What can I change to help me sleep?

The story continues. This is the eighth post in a series that tells the story of my struggle to overcome chronic insomnia.

Treatment 6: Changing my Sleep Hygiene

It was December. During this month the days grew darker, and I felt more desperate to solve my sleep problems. I was wait-listed for an appointment at the Sleep Clinic at Mayo Clinic, and I had an appointment with a sleep doctor at my home clinic in mid-February. I did not know how I could wait so long for help with my sleep problems. I searched the Internet to find out what else I might do to combat insomnia. I identified my particular problem as “sleeping every other night,” the pattern that had started back in September, and I searched for anyone who had experienced this. As I recall, the only one I found was a man with prostate cancer, and his sleep improved after prostate surgery. No help for me there. I read about the importance of good sleep hygiene and routines. I found lists of suggestions for what to do to sleep better at night. They included:

  1. Avoid blue light from TVs or devices at least an hour before bed.

OK, I could do that. I was also advised to use some special yellow glasses that filtered out the blue light. I bought a pair. But I could not see well with them, so I never used them.

2. Take a hot bath with Epsom salt and lavender oil.

I started doing this every night. The baths were soothing, and so comforting on cold dark nights.

3. Stretch and do restorative yoga poses before bed.

I stated doing some of these poses on a mat in my bedroom, ending with legs up the wall for a good 10 or 15 minutes.

4. Listen to calming music or sounds like ocean waves.

I tried listening to soft, calming music like the CDs my brother David created for me. I also tried apps that provided sounds of different oceans or jungles.

5. Drink soothing herbal teas like Chamomile.

I tried drinking herbal tea at night, especially blends with namess like Sleepy Time or Sleep Well. I found that I had to go the bathroom more frequently during the night. Perhaps they would be better to drink during the day.

6. Use a sleep noise machine.

I bought one of these and used it at first for the white noise. Later I changed it to the sound of ocean waves crashing. I would often try to breathe along with the sound of the waves, which was soothing.

7. Have dark curtains to keep out light, or sleep with eye shades.

The blinds in my room did not darken the room completely, so I began to wear eye shades at night. I bought some that were very soft and comfortable.

8. Make your bed comfortable and cozy.

I bought new flannel sheets, a sheepskin mattress pad, and a new down comforter.

9. Make your room cool at night.

I begin shutting off the heat vent at night.

10. Try to go to bed at the same time every night. Give yourself time to calm down and unwind before bedtime.

No matter what time I tried to go to bed, sleep would not come. But I still aimed to be in bed by 10:30 or so each night.

In addition, over-the counter supplements were suggested, such as Melatonin, 5HTP, Tryptophan, Calm, and special concoctions promising sleep. I had tried Melatonin a few times, but it did not seem to affect me in any way. I tried some other supplements as well, but again, no respite from insomnia.

In addition to the recommendations above, my neighbor Kris got me an electric diffuser to dispense mists of calming essential oils into the room while I slept (or tried to sleep). I started using it with lavender oil, which was supposed to help promote sleep. Even if I did not sleep, the scent was soothing. To this day I use lavender in different ways at night, in my bath, in essential oil patches, in a roll-on dispenser, or in a diffuser.

I also searched for books, music, podcasts, and apps aimed at helping me fall asleep. I bought audio books that promised to hypnotize me to sleep. I bought books that would guide me through meditations that would relax me and lead me to sleep. I listened to music that had sounds of birds, rain or ocean waves. All very nice, but nothing magical happened. In fact, when I reached the point in the book or meditation where the narrator softly said, “Now let yourself fall asleep,” I would lie there, but sleep would not come. This became increasingly frustrating, so I stopped listening to these books. I tried meditations that aimed to relax every muscle of my body. I listened to a podcast that guaranteed to put me to sleep. Once again I wondered, “What is wrong with me? Why do none of these resources help? They must be helping many other people because they had great reviews and recommendations.”

Dealing with my ongoing sleep problems was a challenge for my husband, Michael, but he usually kept calm and positive. At first, Michael was patient and reassuring. He told me that we would get through this. I would sleep normally again. Sometimes he felt frustrated when I wanted to take drugs or supplements. He wanted to keep the drugs in his night stand and dole them out to me so I did not take an overdose. Sometimes when I could not fall asleep Michael would give me a soothing back rub. He went to every appointment with me (except for therapy) until I was comfortable going on my own. He would bring his notebook to jot down notes as we talked to each doctor or practitioner.

Later on, when I was distraught and there was nothing else Michael could do for me, he would shake his head and mutter something like “Oh man,” or “That sucks.” And then he would go to bed, sleep long and well, and take naps during the day. It seemed so unfair!

Michael often encouraged me to take a nap during the day. This would frustrate me, as I would lie down and rest, but sleep would not come any better than at night. Michael would also suggest I sleep late, staying in bed in the morning if I had a bad night. That would have been nice, but again, sleep would not soothe me in the mornings even if I was up most of the night.

During this time, my daughter-in-law Laurel also started suffering from sleep problems. She thought she had sleep apnea and scheduled a sleep study, which ruled out sleep apnea. The consulting doctor gave her a prescription for Ambien and a referral to a sleep psychologist. Laurel and I became insomnia buddies. We would compare notes and check in with each other each day, offering sympathy and encouragement.

Michael’s annual company holiday party was scheduled and I felt too tired and depressed to attend. So for the first time, he went without me. He told his staff that I was not feeling well. One of his employees and his wife, S, sought out Michael to see what was wrong with me. S is a nurse who explores alternative therapies to improve her own health. She suggested I try an ionic foot bath. That had helped her sleep better when she was having trouble sleeping. The first time she had tried it, she slept 14 hours without waking. Now she used this treatment on a regular basis. Once again, I was ready to try anything that might help me. What could I lose? Over the next few weeks I would try the ionic foot bath, a new combination of sleeping pills, and a new acupuncturist.

Next post: Foot baths, more pills and more needles