WHAT IS INSOMNIA? & WHY AM I EXPERIENCING IT?
Insomnia - or the inability to sleep - can occur for a number of reasons, but is related primarily to a perception of stress or being in a sympathetic nervous state. If you feel very stressed and agitated throughout the day, biologically your body will steer away from it’s rest and digest state (parasympathetic state) and into the fight or flight state (sympathetic nervous state). In our fight or flight state the body diverts our energy away from ‘auxiliary’ functions like resting, digesting, libido, and recovery/rejuvenating our cells (functions not necessary for immediate survival), to preparing us to fight, run or play dead.
INSOMNIA & THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
In this sympathetic state, our bodies are putting things like resting/rejuvenation on hold and replacing the focus to things like seizing/clenching of muscles i.e. when you clench your jaw, raise your shoulders, press your hands into surfaces nervously, etc in moments of stress; changes to breathing i.e. holding your breath representing a state of fright, increasing/rapid breathing indicating preparation to fight or run; release bowel i.e. urinary incontinence/ibs - in moments of continued stress the body wishes to empty the bowel/bladder to be lighter and run more easily; additionally you are being pumped full of hormones preparing you to defend your self like cortisol and adrenaline which are particularly counter to allowing you to rest and fall asleep.
PHYSICAL EXERCISES FOR MANAGING INSOMNIA
When your body is in this state, tense, rigid and clenching/guarding physically in different areas the mind is unable to be at ease. The body and mind are two sides of the same coin, when the body is tense the mind will be unable to relax as there is a perception of stress the mind is keeping you and your muscles alert, clenched in anticipation of blunt impact or potential attack. It is essential to learn to disengage the muscles and tissues to help the mind and sympathetic nervous system relax.
One of the most direct practices related to this physical response is Yin or Restorative yoga, which has a focus of the physical guarding as it relates to the sympathetic nervous system. Other styles of yoga also include this aspect of physical release, however without close guidance and an instructor willing to walk you through this aspect of release it may be more inaccessible to enter into this state through the more common styles i.e. hatha, vinyasa, iyengar, sivananda, kati yoga etc.
PROCESSING MENTAL STRESS TO HELP REDUCE YOUR INSOMNIA
Anything which helps to take you away from the sympathetic nervous state is going to be particularly useful in helping you get that rest you need. Aside from physical practices you might try and approach your insomnia from the mental aspect of ‘holding’ (guarding) - remembering that they are two sides of the same coin, and ideally circumventing this issue and engaging with both physical and mental techniques in ‘letting go’ or release. Meditation techniques can teach you over time to relate differently to yourself and the outside world, teaching you to not constantly engage in the holding which leads to this same response. As a middle path I would recommend Pranayama or breathing exercises, as a way to learn both about the physical and mental aspects of this response in our body.
I encourage you to use some of the tools mentioned below, but to also seek out other ways of managing your stress and fostering greater support for what you are going through. We are a social species and thrive in community and being supported, isolation and alienation not only do not help foster better mental health but can keep us in stifled and often unhealthy patterns of life. One study found that addiction/addictive behaviour had a very close relationship with isolation and lack of community / support. Broadly speaking we do not become addicted to just external substances, but also to other forms of sedation as ways of managing stress i.e. overeating, binge eating, toxic relationships, mindless hours sedating ourselves in front of a tv or social media. For this reason, I really encourage you to be more vulnerable in your trusted relationships, stick your neck out so to speak and garner who you can have these stronger relationships with, slowly building that support network that we all need.
HOW THESE CAN HELP MANAGE YOUR STRESS:
These tools can help create garner more awareness of your stress triggers and help diffuse emotional charge. They accomplish this by bringing form to what was before formless - an unidentified gross-encompassing feeling of being unsettled to something you can identify; in order to begin working on anything we first must know what that thing is; how we relate to it and potentially enable that behaviour.
