A great many sleep issues are more the result of worrying about insomnia than anything else. Many people who consider themselves insomniacs are really victims of general propaganda about sleep rather than true non-sleepers. And many people seek treatment because they can only sleep four or five hours a night, although that may be all they need. There is nothing more apt to cause sleeplessness than the worry that you won't be able to drop off. Sometimes sleeplessness can be normal. We all experience a sleepless night now and then, particularly if we are over-tired, worried, or excited about some coming event.
THE TRUTH ABOUT INSOMNIA
Real, chronic insomnia is less frequent. A major research project into long-term insomnia turned up some interesting facts about sufferers. Over 85 per cent of the 300 insomniacs studied had one or more major pathological personality indication, such as depression, obsessive compulsive tendencies, schizophrenic characteristics or sociopathy. For them, their insomnia was a secondary symptom of a more basic conflict—a socially acceptable problem they could talk about without fear of being judged.
Insomnia can simply be a mask for whatever is really bothering the non-sleeper. Sometimes an inability to sleep can be a manifestation of a nutritional problem, often a deficiency of zinc coupled with an excess of copper—which produces a mind that is intellectually overactive and won't wind down—or a deficiency of calcium or magnesium or vitamin E—which can lead to tension and cramping in the muscles and a difficulty in letting go. 300mg of magnesium taken before bed often clears cramping and allows you to sleep more peacefully.
The more easygoing an attitude you take to sleep, the less likely you are to have any problem with it. If you miss an hour or two, or if you are not sleepy, simply stay up, read a book, or finish some work. Believe it or not, one of the best times for coming up with creative ideas is in the middle of a sleepless night. It can be the perfect opportunity for turning stress into something creative. Chances are that you'll more than make up for a few lost hours of sleep in the next couple of days—provided you don't let yourself get anxious about it.
IT’S A WOMAN THING
Insomnia is one of the greatest fears of all for women. Eight times more women report sleep difficulties to their doctors throughout their lives than do men. Apart from the motherhood-induced insomnia which comes from having to feed a baby, if ever you are going to have trouble sleeping it is most likely to be during the perimenopausal years just before your periods stop, or much later on in your seventies and eighties. People sleep less as they get older for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a decrease in the production of a brain hormone called melatonin which regulates the body's circadian rhythms. How much sleep you need can change depending on your life circumstances too. When you are pregnant, eat less wholesome foods, are under stress or ill you may need more sleep. You need more sleep when you gain weight, too. When losing weight, or during a detoxification regime, you will often sleep less.
The sleeplessness that occurs in women around the time of menopause and is usually not so much a difficulty in going to sleep but a tendency to awaken regularly at the same time each night (usually 2 or 3 in the morning) and to lie wide awake. Because we are accustomed to sleeping through the night we assume that there must be something wrong. Yet sleeplessness can sometimes bring new insights, if you are ready to receive them. Many artists, writers and composers will tell you that they receive inspiration for new projects and discover ways of overcoming creative challenges on awakening in the night.
That being said, when sleeplessness becomes chronic it can leave you feeling exhausted, hopeless and washed out, in which case something needs to be done about it. Sleeping pills are not the answer. Their side-effects include digestive problems, poor concentration, disorders of the blood and respiration, high blood pressure, liver and kidney troubles, problems with vision, depression, dizziness, confusion and damage to the central nervous system. Using them can even lead to worse insomnia. There are better ways.
HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT
The next time you are troubled by sleeplessness experiment with nature's best sleep aids.
- Spend 20 minutes in the sun or in very bright light each morning. Your circadian rhythms are linked to sunlight. The sun sets our natural clocks properly and acts as a natural energizer too.
- Get more exercise. This helps burn up stress-caused adrenalin build up in the brain which can result in that tense, nervous feeling where you are ‘up’ and can't seem to get ‘down’. Experiment with exercising at different times of the day to see which time works best for you in terms of relaxing you and making you ready for sleep at night. Never take strenuous exercise before going to bed as it can set the heart pounding and stimulate the whole body far too much.
- Don't take on any new activities late in the day.
- Don't take a nap in the evening or late afternoon.
- Eat early, not late. In fact, the earlier the better. Make dinner your smallest meal of the day and avoid snacks after dinner since they can interfere with sleep. Everybody sleeps better on an empty stomach despite what the hot drink manufacturers would have you believe.
- Don't drink coffee or alcohol at dinner, or other strong stimulants. This isn't just an old wives tale. One researcher looking into the effects of caffeine on human beings recently showed that total sleep time is decreased by two hours and the mean total of intervening wakefulness more than doubles when men and women are given caffeine equivalent to a couple of cups of coffee. Alcohol may put you to sleep but it tends not to keep you there, awakening you instead in the early hours of the morning.
- Drink plenty of water during the day. Sleep is induced by the brain and brain cells need adequate hydration both to stay awake during the daylight hours and to trigger the dreamy relaxation that brings on sleep. Hardly anyone drinks as much water as they profitably could. I regularly consume at least 2 litres of mineral water a day in addition to whatever other drinks I may have.
- Don't go to bed when you are not sleepy. Instead, pursue some pleasant activity, preferably passive. Television is not the best choice for rays emitted from the set disturb your nervous system when you least need it.
- Get into a rut, going to bed as far as possible at the same time every night and developing a routine or simple ritual about it. When it comes to getting ready for sleep each night the body loves routines, they foster relaxation and let the body know what to expect. Make bedtime and rising time as regular as possible and go through the same routine each evening of putting the cat out, opening the window, reading a book, etc.
- Soak in a lukewarm (not hot) bath for 30 minutes topping up with hot water to maintain the temperature at just blood heat. (A hot bath before bed is a mistake. It is far too stimulating to the heart and gets your motor running.) Blot your skin dry without friction and go straight to bed moving slowly. This can be a great thing to do in the middle of the night if you awaken too - use a candle instead of turning on the light and let yourself relax as you probably never can during the day when a telephone could ring or someone might demand something of you.
- Insist that you sleep in a room by yourself when you want to be alone. Nights, sometimes weeks, sleeping alone can be enormously restful and fruitful.
- Use an ioniser. A little contraption beside your bed that sends negative ions into the air is a godsend to anyone who has the kind of nervous system that tends to go ‘up’ and doesn't want to come ‘down’. Although not cheap, it is an excellent investment for you can use it at a desk when you have a lot of work to do. Or, if you buy one of the portable varieties, you can also take it in the car on long trips to keep from going to sleep (it magically works both ways). Negative ions also stimulate the production of serotonin in the brain.
- Listen to mellow music. Music too can help alter consciousness and have you sinking blissfully into the depths of slumber. An ipod by the side of your bed is one of the most pleasant ways of all of putting a racing mind to rest and easing yourself into sleep.
- Use essential oils. They can have a wonderfully calming effect on the mind and body. You can take a warm bath with them or place a few drops on your pillow to inhale through the night. For the bath use four drops of lavender oil, two drops of camomile and two drops of neroli (orange blossom). Or try a drop or two of each on your pillow.
- Count your blessings. It's an old fashioned idea but it is a true key to deep relaxation and blissful sleep. Each night as you turn out the light think of six things during the day which you have to be thankful for, regardless of your physical or emotional state or how difficult your life may be at the time. This gradually turns the mind to dwell on pleasurable themes while you are awake. It can even improve the quality of your dreams.
- Make use of effective relaxation techniques (coming soon). You will find they enhance many other areas of your life too.
- Stop worrying about getting to sleep. Just let it happen. If it doesn't tonight, so what? It will tomorrow night. Or the next. Lack of sleep is not going to kill you, but worrying about it long enough just might.