Monday, January 6, 2014

Insomnia: 7 Effective, Natural Methods of Coping without Sleeping Pills

insomnia scary

Our household has been "celebrating" Insomnia Week: I finished reading a book about sleep, claiming that a quarter of Americans suffer from insomnia; I happened to come across a 6-minute video detailing an overly complicated meditation technique to help people fall asleep;  I woke up (again) in the middle of the night after dreaming a complete short story and lay awake wondering if I should get up and write it up right then and there, or go back to sleep; and finally, my ever-loving wife is so busy on a rush project that I'm beginning to wonder if I accidentally married a vampire...so this seemed to be the right time to blog about insomnia. In this post I'll offer my own simple, natural solutions to insomnia, and along the way I'll share some current data I gathered concerning insomnia and sleeping drugs.

Prevalence of insomnia: In a brief paper from 2007 titled Insomnia: Definition, Prevalence, Etiology, and Consequences , Dr. Thomas Roth writes that :
Estimates of the prevalence of insomnia depend on the criteria used to define insomnia and more importantly the population studied. A general consensus has developed from population-based studies that approximately 30% of a variety of adult samples drawn from different countries report one or more of the symptoms of insomnia: difficulty initiating sleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, waking up too early, and in some cases, nonrestorative or poor quality of sleep.
I am actually surprised that the number of suffering people is so low, since I can't recall the last time I met someone who can claim to be sleeping so well that he or she doesn't need a cup of coffee to get going in the morning. Unfortunately for writers, the news gets worse. According to The Great British Bedtime Report from the UK's Sleep Council,
Those who work within arts and culture are the most likely to be kept awake at night through worry and stress, and are also the most likely to go to bed after midnight.
This may be related to the fact that in the same study, lower income was clearly linked to more sleep problems, so not only do the rich get richer, they also get more sleep!

Clearly, then, this is a problem affecting many people, including myself.  I primarily experience trouble falling asleep either at bedtime, or if I wake up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I also do not sleep well. After studying these phenomena on myself, I have come to the following conclusions and solutions. I have no idea if they are applicable to other people and their circumstances, and the rest of this post actually rests on the (somewhat shaky) assumption that I am as human as everyone else.


Sleeping pills: I am not a fan of any kind of medication unless the condition is critical. If not, then I assume that our bodies can deal with the problem, perhaps with a little natural help. Furthermore, a short survey of this subject reveals that the sleeping pill business is very lucrative, which is never a good sign for the customers. Thus, a recent article titled Americans are Popping Sleeping Pills in Record Numbers, states that sales of Ambien in 2011 "amounted to a whopping $2.8 billion." With that kind of money at stake, I find it hard to believe that the pharmaceutical companies are watching out for our interests and indeed, it appears that the quality of sleep offered by such drugs leaves people drowsy in the morning and prone to lethal accidents, and can also cause other health problems, including increased risk of cancer. A study from 2012 titled Hypnotics' association with mortality or cancer: a matched cohort study, found that

As predicted, patients prescribed any hypnotic had substantially elevated hazards of dying compared to those prescribed no hypnotics... HRs (hazard risks) were elevated in separate analyses for several common hypnotics, including zolpidem, temazepam, eszopiclone, zaleplon, other benzodiazepines, barbiturates and sedative antihistamines. Hypnotic use in the upper third was associated with a significant elevation of incident cancer; HR=1.35 (95% CI 1.18 to 1.55). Results were robust within groups suffering each comorbidity, indicating that the death and cancer hazards associated with hypnotic drugs were not attributable to pre-existing disease.
So there's a good chance that using sleeping pills is not a good solution to this problem, especially if you tend to use them a lot. Instead, here are

7 Natural Solutions to Insomnia:

Exercise: This probably sounds stupid, but human beings are still, physically, animals, with the animal need to move and expend ourselves physically. On average, we probably do not expend nearly enough physical energy throughout our average day, which can keep us up at night. Any kind of workout will help: taking a long walk, jogging, having sex before going to sleep, and so on; all can be an excellent soporific.

Stop eating before bedtime: I'm a big fan of Chinese medicine, which states that food should not be eaten four hours before bedtime, in order to give the body a good chance to digest the food during the night. Obviously, this kind of advice is useless in our way of living. However, I have found that the earlier I stop eating, the better I sleep. Two hours between eating and going to sleep is a decent interval in my experience. Try it and see what is best for you.

Wind down: I'm a workaholic and I'm also becoming seriously addicted to Google+, so I find it difficult to tear myself away from the computer and get ready to sleep. Nonetheless, I have noticed that if I do take the time to wind down, I sleep much better. So stop any serious, stressing activities an hour before you mean to go to sleep and do something else: talk to your wife and kids, watch a nice movie, read a book, do anything that calms you down and signals to your soul and body: this day is over.

