It sounds absurd to even say, but I struggled with insomnia and sleeplessness for nearly three years before I was ready to make lifestyle changes that would improve my sleep. Bad habits are hard to break and change is a scary thing, even if you so desperately want the outcome that it will bring. It’s not enough to just say you want to make changes because you long for the end result. You have to be ready deep down in your heart to make the commitment. You have to know that with every step forward you will take the occasional step back and even when you feel so far ahead, the results don’t show up all at once. Changing your life for the better is an ongoing process and it can be challenging. That said, some of the changes I’ve made to my lifestyle have been the best things that I’ve done for myself when it comes to sleep. And some didn’t make a difference at all.
Here is what worked and what didn’t for me:
Alcohol. I’ll admit, this one was hard for me, but reducing the amount I drink is one of the best things I have ever done for myself. Pre-June 2012 I drank a lot more than I do now. I’d go for drinks 2-4 times a week, having 3-8 beers each night out. I was single and social and hated staying in alone. Eventually I noticed every time I went for drinks my sleep was especially bad. No exceptions. Any time I got even a bit tipsy I would have no troubles falling asleep, but would find myself wide awake only a few hours later. I did a bit of googling and turns out there’s a science behind it. I knew reducing my alcohol intake would help me sleep better. It took some time, some commitment and some serious FOMO, but I’m there. I now stick to 1-2 glasses of wine a night (if at all) and if I drink more than that, I’m ready for the consequences.
Exercise. When I told people I was having trouble sleeping, the second question they always asked me was about exercise. Was I getting enough? Was I exercising too late at night? Had I tried yoga? Well, let me tell you. During my sleep struggles I’ve tried running 60km a week, being totally inactive, committing to yoga and everything in between. I’ve tried exercising first thing in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. Never once did I find a direct correlation between my exercise habits and my sleep. That said, I do feel best when I exercise regularly either first thing in the morning or right after work and that has to count for something.
Schedule. When I look back at my life when my insomnia was at it’s worst, my schedule looked this: Wake at 6AM. Work 8 hours, Run 15km, Go out for dinner/music/drinks/volunteer commitments, Home at 11PM for bed. Repeat five days a week. The other two days I was working 16 hours between my two jobs. It’s no wonder I didn’t sleep. Making changes here was tough, I felt that by making more time for myself I would be letting others down. It took me a long time to realise that an exhausted, run down, absent version of me wasn’t what people wanted, but at that rate it was all I was capable of giving. I started by taking Saturday days to myself. I wouldn’t plan anything before 4PM. That was my time. It only grew from there. These days my schedule is lot less full, I spend a lot of time at home both during the week and on weekends and this has no doubt made me more calm and improved my quality of sleep.
Night Time Routine. In all of my sleep research, one of the things I read about the most was the importance of having a night time routine. So I created one, and considering I had already reduced my alcohol intake and social commitments, this wasn’t too hard. I would make sure that I was home by 9PM (at the latest) so I could just spend 1-2 hours to myself, no work or serious conversations, just relaxing, reading or watching TV. **Many experts suggest turning off the TV a few hours before bedtime, but I never could abide by this rule** While I don’t think it helped with my insomnia, it did help with my quality of sleep. It didn’t ensure I would sleep through the night, but it made being asleep by 11PM a pretty sure thing.
Coffee. The first piece of advice that uneducated people give to insomniacs? Quit coffee. Um, no thanks. That just isn’t an option for me, and thankfully my doctor said it didn’t have to be. She did say, however, that I needed to make an adjustment in the amount and timing of my favourite vice. I cut back from 8 cups a day to 3 and no longer drink it after 1PM. Despite the changes in my coffee intake, both my insomnia and sleeplessness persisted. Though I will admit, I never quit coffee completely and perhaps that could have helped. Someone stronger than me will have to try this and get back to me.
Sugar. I love refined sugar. Candy, chocolate, donuts, cronuts. Give it all to me. At least that’s what I used to say. I never reduced my sugar intake to help with my sleep. I should have, but I just love sweets too much. I did, however, reduce my sugar intake when I hit my 30’s and learned the hard way about how metabolism actually does slow down. Vanity wins out again. Though through this I learned that my sleep quality is much worse on the days I eat a lot of sugar.
Meat. I was a vegetarian for thirteen years and a vegan for four. I never thought that meat would become part of my life again, but in January 2014 it did. I started eating meat again, not on the recommendation of my doctor, but on the recommendation of three other women who suffered from anxiety and insomnia. All three of them had been advised by their doctors to start eating red meat again and all three said it helped. Currently I don’t believe I eat enough red meat (maybe twice a month) to feel any benefits.
Now, this is obviously not an exhaustive list of lifestyle adjustment you can make to sleep better and overall live a more healthy life. I’m leaving out some of the most common suggestions–no electronics in the bedroom, no late night eating, using your bed only for sleep and sex. This is just a list of some of the major adjustments that I have made. For further suggestions on lifestyle changes you can make to get a better sleep, I would suggest googling just that.