– Or: Brain Hacks for the Sleepless?
Insomnia doesn’t hit me all that often. Especially lately with a trend of maybe ever so slightly burning the candle at both ends. Long term projects at night + early morning workouts = bald guy doesn’t often have trouble sleeping. Often. Sometimes it hits.
When it does, insomnia for me can manifest in a variety of different ways. For me, most often it’s a clip of music that runs on repeat for hours on end like a record skipping in a jukebox. Can’t seem to snap out of that cycle. Other times, stress about work will rear its ugly head and the thought spiral won’t stop without significant mental intervention. But again, this doesn’t hit me often.
I have some close friends who encounter the insomnia beast with varying frequency. Sometimes often, sometimes rarely. Sometimes for days on end, sometimes one and done for a while. When those moments hit, my instinct is to offer sympathy and repeat the few things I’ve read or tried for insomnia mitigation. Except it finally occurred to me: I don’t know nearly enough about the causes of insomnia or even a fraction of the methods that can be deployed to try and stop it in its tracks. My effete knowledge on the subject is troubling.
So guess what? BLOG TOPIC! I’m gonna learn some stuff. Then I’m going to write about it, and then post it for reading and later referencing. I personally want to be able to offer effective suggestions when friends of mine get hit with a bout of this nasty thing.
The goal? Complete and total effacement of insomnia and all its minions and all its hosts. Obviously this is not always possible but it’s good to have a goal, right?
In we dive!
Causes of insomnia
The causes of insomnia come in a variety of wide and varying triggers. It would be easy if there was any one thing that could be pointed to but because the keto-compatible fatty computer made out of meat in our skulls is completely different from person to person, that makes diagnosis and treatment more difficult. Having said that, I’m going to repeat as much as I can of what I’m reading this morning because that’s what I do!
Some or none of these may end up applying to you, my dear reader, so please feel free to disregard anything that does not apply. For most, this is probably just informational. Maybe one or two of these will resonate and give some thought.
This is kind of a gimme in a way, but it can be a multitude of things. While most of the time we think of stress in the context of things that worry us like work, finances, school, kids, specific traumatic events, there are other types that can contribute. Excitement, anticipation, some of the GOOD things can cause for this level of hype. Those hypes, good and bad, can have an impact on whether or not we’re able to get to sleep and stay there. This happens to me sometimes if I’m working later into the evening on a really exciting music project and then I get into bed and expect to fall asleep and …….. can’t. My brain is already tuned to music as it is and shutting that part down is difficult enough as it is.
Work / Travel
Now that things are reopening, it’s a good idea to address this one. Travel for work is becoming a thing again and traveling for work – and even varying work schedules themselves without travel involved – can throw things wonky. Jet lag is a killer and can throw the entire schedule off. When the schedule is thrown off, the brain body connection can’t quite figure out what’s happening or why and it decides to just plain revolt. Jet lag can take quite a while to recover from and many of these trips end up being short term, so once you get home, it’s whiplash time and our innards can’t figure out what our outards are all about. Sometimes that means NO SLEEP IN BROOKLYN.
Inconsistent Sleeping Habits
This one can be challenging. New and existing parents know what I’m talking about. Exhausted from night after night of inconsistent sleep, you feel like you could just drop where you stand except suddenly you find that you can’t sleep. How is that possible? You haven’t slept much for months and now that you have a few minutes of respite you can’t get to sleep. The inconsistency messes around with the brain and the body and it can’t figure out exactly what to do so, again, revolution.
But this one leans more into the idea that we are sometimes really bad about both the sleep environment and activities we participate in prior to getting to sleep. Some folks have a bedroom (or bed!) that doubles as workspace or work in bed (yay laptops) prior to trying to go to sleep. The bed might be wildly uncomfortable. Outside of the sleep environment, stimulating activities like eating and viewing various illuminated devices (smart phones, Nintendo Switch, tablets, laptops, television, neon sign out the back window) can be effecters of challenging sleep capability. Waking the brain up immediately prior to putting the brain to sleep doesn’t always work well.
Now to be fair (to be faaaaaaaaaaaaair), some individuals find that they are able to drop off to sleep by putting something on a screen or headphones or something that would be considered a bit drab and off they drift. There was a time when I would start watching audio mixing tutorials in bed prior to going to sleep and I was generally out in 5 minutes. Not because it wasn’t exciting – because I LOVE that stuff – but because somehow it was super soothing and relaxing and I’d eventually just drop. Your mileage will vary.
