My Struggle with Insomnia — and What Actually Helps
Insomnia first visited me one sticky summer before fifth grade. With my entire family happily asleep, and nothing but the creaks of the house cooling overnight to keep me company, I stared at my ceiling for what felt like an eternity. As an insomnia sufferer knows, every single minute you’re not sleeping feels like an eon. After trying and failing at sleeping, I did what any 11-year-old would do: I woke up my mom.
The tricks my mom taught me that summer to ease my sleeping woes are the tricks I tried for the rest of my teenage and then adult life. I read boring books. I counted sheep. I tensed and then relaxed every muscle in my body, telling them, “feet, relax; calves, relax; thighs, relax,” and so on until I went through every part of every limb. I drank warm milk. I drank warm tea. I had a regular bedtime and a serious dedication to a nighttime routine. (The face-washing process is serious business.) I didn’t look at screens for an hour before bed. I didn’t do anything but sleep (or attempt to sleep) in my room. I journaled. I took melatonin (which is hilariously powerless against the force of my sleeplessness). I took magnesium. I tried wine (this only leaves my heart racing about two hours into sleeping). And, of course, I dabbled with NyQuil and any over-the-counter medicine that promised to help me sleep, but I wanted to find something natural.
After almost 20 years of bouts of insomnia, I desperately asked my friends on social media: What are your cures for this? What actually works? My inbox flooded with over 100 responses. I have never received so many responses about anything before. Not only do more people seem to struggle with this than not, but most people are looking for a surefire answer. A real fix.
The real fix 100% has to do with the mind, but I haven’t mastered that yet. What I have found (after more research and trying friends’ wonderful suggestions) are a few tactics that have helped me over the last two months.
Two months is not a long time to go without a night of terrible insomnia (and I’m sure even by writing about this I’m jinxing myself), but even when I go to bed with that anxious feeling in my chest, I’ve still been able to fall asleep. Before I implemented the following steps, I was having a bad night of insomnia at least every other week if not every week.
Here’s what’s been working:
1. CBD Oil. If this is available to you and you are open to this option, buy some CBD oil IMMEDIATELY. This THC-free product has single-handedly changed my relationship with sleep. I take one full dropper of mint-flavored oil an hour before bedtime, and throughout the course of that next hour, I feel my body ease. Because I feel my body relax, my mind also follows. I trust the CBD oil, and therefore I don’t doubt my night of sleep. Concentrations and dosages vary, so you’ll have to find what works best for you. I went to Erewhon in Venice and asked what they recommend for sleep issues. They have staff members who specifically handle the CBD products; they talk you through what he recommended, why it’s good for sleep struggles and when to take it. I am beyond thankful to have a resource like this in Los Angeles. Top brand recommendations include Charlotte's Web and Irie CBD.
Another thing I’ve noticed about CBD oil is that the following day, I feel significantly less stress in situations that normally stress me the hell out. You know that delightful instant pang of panic in your chest you get when you receive an urgent email, or someone takes the spot you’re queueing up for in the Trader Joe’s parking lot or you’re running behind schedule for a meeting? I don’t really have that anymore. It even eases my PMS symptoms (the moodiness, cramping and feeling like you could snap any second).
Additionally, I typically clench my jaw all night, every night. Since I started taking CBD oil, my jaw tension has released and I don’t have to sleep with a night guard in anymore. After spending a week traveling without CBD oil, my clenching is back in full swing.
Basically, I cannot recommend CBD oil enough.
2. Follow your own natural bed time. This one was hard for me. My partner usually falls asleep on the couch around 9:00pm (sometimes even 8:30pm), which started to make me feel like 8 and 9pm is really late and I should also be feeling that tired at those times. However, prior to us living together, I barely even got home from the gym before 9pm, let alone shower, eat dinner and have time to relax before 9pm. My usual bedtime pre-cohabitating was 11pm.
Something that helped me realize my panic at 9pm was ridiculous and needless was reading more about sleep restriction. Essentially, if you usually naturally get six hours of sleep, subtract six hours from the time you need to get up and only get in bed exactly at that time. So, if you need to get up at 6am, only be in bed starting at midnight.
I am someone who can operate off six to seven hours of sleep with no issue, so for me, I don’t need to be in bed until 11pm to midnight. This freed up a HUGE part of my mind. I felt like I had more time in the evening to make the most of it, and it completely removed the pressure of thinking I needed to fall asleep at the same time as my partner.
3. Change your morning routine if it’s adding stress. I was committed to 6am and 7am workout classes even though it was ruining my sleep. Knowing that I had to get up early enough to get ready, drive to the gym, be there early enough to nab a good spot in class and then, oh, work out, was killing my mindset the night before. I was anxious going to bed because I had pressure on myself to fall asleep at a certain time so I could wake up at an earlier-than-my-norm time. Then throughout the night, I constantly checked my phone to see what time it was and how many more hours of sleep I had left. After several months of this, I finally admitted to myself it wasn’t working for me.
Instead, I changed my routine so I always wake up at 7am and then either start my work for the day and workout around lunchtime, or I go immediately to the gym and then start my day. But if scheduling permits, I don’t set my alarm for earlier than 7am. Now, a lot of days I wake up earlier than that, but removing that pressure of having to get up earlier than my body wants to has helped me immensely when falling asleep at night.
I realize not everyone has the luxury of a work-from-home schedule, but even when I was working an office, I constantly waffled between pre-work or post-work exercise. Pre-work is just too much for this insomniac to handle.
4. Maintain a bedtime routine (even if it’s not at the same time every night). I’m a fairly routine person, so I’ve always had a nighttime routine, but it’s even more routine now. Every night, even if I get home later than usual, I go through the same get-ready routine. Change into pajamas, complete my face regimen, brush and floss teeth, then take CBD oil, make hot tea (usually peppermint) and then do absolutely nothing but watch something mindless on TV. I KNOW, I KNOW, A SCREEN. But it’s my routine now and it works. The main point is: do the routine and then relax. Before, I was relaxing and then going through my routine, which actually woke me up more.
5. Know your sleeping self and respect her. There are many things to which I am sensitive, and I’m even more sensitive to them in my sleep. I’m one of those people who hates any kind of chewing sound, coughing or clearing of throat, repetitive clicks and beeps and so on. Guess what? That translates to my sleeping self as well. So, I’ve worn earplugs to bed every single night since college. Now that I have a life partner who occasionally snores, they’re even more important.
I also always run cold. If it’s not above 75 degrees with absolutely no wind, I’m probably cold. And I get colder at night. That means when it comes time for bed, I am BUNDLED. Socks, leggings, t-shirt and sweatshirt, all under a sheet, down comforter and heavier faux-fur throw. I understand that’s what my sleeping self needs now, so that’s what she gets.
I was really touched by everyone offering their earnest advice to me, so I wanted to share what I’ve tried and what’s actually worked. I hope this is helpful for some of you! I’ll keep you posted on my sleeping journey, as it is most definitely a journey.
Much love and ciao for now,
Q: Have you struggled with insomnia? If so, what's helped you the most?