This is number 20 in the series Chronicle of Sleepless Nights
Off to the UK
It seemed like a miracle, but there we were, on the plane to London. I packed all my new supplements and took them religiously. Before I left, my acupuncturist, Chris, gave me directions for avoiding jet lag by having me press different acupressure points on my body every two hours during the flight. It must have worked, as I did not have jet lag. We stayed at our favorite hotel in Knightsbridge, near Hyde Park. We had dinner with dear friends and walked all over the city.
A few days later we took a train to Edinburgh, again checking into our favorite hotel, near Edinburgh Castle. We spent five days exploring the city and even hiking up the “wee” hill known as Arthur’s Seat. The weather was lovely and we renewed our love affair with this city. The last leg of the trip was a short train ride to Glasgow, where we had not been before. We met our friend Eileen there, who lives in Dublin. This time she chose the hotel, which had lots of Art Deco charm and was centrally located, so we could again walk all over the city.
It was a great trip and I managed to sleep at night. I particularly enjoyed all the foods I had stayed away from for several years, especially ice cream and eggs. I could hardly believe it was I ordering ice cream at the end of a delicious meal, or scrambled eggs in a charming tea room for breakfast.
Each night I took the supplements Sydney, my naturopath, had prescribed: Inositol, Cerenity PM, and Cortisol Manager. She had also recommended Melatonin for the trip, which I took as well. In the mornings I took L-theanine and Selenium. My body felt healthy and in balance. I was happy again. It felt like I had emerged from a nightmare.
Over the next few months I stopped taking the supplements. Now that I was better, I did not believe my body required any pills other than for my thyroid. I was healed, right? I regarded these supplements as aids to get me through a difficult time, and did not want to take supplements indefinitely. They were expensive and cumbersome.
I went back for acupuncture from time to time, checked in with Sydney, and continued to have my thyroid tested. Some nights I slept well, and some nights not so well. Each night that I went to bed and did not immediately fall asleep, the old fear and anxiety would return. Were my sleep problems back? Would I stop sleeping again? It was a little like PTSD.
And Then Things Became Worse
After a lovely winter trip to Mexico, I started to notice that my sleep was deteriorating. I tried taking Melatonin, and even Dramamine. The fear returned. Michael bought me a big calendar and suggested that each day, I record a plus, minus, or zero to rate the quality of my sleep the night before. I wanted to use the data to see how many “bad” nights I was having per month. I thought that if there were not too many bad nights, I could just accept it and not worry about the insomnia returning.
After gathering data for a few months, it seemed that I was having about 9 to 14 bad nights a month. That was not good, and I wanted to do something to increase the number of good nights of sleep. First, I tried going back to the sleep restriction protocol on my own, to see if that would help. It seemed to help me at first. I wondered if this was what I would need to keep doing, on my own, to return my body to regular sleep patterns. But then the effect wore off and I was back to having trouble sleeping several nights in a row. This was frustrating, as I thought my chronic insomnia was a thing of the past.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the situation and wondering what to do. I did some research on the internet. My brother David visited and introduced me to essential oil patches; he found one for sleep that used lavender oil and I bought a pack and tried them. Sometimes they seemed to help, and I still use them when I have trouble falling asleep. I also take them with me whenever I travel.
At some point, as I tried to figure out what to do next, I remembered my DNA test from the previous winter, which Dr. C had advised. She thought it could shed some light on what might be causing my insomnia. Although a chiropractor, she had training in interpreting DNA data. She had offered to interpret my raw data for me, but after I sent her the raw data I never heard from her, and I forgot about it. Now I decided to find someone who might interpret my DNA data for me. I asked Sydney if she knew someone with this expertise who could look for links to my sleep problems. She suggested her partner, Dr. B.
DNA Analysis and New Supplements
After having my DNA analyzed by 23andMe, I had read the reports about different health conditions that I had some probability of having. I found these quite interesting. (I had also located long lost cousins and reconnected with them.) Now I was ready to learn more. I went to my appointment with Dr. B, another naturopath. And she was finally able to put more of my puzzle pieces together.
At our meeting, she presented me with documentation that described my genes and indicated where I was more at risk for certain problems or deficiencies. The results were coded in green (normal risk), yellow (elevated risk) and red (high risk). I had a lot of red. Some I knew, including risk for type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, macular degeneration (thanks, Mom and Dad). Others I had no previous knowledge of. Some related to foods I should avoid (dairy, gluten, coffee). Others concerned vitamins and minerals my body could not retain, as well as some I needed to supplement (iron, vitamin D, some trace minerals).
It seemed that there were many clues in my DNA about why I had not been sleeping and the anxiety that had kept me awake. Once again, it had to do with my neurotransmitters. I had gene variants that made it more likely that my body could not create sufficient levels of serotonin and GABA in my brain. Dr. B sent her recommendations to Sydney, who prescribed specific vitamin and mineral supplements based on these DNA results. In addition to vitamin D, iron, and trace minerals, she prescribed Magtein, which contains magnesium L-threonate. This was the same compound that Dr. C had prescribed in powder form the previous winter, but I had only taken it for a short time. Now I was to take two pills two hours before bedtime and one in the morning. I later learned that this same compound is advised for people who have the gene for Alzheimer’s. Good thing I am already taking it!
Dr. B also prescribed 5-HTP at bedtime, to calm anxiety. I had also taken that before, but not for long. I was to take L-theanine every morning. This was also a supplement Dr. C had prescribed for me to take at night. It was supposed to have a calming effect, but it had kept me awake. So I would take it each morning along with my magnesium. I began this new routine, and was delighted to find that I was now sleeping well every night. I still had some moments of anxiety when I went to bed, as I did not fully trust that I would fall asleep. But each morning when I would get out of bed, I felt relieved and grateful. The new supplements seemed to be working well and I hoped they would continue to do so. I now understood that I would need to take these on a regular basis to make up for deficiencies in my body. They were not just to help me heal, they were to help me stay healthy. And so I am still taking them four years later and bring them with me wherever I travel.
