symptoms when I’m using this, my digestion stays more regular than when I’m not using magnesium, and I fall asleep faster most of the time.
Mostly related to hormonal fluctuations, magnesium alone doesn’t always work for me. Sometimes I do take 3mg of melatonin, but I don’t like to take it multiple nights in a row because of the potential interaction with hormones.
Meditation could be included here as well because it’s essentially the same goal: Quiet the noise in your mind, think about calming every part of you.
A twist on the actual content of your visualization will help it uniquely connect to you.
Go to your happy place. Picturing your perfect environment might bring you to a place of calm and help you fall asleep.
Thinking of the mountains on a crisp, cool, autumn morning with leaves at the peak of coloration and a briskness in the air makes me happy because it is so far from the reality of my life in any given Southern California season. Breathing cold air is a sensation that almost makes you gasp at its sharpness, yet is exhilarating in the same moment.
Equally, the idea of feeling the warmth of the sand and sun on a beach in Tahiti is making me want to fall asleep right now. I can hear the waves rushing to the shore and lazily drawing back to the sea, pulling fragmented seashells and smooth glass with it. The clear water provides glimpses of fishes and other exotic creatures rhythmically and effortlessly moving through the currents to whatever destination beckons them.Most of the time, I find myself in a sparsely decorated room because simplicity is another element of visualization you should implement. I’m in Cambodia, I climb two long flights of stairs to reach the guest bedroom, then I inventory the minimal furniture and contents of the upper bedroom. A bed, a desk, zero wall decoration, two windows, the balcony door, and tiled floor. As I start to visualize each individual tile, that’s usually the point my mind fades and I find sleep.
Allow your memory to recall small details that aren’t necessarily important in the scheme of life. Linger on objects and details as you recall them in your mind. Give yourself some time to work on this practice. When you first begin implementing visualization or meditation, it may take some time before you can let go of the day’s stress, the conversations, the to-do list, and become absorbed in the scene you create. As you practice it will become easier to make that transition and thus relax or fall asleep more quickly.
Here is a simple book on mediation to get started.
Blue Light Blocking
Ideally, you would set all your electronic devices aside two hours before bedtime, you would unplug most of your electronics to reduce EMFs (electric and magnetic fields) and that would train your brain to connect with the natural rhythms of light and dark. But since I’m probably not doing that anytime soon, I won’t ask you to do it either.
Blue light has pros and cons, so don’t go extreme and try to avoid all blue light. The problem with the digital age is that we are constantly exposed to blue light, not just when we are outside. Take a look at this article to understand more about the good and bad of blue light.
I wear blue light blocking glasses most of the day now, especially if I’m at work because I know I will spend hours looking at my computer or other device. Blue light blockers can be fairly inexpensive and you can purchase them solely for the light blocking properties, but you can also get them with a prescription if you normally wear glasses.
Here are a few blue light blocking glasses you might like.
Sleep is key to managing our stress, maximizing our creativity, and building a healthy lifestyle. It may take effort to find what works for you, but it’s worth all the experimentation to get to a place where you feel rested, energized and ready to take on the world.
Let me know all your sleep tricks - I love learning new things. Just don’t tell me to lay in the same position until I nearly explode!
Photo credit: Vladislav Muslakov