Marnie Evans* was on vacation with her husband and kids in Northern Ontario three years ago when her allergy medication ran out. Instead of risking a medical emergency, she headed to the local hospital to get a new prescription. But when the admitting nurse asked Marnie why she was there, it became clear she had bigger problems than an expired prescription. Marnie broke down in tears; suddenly allergies were the farthest thing from her mind. “I haven’t slept in months,” she blurted out. “And I just can’t cope anymore.”
The 44-year-old felt herself drowning in work and had recently watched several co-workers get laid off, which made her feel rattled by her own job instability. She recalls struggling with insomnia on and off throughout her adult life, but this was different. “I got very anxious about it, but that only made things worse,” she says.
Once the allergy meds were dealt with, the emergency doctor gave Marnie two prescriptions: one for a tranquilizer to help her find calm in the short term, and another that simply said, “Sleep.” “Take this to your family doctor,” he said. “You need to figure this out.”
Marnie is one of the more than three million Canadians, mostly women, who struggle with insomnia: It often takes them more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, they wake up regularly during the night, or their eyes pop open at least a half-hour before the alarm goes off . And the result? “During the day they feel awful,” says psychologist Colleen Carney, director of the Sleep and Mood Disorder Program at Ryerson University in Toronto. But there’s more to it than that: “Fatigue impacts the way you think, your ability to concentrate and how you make decisions,” says Carney. Plus, mounting research shows lack of sleep is linked to higher rates of obesity, premature aging and chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
If Marnie’s story sounds familiar, try these surprisingly effective ways to stop tossing and turning—and get your health back on track.
1. Customize your own “calm down” routine When Rachel Pulfer, the 36-year-old executive director of Journalists for Human Rights in Toronto, struggled with severe insomnia a few years back, she eventually found relief with a simple rule: Don’t check emails after 7 p.m. She found that if she worked too close to bedtime, she was guaranteed disrupted sleep. She also created a pre-sleep routine that included a lavender bath and drinking warm milk before bed.
Try this trick: Pick a time to turn off all electronics (ideally two hours after work or less) . Use your newfound time to relax with a warm mug of milk or enjoy a calming aromatherapy bath.
2. Do yoga at night
The one good thing about insomnia is that it often highlights bigger issues. “If you’re stressed out and just pushing through it, maybe you should think, ‘This anxiety is so bad that it’s impairing my ability to sleep. Maybe I need to take better care of myself,’” says Carney, whose book Quiet Your Mind and Get to Sleep is the guide Marnie credits for helping to improve her sleep. Some experts point to yoga as a powerful way to unwind a stressed-out, overactive mind. Holding poses and focusing the breath can reduce heart rate and blood pressure, leaving you more relaxed.
Try this trick: Look for an evening hatha or restorative yoga class that you can do after work.
3. Take mini breaks throughout the day
Jennifer Bunzenmeyer, a naturopathic doctor at the Acadia Wellness Centre in Calgary, says that stressful, hectic days force us to produce large amounts of hormones like adrenaline or cortisol over time, which can leave us too stimulated to fall asleep. Combat this problem by giving yourself a ‘recess.’
Try this trick: Find a quiet corner to do her favourite breathing exercise (which you can also do at night): Close your eyes and breathe in deeply through your nose for four counts, then breathe out through your mouth for another four counts. Repeat until you feel relaxed. Meditation can also help. “It teaches you to calm down your mind,” says Bunzenmeyer, who suggests the Mindfulness for Beginners CD series by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
4. Get out of bed
If 20 minutes has passed and you’re still sleepless or worrying, bust out the fuzzy slippers. Carney points out that the worrying is likely happening because you’re in and out of stage 1 sleep, that not-quite-asleep time when thoughts can be intense and irrational. “When you go into another room, you’re not in stage 1 anymore, so you’re more lucid and all those worries are more likely to just go away.” Once you’re relaxed and feeling sleepy, go back to bed.
Try this trick: Prep your den or living room with a night light and a good book.