SOME TOOLS FOR MANAGING MENTAL TENSION:
counselling & psychotherapy
cognitive behavioural therapy
a meditation/mindfulness practice
social support (i.e. family, friends, community)
COMBATTING INSOMNIA WITH DIET & MAGNESIUM
In terms of supplements that may help, you can try a calcium magnesium supplement. This can be helpful because of their mutual action in relaxing and contracting our nervous system as well as tissues (remember two sides of the same coin!) - Calcium helps engage the nervous system and contract muscles, while magnesium helps relax the nerves and muscles. This supplement is especially relevant if you happen to have absorption issues, experience lots of cramping, sweat a lot, or are doing a lot of exercise and sweating these important minerals out of your system leaving you at a nutritional deficit when it comes to relaxing the nervous system - I recommend getting a water soluble effervescent powder, they tend to have more bioavailability and better absorption.
FOODS HIGH IN MAGNESIUM:
Below are some examples of foods with high magnesium content, and a great way to include magnesium without the use of a supplement - it’s always a good idea to consult your wellness practitioner before starting out on a new diet.
Almonds, dry roasted, 1 oz - 80mg
Spinach, boiled, 1/2 cup - 78mg
Cashews, dry roasted, 1 ounce - 74mg
Peanuts, oil roasted, 1/4 cup - 63mg
Soymilk, plain or vanilla, 1 cup - 61mg
Black beans, cooked, 1 cup - 60mg
Quinoa, cooked, 1/2 cup - 59mg
Edamame, shelled and cooked, 1/2 cup - 50mg
Peanut butter, smooth, 2 tbl spoons - 49mg
Avocado, cubed, 1 cup - 44mg
Rice, brown, cooked 1/2 cup - 42mg
Yogurt, plain, low fat, 8 oz - 42mg
Oatmeal, instant, 1 packet - 36mg
HOW MUCH MAGNESIUM?
The National Institute for Health (NIH) recommends the following daily values of magnesium, please see link for possible drug interactions as magnesium can interact with certain medications, to be safe always consult your physician if you are taking any medications:
Birth to 6months - 30mg
7-12 months - 75mg
1-3 years - 80mg
4-8 years - 240mg
9-13 years - 240mg
14-18 years - 410mg (males) | 360mg (females)
400mg (pregnancy) | 360mg (lactation)
19-30 years - 400mg (males) | 310mg (females)
350mg (pregnancy) | 310mg (lactation)
31-50 years - 420mg (males) | 320mg (females)
360mg (pregnancy) | 320mg (lactation)
51+ years - 420mg (males) | 320 mg (females)
HERBS & TEAS FOR INSOMNIA
As for herbs, you can try valerian, lemon balm, or skullcap teas, as well as a variety of TCM based herbal formulas but this should be done under close supervision of a qualified practitioner. One study suggests that combining both Valerian and Lemon Balm may be most effective when combined for dyssomnia (general sleeping disorders/restlessness) - (1). Melatonin has been shown to have some results in helping with insomnia although research is limited (2).
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis L.):
There is conflicting evidence on it’s overall efficacy, like most botanicals a lot more research will need to be done before we can conclusively say Lemon Balm is effective as a remedy for insomnia. Here is some research showing it’s efficacy with regards to both insomnia and general anxiety; with the results showing that it may be effective at helping both anxiety and insomnia (1).
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis):
Valerian root (extract or tea) has been shown to have some benefit in combatting insomnia, reducing the overall time it takes to fall asleep by up to 20minutes (1). In a meta analysis of the efficacy of Valerian for Insomnia, it was found to be effective above placebo in a number of controlled studies though not on all demographics (differences in efficacy based on relative age and health) (2).
