How many nights have you spent like a prisoner in your own bed, with your mind racing, heart beating and eyes trained on the clock as it ticks through the earliest morning hours? And even worse—how many days have you spent after a sleepless night, feeling stressed, irritable, withdrawn, annoyed and too fatigued to do anything except wish for the rest that eludes you?
Insomnia is, unfortunately, a common sleep disorder that can be short-term or ongoing. It can be the symptom or side effect of another problem, or its own distinct disorder. The more serious problems associated with insomnia are—excuse the pun—enough to keep you up at night: an increased risk of depression, anxiety, weight gain cardiovascular disease, chronic pain and musculoskeletal problems.
Luckily, there are many common sense approaches that you can try to remedy your insomnia. The key is to success, however, is discipline! Sleep is just as much a natural physiological phenomenon as it is a learned behavior.
1. Sleep when you are tired. Go to bed only when you are sleepy and, if you cannot fall asleep in fifteen minutes, shift your attention and do something calming and relatively monotonous. Stay away from the telephone, computer and television if you can, and avoid goal-oriented tasks that get your blood flowing. Try reading a magazine article or a few chapters of a book. Or better yet, try one of the other techniques listed here!
2. Clear your mind of annoyances or problems. If you are a person who is kept up at night by your “to do” list, you may want to put aside some time for reflection an hour or so before bedtime. Use that time to breakdown your stresses and strains and make a plan for the next day’s activities. Maybe use a notebook to write away your realities, preserving them on paper for sunlit hours. Once that mental clutter is out of the way, you will be able to fill your mind with pleasant thoughts and images-the perfect fodder for sweet dreams.
3. Get your asana on. Yoga has been proven to calm the mind, relax the body and release anxiety—a perfect recipe for quality slumber. My favorite pre-bedtime routine consists of forward bends, at least ten rounds of a flowing cat and cow sequence and halasana (plow pose), performed for two to five minutes. I work through these poses slowly with full concentration on my breath patterns. I take on the role of an observer, watching for where my breath seems rough or ragged and working to match the length of my inhale to the length of my exhale.
4. Just breathe. A breathing practice—with or without a classic yoga practice—is very effective for calming a racing heart, loosing a knotted stomach and releasing tightness in the throat or chest. A powerful breath exercise that calms and grounds the mind is “dirga pranayama”, or three-part breath. To practice your dirga, lie flat with your eyes closed. Begin by observing your natural inhalation and exhalation for five to fifteen breaths. Try not to engage your thoughts; instead, imagine they are leaving you with each exhale. Once your mind is clear (or at least clearer than it was!), inhale deeply through the nose. On each inhale fill the belly with your breath, as though you are filling a balloon. On each exhale, release the air from your belly, through your nose. Draw your navel back towards your spine, with the intention of fully emptying all the air from your belly. Repeat this deep belly breathing for five to fifteen breaths. Once you feel comfortable with that pattern, breath deeply into the belly, filling it with air. When the belly feels full, breath in a bit more, expanding and filling the rib cage. As you exhale, release first from the rib cage, letting the ribs slide closer together, and then release the air from your belly, drawing the navel back to the spine. After mastering this two-part breath for five to fifteen breaths, you will begin the full three-part breath. On the inhale, breath fully into the belly and then fill the rib cage. Then draw in just a little more air to fill the upper chest, all the way up to the collarbone. This will allow the air around your heart to expand and rise. On the exhale, let the breath go first from the upper chest, allowing the heart to sink naturally, then release the ribs and the belly. You will always end with the navel drawing back towards your spine. Allow yourself to work through the full three part breath for at least five breaths.
5. Make a few dietary changes. Andrew Weil, M.D., one of the most widely known and respected alternative medicine gurus, recommends eliminating caffeine and alcohol before bedtime, which can increase nighttime urination and increase sleep disturbances. He also advocates for avoiding large meals in the evening, midday meals that are heavy on carbs and snacks that are heavy on sugars. If these dietary changes sounds unsavory, keep in mind that research suggests that appetite-regulating hormones are affected by sleep and that sleep deprivation may lead to weight gain. Cutting the caffeine, sugar and heavy carbs may be just what you need for nighttime success and bathing suit season!
6. Consider incorporating insomnia herbs. Dr. Weil also recommends few natural insomnia fighters as amazingly effective alternatives to the pills your regular doctor may try to prescribe. If it’s right for you, consider experimenting with the following Weil recommended remedies:
- Magnesium and calcium. Oral magnesium supplementation has been shown to improve symptoms of fatigue in persons with low magnesium levels.
- Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Studies show that Eleuthero can help enhance mental activity as well as physical endurance.
- Coenzyme Q10. This vital nutrient is involved in cellular energy production throughout the body.
- Ashwagandha, an Ayurvedic herb prized for its ability to help the body deal with stress.
- Cordyceps, a traditional Chinese medicinal mushroom that may help fight fatigue and boost energy levels.