Hiking the West Highland Way
Spring came and Michael told me that he still wanted to hike the West Highland Way in Scotland, the trip we had cancelled the previous June. We decided to try it in 2017, but wanted to divide the 96 miles over 10 days, with two rest days built in. There were no guided walking tours that offered this “slower” pace along with rest days, so we began to search for a private guide. I found a young man who had recently started his own company, Scotland’s Wild. He told me he would be delighted to take us on this trip, at our pace and in the way we wanted to experience it. He put together a perfect itinerary with rest days, personal prepared lunches, and some nice hotels. Looking back, we are now grateful that we were forced to wait a year, cancelling our first trip, because the guide we found (John) was phenomenal and we had the best trip of our lives. We even adopted him as our son (in spirit).
On this hiking trip, I slept easily and soundly every night. I think that the new supplements had helped me finish healing from all the trauma to my brain and body and the imbalances I had suffered from. And now the hiking trip seemed to “seal in the healing.” We hiked the 96 miles without any trouble, and celebrated at the end of the hike with two nights in a lovely castle. In the winter of 2016 I could not have imagined feeling so healthy and happy again, and sleeping well each night.
Since that trip I have mostly slept well. There are nights when I have trouble falling asleep. There are nights I wake up early and can’t fall back to sleep. And once in a while I feel that I have not slept all night. But mostly I sleep well and wake up rested. I feel healthy and strong and in balance. Every morning when I wake up, I am grateful for the sleep I had during the night. On those rare occasions when I am awake most of the night, especially due to jet lag, I have learned that I can function just fine the next day. I also have confidence that the next night, I will resume normal sleep.
What I Do Now
Three years later, in 2020, I follow a routine pretty strictly. On nights when there is a special event and I have to stay up later, I accept it but resume my routine the following evening.
At 8 or 8:30 PM I take my two magnesium pills and one 5-HTP pill. Soon after 9 PM I turn off screens: stop watching TV or looking at my phone or computer. I sometimes take a bath. I write down anything on my mind or that I need to do the next day, and let go of it. Sitting on my cushion on the floor or sitting up in my bed, I try to meditate for about 20 to 25 minutes. First I go through my gratitude list, reviewing the day. Then I focus on my breath, watching and calming my mind.
During the winter I put on a noise machine that plays the sound of soft, gentle waves. During the summer I put on the ceiling fan that makes its own soothing noise. Sometimes I wear a lavender oil patch or rub lavender oil into my feet or around my temples. I listen to my book on my iPod, and as I get drowsy, I turn it off and go to sleep. I wake up one or two times during the night, use the bathroom, and quickly go back to sleep. If I have trouble going back to sleep, I listen to my book until I am drowsy and try again. I am usually awake early, by 5:30 or 6 AM. I take my thyroid pill, and sit up in bed and meditate. Sometimes I fall back asleep, which is fine; if not, I get up and get on with my day. After an hour I take one magnesium pill and my L-theanine pill, and drink my beloved Irish Breakfast tea. I take my vitamins after lunch. I also take fish collagen pills after lunch and dinner. I take all my supplements religiously, and review them from time to time with Sydney. I accept that I need to take them as part of my regular health plan.
It is hard to believe that four years ago I took my last sleeping pill, and I am pleased to say I have never again even thought about taking a prescription pill to sleep. I have stopped looking for a quick fix when I can’t sleep, and instead try to relax and tell myself that I trust that my body will get the sleep it needs.
Since those dark days, I have had to tweak my thyroid medication a few times, when I could feel something speeding up in my body. Now I am on a natural thyroid supplement, Armour Thyroid, that combines T3 and T4. It seems to be keeping my thyroid hormone at healthy levels. I depend on my naturopath and my endocrinologist to help me troubleshoot what to do when my thyroid medication needs adjusting.
At the end of May, 2016, I officially retired, and moved out of my office the following August. I declined a big retirement party, as I did not feel up to a big social gathering after my year of sleep problems and depression. Now that I am retired, my life feels amazingly full. Until the pandemic, I was back at the YWCA, taking classes and swimming. I continue to run regularly and walk with friends. During the pandemic, I take Zoom yoga and Pilates classes at home, and try to get outside every day for a run and a walk. I feel strong and healthy, but I do miss my classes and friends at the Y, and the lovely pool and whirlpool there.
I have not been vegan for four years and I now eat a wider variety of foods, with more fat, but in moderation. I still crave vegetables and avoid gluten, dairy and sugar as much as I can. But I do allow treats, and did so especially during the first months of the pandemic. Recently I bought a weighted blanket and have been sleeping under that to help me keep calm during this stressful time. Most days I feel patient and happy, content with my daily life. Sometimes I feel sad about all the things I am not currently able to do. But I try to focus on the silver linings as much as possible, and there have been many. On nights when I do not feel drowsy, and I know I need to get up early the next morning, I will take some CBD oil to help me relax into sleep. I do that only about once or twice a month, so my current bottle of oil has lasted a year. It feels good to have something to use, along with my lavender patches, when the fear that I may not fall asleep returns.
We are at the end of the story of my battle with insomnia, but I have two more posts coming. The next one is being written by my husband, Michael, at the request of my friend Cliff, who wanted to hear Michael’s perspective on my year of sleepless nights. The last post is an epilogue of sorts, looking back at what I learned over the course of my struggle with insomnia. Stay tuned! And thanks for reading my blog.
Next post: Michael’s Memories