Food Consumption in late hours
This is a difficult one to mention because evening snacks while watching stuff on TV before going to bed is kinda fun. Light snacks might not be too awful, but diving into something the size of a meal (and then of course binge-watching something on a streaming service (see above)) is a double whammy on a variety of levels. The stimulation to the brain is already there, but then we add the component of digestion and energy levels. Too much can cause for a gorging event where acid reflux decides to come and visit and cause really uncomfortable burning sensations in the back of the throat and esophagus. Pain can cause wakefulness in an environment that would otherwise be more conducive to sleep.
One component to add to the food side of things: beverages. Caffeine and Alcohol can dramatically impact sleep in detrimental ways. Caffeine for obvious reasons: amps you up and gets the brain on fire and keeps you awake. Alcohol is often referred to as a means of getting to sleep and it -does- work that way, however it can cause prevention in getting to deeper states of sleep and can ultimately cause you to be more wakeful in the night. Which is what we’re trying to avoid in the first place.
Some of the above things are choice based, some are environmental, and some are temporary (hopefully). I’m going to add a few more here where it might not be as easy to find a solution as, say, “Don’t eat anything after 8pm,” “Stay away from alcoholic beverages if you’re waking up in the middle of the night,” “Avoid children.”
Anxiety can be a significant driver in the inability to get to or stay in a state of sleep. I’m not necessarily speaking about situational anxiety – although that can contribute significantly – but more along the lines of the clinical diagnosis. Anxiety possibly without a specific rationale behind it is what I am more referring to. The type that would need to be medically treated in order to counterbalance the effects. Depression is another thing that can cause for insomnia. It may not seem like it on the surface, but clinical depression can cause for awakening too early, inability to get to sleep, and challenges in staying asleep similar to the ways anxiety can. All of the above are conditions that require medical intervention outside of “eat right and sleep more.”
Over the counter medications can have an impact on the ability to sleep. Migraine headache medication generally contains caffeine; as a result, the headache might finally go away allowing you to get some sleep but the caffeine might counter that ability. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, blood pressure, and asthma medications have the potential for also impacting the ability to sleep. As a personal aside, a medication that I was taking several years ago actually -caused- elevated levels of anxiety and my sleep was as poor as it got as a result. It was eventually discontinued. But that is something to take into consideration.
Untreated (and sometimes even treated) acid reflux is a significant impediment to sleep. Because pain. Conditions that cause tremors can interrupt the sleep cycle. Chronic pain of all kinds can destroy any chance of sleep for weeks on end – sciatica and low back pain are common examples – and sometimes treatments are unavailable or ineffective.
Sleep apnea awareness has brought about technological wonders for folks who have difficulty breathing while sleeping for a variety of reasons. The Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device is a lifesaver for both individuals who suffer from this condition and also their partners and households. There is also a condition called Restless Leg Syndrome where you just can’t stop your leg from moving and it keeps you from falling asleep.
Yesterday afternoon, after a weekend with three kids birthday parties, I was a teensy bit on the sleepy side so I wanted to just lay down for a little bit. Never actually got to sleep – didn’t intend to really – but the few times I was about to doze off, you’d have that moment where your brain is starting to display images that aren’t wakeful things and next thing you know, you’re borderline dreaming about avoiding something moving at you and your arm and leg suddenly JERK with it. That may not be restless leg syndrome, but it was definitely something that kept me from falling asleep, whether I wanted to or not!
Why are these things bad where insomnia is concerned?
It seems like a no brainer: not getting enough sleep is BAD. But let’s talk about a few of the things that can rear up when sleep deprivation is in effect.
Job and school performance can suffer mightily. The brain isn’t going to be performing at peak capacity and problem solving / task oriented functions will be impaired.
Lack of sleep can slow down reaction times. Again, a job or school detriment but also a significant health and safety risk behind the wheel of a car. Driving under the influence of substances and driving while completely sleep deprived share poor reflex response times. Driving while sleep deprived can also result in “falling asleep at the wheel” can causing terrifying injury to the self and others.
Long term lack of sleep can lead to significant health concerns like heart disease and high blood pressure. Or at the very least, contribute to those tendencies.
Insomnia Mitigation and minimization efforts
So this is probably the most important part of the writing here and definitely the one I’ve been looking forward to the most: how to prevent and fix when happening those things. It doesn’t happen to me often but having these in my back pocket will be nice. Being able to offer suggestions in conjunction with sympathy for those who are close to me may hopefully provide some degree of relief outside of the usual and customary “I’m so sorry <insert sad emoji here>”
Consistent Bed Time
Getting to bed and waking up at times that are consistent can sometimes help prevent the onset of insomnia. The body is a fan of that kind of structure, even if we ourselves are not, and that consistency can help with effective sleep. Medical professionals recommend maintaining this schedule even on the weekends which is just plain nuts. I’m not getting up at 4am on a Saturday or Sunday. Unless I start having trouble sleeping. Then … uhh …. I dunno. To be continued.
