Fighting Insomnia Without Medication

After having the flu really bad for 3 weeks I found myself struggling to maintain a normal sleep schedule. I was tired all the time, wanted to nap during the day, and would wake up multiple times a night. I was starting to think something was serious wrong with my body but after talking to my doctor it seemed that there wasn’t any underlying condition that was causing this fatigue. (I should note that I do have fibromyalgia which causes fatigue & insomnia but this was way more intense than my normal symptoms).

I was so sick of falling asleep while reading and having no energy so I decided to figure out exactly what would help me most in my quest to have a normal sleep cycle. After some research I decided to buy the fitbit HR Inspire to help me track my sleep. This way I would have a better idea of exactly how many hours a night I was sleeping and how restful that sleep actually was. Sleep trackers are not going to be 100% accurate but this would give me at least some subjective evidence that I could use.

Week Zero

The first week I had my fitbit I intentionally did NOT do anything different than I had been doing. This was to get a baseline of how much sleep I was getting each night. One night that week I also had my boyfriend wear the fitbit to bed just to make sure it was getting accurate readings. He’s a healthy person in his 20’s with a lot of energy during the day and as expected the fitbit showed that he slept the whole night and got over an hour of deep sleep! The average adult gets about 1-2 hours of deep sleep at night. I was only getting 15 to 40 minutes of deep sleep each night and would wake up several times. However, what did surprise me was that even on the one night that I got seven hours of sleep (which was the maximum during that week) I still felt exhausted and would feel like I needed to take a nap to make it through the day. So I was actually getting more sleep than I expected which helped me figure out that it was likely the quality of my sleep that was causing my problem.

Week One

With this new data I was excited to see what could help me sleep better. I decided that making small steps at a time was the best way to figure out what was actually helping me. I started with cutting out caffeine after noon, not using screens before bed, and not napping during the day. Unfortunately I could not stick to my plan of not napping in the afternoon. When I tried to force myself to stay awake I couldn’t focus enough to get any work done and despite being my own boss I really didn’t want to not work due to fatigue. I also did not notice any benefit from not drinking caffeine or not using screens. In fact the night I slept the best was when I watched The Simpsons on my phone right before going to bed. While I didn’t make any progress towards sleeping better I did learn that I needed to be doing a lot more to fix my sleep issues. 

Week Two

To be more proactive about getting better sleep I focused on two factors that doctors say are very important for getting better sleep; getting more exercise and limiting naps to 30 mins and not napping an hour before going to bed or after getting up in the morning. That week the night I got the best sleep was when I significantly increased my activity during the day. It was the first night in a long time that I fell asleep right away! Plus my amount of deep sleep finally increased. However this ended up being a double edged sword since the increased activity aggravated my chronic pain which made it hard for me to sleep the next night. This week I also struggled with my desire to nap during the day. For the average person this probably wouldn’t be as hard but for me a lack of sleep causes me to have bad brain fog, which interferes with anything that involves concentration. However on the days I was able to only nap for 30 minutes I also found myself able to fall asleep faster and earlier. These two factors clearly had a positive impact so I would continue with them.

Week Three

I was really happy to be making some progress however my amount of deep sleep was still much less than average and I was waking up in the middle of the night. In an attempt to help with that I started meditating before bed. I found a guided meditation that I really like on YouTube and used that every night while laying in bed to help myself get more relaxed. At this point I was also meditating 10-15 minutes during the day after lunch. While I didn’t see much difference in my amount or quality of sleep according to my fitbit I noticed that I was feeling better during the day. I can’t say for certain that this was due to the meditation but I found it enjoyable so why not continue with it!

Week Four

After making such good progress I ended up totally throwing my sleep schedule off by staying up really late and drinking alcohol. For me alcohol actually keeps me up, partly because alcohol makes me have to pee like every hour and partly because alcohol inhibits REM sleep. While I had a fun time and was happy to be with my friends this experience did show me that one night of getting only 3 hours of sleep affected me for the next four days! My amount and quality of sleep was basically what it was before this experiment. 

Week Five

I was ready to get back on track and looked into more ways I could improve my quality of sleep to hopefully get a normal amount of deep sleep. I was doing an appropriate amount of exercise for someone with fibromyalgia, not taking excessively long naps and meditating during the day and right before bed. So what else is there to try? Well this whole time I thought I had been good about having a “bedtime ritual”. I thought that meant going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time and brushing your teeth before bed. However, when I looked into this more I found out that an effective bedtime ritual is exactly that, a ritual. No you don’t have to pray but you can if you want. It’s not a ritual in the spiritual sense, it’s a ritual because it’s something you do exactly the same at exactly the same time. There are a lot of good tips out there for bedtime rituals so you can pick whatever works for you. For me personally I found the following things to be very helpful.

  • Starting at 9pm I dim the lights in whatever room I’m in. This allows the brain to start producing melatonin. At this point I do not do anything work related and I spend time doing something fun with my boyfriend. 
  • At 10pm is when my ritual officially starts with a warm bath. The heat is relaxing but more importantly your body temperature dropping makes you tired.  
  • 10:20 I brush my teeth and take care of my facial skincare routine. I also do self massage with warm sesame oil scented with lavender oil.
  • Then for the rest of the time I read in bed until 11pm, at which point I do my 10 minute meditation and pass out. 

When I first started this it felt very decadent, and almost self centered to spend so much time dedicated to self care and relaxation. However it’s realistically a little over an hour of my time and the results have been very noticeable. I’m now getting to sleep at a reasonable hour, not waking up 4 times a night, and not constantly falling asleep during the day! And once I started my routine of taking a bath every night and doing self massage my fibromyalgia symptoms noticeably decreased. This was a huge breakthrough for me since nothing else seemed to help my symptoms previously.  

Takeaway

By far the things that were most obviously helpful were restricting day time naps to 30 mins or less and being physically active during the day. I found that if I started to feel sleepy during the day getting up and doing light exercise would help me wake up. And caffeine early in the day was very helpful early on when I was forcing myself to stay awake but drinking coffee past noon did make it harder to fall asleep.

Reducing bright lights did help actually but it wasn’t always noticeable. One night I didn’t get to bed until 2am because I stayed up till midnight with all the lights on in the living room while watching a movie. However watching something on a dimmed computer or phone screen could actually help if it was something without a lot of intense action. 

Meditation, self massage, and aromatherapy as a part of a consistent bedtime ritual definitely improved the quality of my sleep. However I should note that I didn’t see a significant difference according to my fitbit but I did feel a difference in my energy levels and my mood. I’m guessing that the fitbit is just not sensitive enough to have registered any difference. If you are struggling to get decent sleep I would suggest giving these things a try but remember that it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor too.

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