5. Avoid napping
If you’re struggling with insomnia, it might seem natural to take a nap. But all you’re doing then is teaching your body it needs less sleep. To get deep, restorative sleep, you have to wear yourself out. And that’s better achieved by socializing and staying active.
Try this trick: Instead of nodding off after dinner, meet a friend for a walk outdoors. Fresh air is nature’s sleep aid.
6. Keep a sleep journal
Each of us has an internal sleep clock, which sets the window of time the body is most primed to sleep. It’s individual and fairly fixed (which is why there are early birds and night owls). Carney and her team help people determine this window through sleep diaries as part of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Here’s how it works: Say your sleep diary shows that you usually fall asleep around 11 p.m. and wake up at 6 a.m.; that’s your approximate window. Force yourself to be in bed only during those hours, and don’t go to bed if you’re not sleepy. “You might not get to sleep until two, but when it’s six o’clock, it’s feet-on-the-floor time. Yes, that sucks for the day after, but you’ll be rewarded that night with deep sleep.” Usually within a week or so, says Carney, the body will fill up the window with sleep since it’s naturally inclined to rest during that time, and you’ve reinforced that this is your only opportunity for sleep.
Try this trick:Keep a journal on your bedside table to pinpoint your window – then stick to it.
7. Redecorate your bedroom
If you struggle to get to sleep at home but don’t have trouble in other places (like on vacation or when visiting someone), it’s possible your bed has become a signal for wakefulness, says Carney. “If you associate the bed with sleeplessness, you just have to look at it, and you’ll instantly feel awake and anxious.”
Try this trick: Move the furniture, change the wall colour or get new sheets. Even lowering the temperature could do the trick.
8. Use natural supplements
Although it can be very tempting to open the medicine cabinet or dip into your liquor stash, neither one holds an effective remedy, says Charles Morin, professor of psychology and director of the sleep research center at Université Laval in Quebec City. Over-the-counter meds, such as Nytol, contain antihistamines, which make you drowsy but can also leave you feeling groggy and nauseous. You’re also more likely to wake up with a headache the next day. And what about a quick nightcap? “Even if a drink helps you relax in the moment, you’ll likely have a more fitful sleep and wake up in the night, so skip it,” says Morin. And of course there’s the risk of getting hooked: Carney says that one study of people with chronic insomnia showed they were more likely to develop problems with alcohol than those without sleep troubles.
Try this trick: Ask your doctor about natural alternatives like melatonin, or consider acupuncture. Bunzenmeyer also suggests balancing hormones with omega-3 supplements.
9. Eat for stable blood sugar
Bunzenmeyer has noticed that many of her patients suffering from insomnia have improved their sleep by balancing their blood sugar levels through their diet. “People often wake up in the night because their blood sugar has dropped.”
Try this trick: To stabilize bloodsugar, she recommends starting the day with a balanced breakfast and eating protein at each meal and snack. Caffeine (coffee, black tea, pop and chocolate) is a no-no. Use camomile and passion-flower teas, which have natural sleep-enhancing properties, says Bunzenmeyer.
10. Don’t panic
You’re lying in bed watching the minutes change on the clock, thinking about how tired you’re going to be tomorrow. But the more you stress, the more you can’t sleep, and the more you can’t sleep, the more you stress. “If people are more relaxed about the sleep loss, the insomnia gets better and they can recover,” says Carney. It’s a lesson Marnie has learned well. “I used to be so worried about my sleep. Now I tell myself that if I don’t sleep, I will be able to cope. And I do.”
If nothing else helps, it might be time to try medication or therapy. Here’s what you need to know:
For stress insomnia: Sleeping pills prescribed by your doctor (like Ambien) can help relieve short-term insomnia caused by stress, such as the death or serious illness of a loved one, divorce or job loss. But they’re not recommended for chronic insomnia due to side effects and loss of efficacy in the longer term.
For chronic insomnia: Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a smart treatment for chronic insomnia. With it, you can learn how to adjust the way you think about sleep and learn to reframe your sleep habits.
Bottom line:Marnie Evans tried both: CBT helped treat her insomnia, and she has a prescription sleep aid that she calls her “security blanket.” She has used it occasionally, like when she started a new job.