I Had Terrible Insomnia. Here Are The Things That Actually Helped (And What Made It Worse)
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I've always been a light sleeper, but recently, I've gone through some pretty terrible bouts of insomnia, once even not sleeping (like zero hours) for four days in a row. As anyone who has ever wrestled sleeplessness can attest, it can make you pretty desperate. I spent hours (usually at 3 a.m.) scouring the internet, looking for any solution that might make my sleep a little better. Some things worked while others were counterproductive, seemingly making my sleep worse. Here's my no-holds barred report.
What helped my insomnia
1. A weighted blanket
While for the most part these are in no particular order, this (admittedly strange) sleep solution definitely deserves to be at the top. Weighted blankets are exactly what they sound like: small, plastic pellets stitched into cotton blankets to make them heavy. You know those x-ray blankets they lay over you at the dentist? This is like that, except it covers your whole body. Initially developed for autistic children, these blankets have developed a cult following in the anxiety and insomnia worlds for one simple reason: They work. Similar to a deep-tissue massage, the pressure of the blanket on your body stimulates your body to release serotonin, which then converts to melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. I love mine—when I use it, I fall asleep faster and get a deeper, more satisfying rest with less tossing and turning. It's life-changing. Mine is from Weighting Comforts, which I like because they use very adult-friendly fabrics (read: no Ninja Turtles patterns), and because they're sewn by refugees in Tennessee.
2. Collagen peptides in my tea
Glycine, the main amino acid in collagen, has been found to have a positive effect on sleep. It reduces the body's core temperature, which helps prepare it for sleep (I'll talk about this more later), and it increases serotonin levels (which I discussed above). I simply stir a heaping spoonful into a (small—otherwise I'll have to wake up to pee, beating the whole point!) cup of tea and sip away. It doesn't alter the flavor at all, at most making it slightly more. While I use Traditional Medicinals Nighty Night tea for this, I've found that the type of tea doesn't really matter—you can use any caffeine-free variety you like. Be sure to use grass-fed and finished collagen powder from a source that you trust. I like Vital Proteins (which has bovine and marine collagen options) and Bulletproof.
3. A roasted sweet potato nighttime snack
When I asked some of the top functional medicine doctors in the country the best food for sleep, the No. 1 pick was, hands down, potatoes—sweet potatoes, to be specific. "They are rich in potassium, which helps your muscles relax," says Dr. Vincent Pedre. They also have magnesium, which promotes GABA secretion in the brain—a relaxation-inducing neurotransmitter. As a complex carb, they digest slowly, providing the steady energy your body needs to make it through the night in a fasting state. And their vitamin B6 content becomes a co-factor for a number of important chemical reactions in the brain, including serotonin and melatonin production—the sleep-inducing hormone." I pop one into the oven to roast whole (I don't even wash it first, since I don't eat the skin) at 400 degrees for about 40 to 50 minutes, or until it's really squishy. I let it cool for a bit, scoop out the insides, and add in some ghee and a sprinkle of cinnamon and salt. It feels so nourishing, and is the perfect, sweet-tooth-appeasing bedtime snack.
4. Showering at night
I used to be a morning shower person, for no reason other than it seemed normal. After a colleague mentioned how much her nighttime showers help her sleep, I tried it—and now I'm hooked. Showering at night raises your body temperature and then quickly drops it, and a lowered body temperature is one of your system's key indicators that it's time for sleep. More ephemerally speaking, I love showering at night because it helps me wash away my day, both literally and figuratively. The feel of the warm water is so soothing. I also use lavender-scented Dr. Bronner's to add to the soothing vibe.
5. A noise-reducing, light-reducing curtain
I live in Brooklyn; even at nighttime, the streetlights make it look like it's noon outside. Light is one of the main disrupters of circadian rhythms, making it both harder to fall asleep and preventing you from entering the deepest, most restorative stages of rest. Brooklyn is also LOUD. In my bedroom, I can hear my neighbor's small dog barking, the bleating horn of tugboats on the East River, the wail of ambulance sirens and the constant drone of the freeway a block away. While most blackout curtains muffle sound, the pair I got, from a brand called moondream has an extra layer to really reduce the decibels that come through the window. They make my room feel so much more serene, and I'm no longer jolted awake in the middle of the night by an errant car horn.
The two things that made my insomnia worse
There are so many sleep supplements out there, containing things that are completely science-backed, like melatonin, passionflower, valerian and magnesium. But there's something about the act of taking a sleeping supplement that suddenly puts so much pressure on me to sleep—and that stress, ironically, psyches me out and prevents me from sleeping. Also, one of the things that makes me feel better is having prescription anti-anxiety pills at the ready. It's incredibly dangerous to take anti-anxiety pills with sleeping supplements, so the second I ingest a sleeping supplement, I'm taking the option of my anti-anxiety pills (which always work, 100% of the time) off the table. While I try to avoid the prescription pills at all costs (I end up taking them once or twice a year), simply having the option on the table does wonders for alleviating my anxiety and helping me drift off.
2. Thinking about sleep too much
When I really started thinking about optimizing my sleep and hacking my circadian rhythms, my sleep went from okay to truly terrible. Similar to ingesting supplements, thinking about sleep constantly puts a ton of pressure on the act, which makes me stress about not sleeping and, as a result, not sleep. I can't do nighttime trackers, sleep diaries, or any of that (although if you can, more power to you!). I do my few little things, and then tell myself, "I'll sleep or I won't—and I'll be fine either way." The words are like a soothing lullaby that send me straight to the Land of Nod.
Liz Moody is an author, blogger and recipe developer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated with a creative writing and psychology degree from The University of California, Berkeley. Moody has written two cookbooks: Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops: Super-Easy Superfood Recipes to Help You Look and Feel Your Best. She also hosts the Healthier Together Podcast, where she chats with notable chefs, nutritionists, and best-selling authors about their paths to success. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Food & Wine & Women’s Health.