SLEEPING HYGIENE & ETIQUETTE FOR INSOMNIA
GENERAL ETIQUETTE FOR RESTORING YOUR CIRCADIAN RHYTHM (SLEEP-WAKE CYCLE)
Your circadian rhythm is an internally regulated 24hr clock which regulates your bodies sleep-wake cycles - regulating your bodies sense of alertness or sleepiness based on a number of factors. Factors like lightness and darkness impact your hypothalamus, a part of your brain which helps maintain your circadian rhythm. When it’s night, your eyes signal the hypothalamus to secrete the pineal hormone melatonin, which helps us fall into our resting state (further reading). Therefore in helping to restore this cycle do your best to:
Follow the Sun & Moon: Look towards the sun and moon to help re-orient your bodies natural rhythm, trying not to sleep in too late, past daylight hours especially in hemispheres where daylight is restricted seasonally - for example during winter in north America/Europe. Instead try to wake up and go to sleep at regular intervals (i.e. not at inconsistent hours).
Avoid Late Night Activity & Embodying Yin: Avoid being overly active in the late evening when your body wants to gear down for sleep; especially avoid ignoring fatigue / tiredness when it sets in. ‘Pushing through’ fatigue for deadlines or other perceived obligations can counteract this effect and cause your circadian rhythm to function differently, leading you down the path to insomnia. In Traditional Chinese medicine and Taoism, nighttime is the time of yin, an introspective, silent, slow archetypal force, try to embody this during the time it represents, choosing in the night to do activities which embody this quality i.e. meditation, deep relaxation, quietism, etc.
SLEEP HYGIENE - THE DO’S & DON’TS FOR INSOMNIA SUFFERERS
It’s important to circumvent the issue of insomnia in as many ways as possible, the following recommendations are things that help* your body move into that rest and digest state. On their own, they likely will not be enough for the chronic insomnia sufferer, but do they help push you a little bit further into that parasympathetic state? Yes. Conversely there are certain things that may take you away from the rested state you are seeking. See below:
Don’t Work/Eat in Bed: Keep your bed for sleeping, intimacy and resting. Try not to do work, watch tv, talk on the phone while in bed if you are suffering from insomnia, preventing the body and mind from relating this area to one in which you experience stress (activity) can help you feel more at ease here and sleep a little quicker.
Comfortable Bedding: When purchasing bedding with regards to deep sleep, I suggest a mattress that isn’t too soft or too hard (go for goldilocks!); Cotton sheets breath easier and will help keep your body from oscillating it’s temperature at night when it wants to cool down; and lastly considering getting a body pillow if you sleep on your side keeping pressure (discomfort/pain) off any joints.
White Noise Generator: If you live in a noisy environment, or maybe have a noisy roommate consider getting a white noise generator. Repetitive sound helps dull sudden noises as well as sooth the mind into a state of calm.
De-Stress Sleep Journal: If your mind tends to be spinning before bed as you are trying to sleep, consider taking time well before sleep to journal about the things that are concerning you, diffuse that energy as much as possible earlier in the day so you aren’t spending the moments before sleep ‘planning’ or stressing about things.
Black Out Curtains: Ensuring the room is dark enough, especially if street lights are shining all night through your window, will help the body produce melatonin and send you into a restful sleep.
Cigarettes: Nicotine is a stimulant, it increases your heart rate, blood pressure and is very likely going to keep you up longer if you smoke before bed.
Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant, causing the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline and cortisol, and taking you into your sympathetic state. This absolutely should be avoided or at the very least limited to the early morning.
Alcohol: Alcohol is a depressant drug, slowing and sedating the nervous system. While having drinks before bed may help you fall asleep, it also disturbs the rhythm of sleep patterns, and you won’t feel rested in the morning. Additionally alcohol is a diuretic, which can cause you to wake frequently to go urinate, interrupting your much needed sleep.
DayTime Napping: Avoid daytime naps if you are suffering from insomnia, though the circadian clock does enter a rest phase in the afternoon, if you are suffering from insomnia this may result in you not being able to sleep in the evening.
LateNight Exercise: Try not to overheat or over stimulate yourself close to bedtime, again looking to reorient your circadian rhythm by exercising during the day instead.
Sleeping pills: These should be used as a last resort as you can become reliant on them if used long term; it’s always best to discuss the use of these with your physician. Common drawbacks include daytime sleepiness and dependance after long term use.