Stop eating stimulant foods: The average Western diet is loaded with foods that stimulate our nerves, which is probably one reason for the increase in the incident of insomnia.  Obviously, cutting down on the stimulants will improve your sleep. Here are two very common stimulants:
Coffee: contains caffeine, the number one enemy of sleep; the less you drink, the better for your sleep. If you must, drink as early as possible in the day and refrain from imbibing at night. Other common foods that contain caffeine include chocolate, coke, and tea. Caffeine is also added to many foods. This is a partial list.
Sugar: can act as a stimulant and it is probably a good idea to avoid before going to sleep.

Do the stuff that is keeping you awake: In my own experience, when I am having trouble getting to sleep it's mostly because I have not done something that I was supposed to do. In my case this is writing. I have a constant struggle between doing what I am supposed to do by virtue of my upbringing (being serious, depressed, and working all the time) and what my soul actually wants to do, which is write and rejoice in life...I have found that when I give in to my own "depraved" desires and write, I sleep very well. My advice is: try to find out what's keeping you awake and do it, and see if that helps.

❻  Meditation: Modern living has put an emphasis on thinking, without actually training  people how to do so and more significantly: how to stop. Thus, many people lie in bed for hours, being helplessly dragged through the night by a runaway train of insubordinate thoughts. The solution to this is meditation, which is a form of mental exercise aimed at gaining control over your capacity to direct attention. There are probably thousands of forms of meditation, but here I'll outline just three basic, relatively uncomplicated meditations:

➨ Count your breaths: Lie in bed as comfortably as you can. Take a deep breath and exhale freely. Now inhale and exhale again, and when you exhale, count "1". Do this four times, each time adding a number so that on the fourth exhale you have reached the number "4". Then repeat, counting your exhalations from one to four until you fall asleep. For me, this usually works in about a half a minute...I have seen the count vary from four to ten and more, and the length of the count itself can be short or long, as in "one" or "ooooooooonnnnnnnnnneeeeeeeeeee". Breathing should be done through the nose, but through the mouth is fine too. Experiment until you find what is easiest for you.

➨ Feel your stomach: Put your hand on your stomach and feel it rise and fall with each breath. Notice how high it rises and how low it falls. Notice how your palms feel when they rest on your stomach. Keep observing how your breath enters the stomach, fills it, and leaves it, until you fall asleep.

➨ Let go of your body: Oddly enough, I first encountered this exercise in Gadna training. After running for a few miles, the trainer had us lie on the concrete ground and proceeded to convince us to let our bodies "fall asleep". I later learned that this is a very standard relaxation exercise and a very effective one too. Here is how to do it:
First, lie in bed (on your back, if possible) and make yourself as comfortable as you can. Now survey your body from the feet to the head and feel how heavy each part feels, how it literally sinks into the mattress. Concentrate on your left foot: Feel the contact that the heel makes with the mattress. Feel how heavy your foot is; feel it sinking into the mattress and sense the muscles in the foot - are they tense or relaxed? You don't have to do anything about it, just sense the state of your muscles. Do the same with the right foot, and then move on to the calves, thighs and bottom. For every body part, feel its contact with the mattress, how heavy it is, and how it sinks into the mattress. Feel the state of your muscles - get to know them. Move on to the lower back, the upper back, and the hands, arms and shoulders. Finally move up to the back of your neck and head. If you are still awake, move on to your face and feel the different parts: chin, jaw, lips, upper lip, nose, cheeks, eyes, eyebrows, temples, and forehead - are they tense or relaxed? Feel them sinking a bit deeper into the skull.

Beginners can fall asleep very quickly with this exercise, but actually as you get used to it you will be able to relax more parts of your body before falling sleep, thus providing yourself with a more refreshing sleep. Normally, we are not aware of the amount of sheer physical tension we go to sleep with - our bodies are usually like clenched fists - so it is no surprise that our sleep isn't that great! The good news is that you can do something about it, and it is never a bad idea to become familiar with your body.

Autosuggestion mantra: Sometimes it is impossible to stop the torrent of thoughts, impossible to concentrate on the body, and impossible to get to sleep. In such cases, an autosuggestive mantra can help. Since the mind is already chattering non-stop, we'll just tell it to utter the same phrase over and over again and we'll make that phrase a useful, positive, calming one. Coué famously used the expression "Every day in every way I am getting better and better". You can use that if you like. I find that the phrase "God is taking care of me" is helpful to me. In my mind, if God is taking care of me then everything will be fine, everything has a purpose, and I don't have to worry because He already has. Your god may vary: it can be the Western monotheistic god, Brahman, the Hindu godhead, Buddha himself or any other deity that makes you feel that you are not alone, that you are just a small part of the universe, yet still a part of the overall plan. Whatever the phrase you choose, just repeat it until you fall asleep.

Conclusion: Insomnia affects a significant part of the population and sleeping pills are apparently a dangerous solution. A combination of physical and psychological factors can be treated to alleviate the problem. In my personal experience, the psychological factors (especially no.5 on the list) have been far more significant than the physical ones. In any case, I wish you success in solving this problem and of course, a good night's sleep. On that note, let's count some sheep...



Related posts: How Veganism can Benefit Writers (and other busy people)


About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

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