This one is challenging and up until not too long ago – see blog entry on posture and how working out is helping with that – I wouldn’t have been able to say much about this. But a couple months now of regularly working out and I’m noticing that my sleep is better and my ability to focus on things is more consistent. I suspect that my ability to focus on things could be attributed to the better degree of sleep I’m more consistently getting. So there is definitely something to be said about that.
We discussed it above for a bit but there are some medications that can cause for insomnia. Consult with your physician to find out if medications that you are taking regularly could be contributing to inability to sleep and find out if there are steps that can be taken to either replace, tweak, or re-time them.
Personal example: a medication that I have to take was taken in the morning and caused drowsiness throughout the day and no noticeable effect. That same medication taken at night doesn’t cause drowsiness that we know of – we tested this during midnight Pascha services! – but the daytime drowsiness no longer exists and the thing is actually effective. huh!
Maximize Sleep During Sleep Hours
That’s a fancy way of saying “maybe don’t nap so much or so often.” Don’t get me wrong. I am ALL ABOUT the nap from time to time. But constant daytime napping and for lengthy sleep periods can also mess up the rhythm that our bodies need. Full rest period at night is something that our bodies are all about. For the moment, I’m going to avoid the subject of power napping several times a day 24 hours a day to improve overall productivity. I have opinions about that, I know people who do it and are successful at it, and I need to do more research to be able to either back up or re-write my opinions.
Avoid Tons of Food
So yeah. Small snacks, yes. Entire bag of Ruffles All Dressed Chips brought home from Canada, no. Reflux will destroy your sleep and your esophagus and really, ain’t nobody got time for that.
Make Bedroom a Comfortable Sleeping Zone
Use your bedroom for sleep. In the bed. In the bedroom. If at all possible – and this is not always possible, I know – make the room that the bed is in exclusively for retiring for the evening to sleep. It’s like the separation of Church and State: have a sleep zone completely separate from the rest of your entire life.
Also, it’s not even at all like the separation of Church and State because neither of those things actually sleep. I have got to work on my comparisons.
Avoid Counting the Minutes
Obsessing about how many minutes you’ve been awake during a bout of insomnia isn’t going to help anything. It will probably feed both situational and clinical anxiety over the fact that you’re not sleeping. So turn away from your clock and don’t check the smart phone. After a certain point, it might be necessary to check how long it’s been going on to try other restorative processes but try to avoid constantly counting minutes.
Run to the bathroom (ok, walk to the bathroom) and see if the process of relieving yourself might assist. Do a few checks and balances of the room; darkness level, appropriate temperature, partner’s life-saving device (and, therefore, life) intact, no other things that would interrupt an otherwise good night sleep. Just a quick inventory.
Address Health Concerns as Best as Possible
We’ve talked a few times now about chronic pain. Make sure that you are following the steps your physician has recommended in order to minimize the effects of any ongoing pain concerns. Remembering to take medications in the evenings can be difficult; we have our phones on us at all times and they can be set for reminders. I have one Every. Single. Night. for myself. Because otherwise I WILL forget.
Try to do a progressive muscle relaxation exercise. Start at your feet and tense them up a bit and then mentally tell them to relax. Move up the legs one muscle group at a time and repeat. All the way up to your waist, then the arms, torso, neck. This was something a doctor recommended to me years ago when I was having trouble getting to sleep. Generally speaking, I never made it to the neck. Some nights I had to start over but eventually it worked.
Get Out of Bed
When nothing’s working? Get up. Go to another room. Try reading a book. Listen to relaxing music. Avoid engaging the brain too much (i.e. this is not a good time for Hulu) and see if a relaxing activity might help. If that is working and you’re finding that you’re getting sleepy, then return to bed. There are enough studies that indicate that leaving the bed and going to another room to try and get sleepy again is a winning strategy. Definitely worth checking out.
In exhausted closing
Too. Many. Words.
Thanks for getting this far. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about for a long time and wanted to dive into and today was that opportunity.
Hey, maybe the audio version of this blog post will be the perfect cure for insomnia. The boring drone of Generic Baritone might be just the thing you need to zone out and finally drift off into blessed slumber. Those sheep aren’t going to count themselves.
Until next week!
-= george =-