I have struggled with bouts of insomnia for 19 years. It started in elementary school, right around the time that most adolescent women begin to develop self-awareness, pimples, awkward boobs, clumsy periods, self-esteem issues and in some cases, depression. Insomnia has followed me into my adult life and, although I have found some coping mechanisms along the way in this sleep-deprived journey — I still spend a few days every month feeling like a zombie.
It’s said that people need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. But a small percentage of the population (1 to 3 per cent) can function with much less. Known as ‘short sleepers’, these high-performing individuals average about 4 to 5 hours per night. Among this sleepless elite are people like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Twitter founder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey, along with former US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I can confidently confirm that I am not among the high-functioning elite. I am your average B-minus performer and definitely require at least a solid seven in order to feel like a part of the human race.
A big part of my insomnia is actually Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS). Basically, my sleep rhythm is delayed by a few hours — so my natural drowsiness comes on much later than what is considered a conventional bedtime. This delay then makes it difficult to wake up at the standard time. If only the day were comprised of 28 hours! On top of DSPS, I am a fairly anxious person. But my anxiety isn’t crippling; I actually believe that operating at a higher frequency makes me a productive, enthusiastic and passionate person (yay for the bright side). But it sure can screw with my sleep.
The periods of sleep deprivation usually come in waves — for a few days at a time, I will be unable to get to sleep at night or my eyes will snap open at 3 AM like the monster in a low-production-value vampire movie. In university, it was easier to manage because of the sporadic schedule and free agency to skip classes. I could more often live out my 28-hour-day life, and catch up on sleep whenever it came. Now working a nine-to-five, I am back to being a slave to a schedule, and have had to find ways to make it work. So in the spirit of humaning at max capacity, I’m going to walk you through all of the useless cures and some effective remedies I have dabbled with in my vicennial quest to conquer insomnia.
Disclaimer: These experiences are not intended to substitute as advice of a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek medical advice that is specific to your situation.
Sleep remedy 1: Practice healthy lifestyle and sleep rituals
Like any good pediatrician doing their due diligence, when the problem first arose in grade eight my doctor recommended the standard natural healthy sleep tips — stick to a schedule, practice a calming bedtime ritual, get enough exercise, eat well, no electronics before bed, don’t do the drugs, don’t drink the beers. This is a good place to start to see if there is a more simple fix for insomnia before moving up the scale, but I did and do exercise (ir)regularly, eat decently well, and only have a single cup of coffee per day. So owing to the foreshadowing in my preamble, you know that this did not help my unique situation. I needed the good stuff.
Sleep remedy 2: Drink chamomile tea
Before getting my shaky tired mitts on some real sleep drugs, I had to plough through a pile of natural herbs and supplements in order to graduate to Rx. The first natural remedy I tried was chamomile tea (hah!) and not only did it taste like sadness, it exacerbated my insomnia by filling my bladder right before bed. Fail.
Sleep remedy 3: Take valerian root
Valerian is a root-based herb commonly used for mild sleep disorders. I tried it in a tea, in pill-form and even gnawed on the root itself thinking I was going straight to the source. (It has a woodsy, grassy, oaky afterbirth in case you’re interested.) The tea actually did calm me down, although it wasn’t reliable for getting me to sleep on account of the low concentration, and produced the same frequent bathroom trips as chamomile tea. The pills would put me to sleep, but the high dosage I needed in order for that to happen brought on nasty side effects like headaches, heart palpitations, creepily vivid dreams, dry mouth and feeling sluggish in the morning. Fail.
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Sleep remedy 4: Take St. John’s Wort
Next up was St. John’s Wort. It is typically used for “the blues” or mild depression and anxiety. Nothing to report here. It just didn’t work. Fail.
Sleep remedy 5: Take melatonin
Melatonin is one of the only natural remedies I have had success with. It is the natural hormone released by the pineal gland that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. When I feel the anxious energy start to creep, I can pop 5mg and I will get tired and fall asleep within one to two hours. The only downfall to melatonin is that it is a short-term treatment. I build up an immunity to its effects very quickly, and either need to increase the dosage (and contend with side effects like headaches, drowsiness and nausea) or can only use it two nights in a row before it is nullified.
I do recommend this remedy though, and would suggest trying it if you are looking for a natural fix.
Sleep remedy 6: Try CBD oil
Cannabis has a psychoactive effect on me, so I was very hesitant to try CBD as a sleep aid for fear that it would leave me feeling the same way high THC strains tended to — dull-minded, yet restless. Legalization has surfaced more information about different parts of the plant. I was intrigued by studies on cannabidiol (CBD), which showed that it could help treat anxiety and insomnia. My friend gifted me (bless) a CBD oil homemade by a coworker. It tastes similar to how oil-based vaporized cannabis tastes — hints of the smell — but sweeter. It did help me get to sleep, but I would feel dull when I woke up and it took me a few hours to snap out of the haze and get going in the morning.
Although it did induce sleep for me, many have also experienced the opposite effect with CBD. Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and board member of the advocacy group Doctors For Cannabis Regulation, explains that “Medicine can have different effects on different people… So while many people experience relaxation with CBD, some people do experience the paradoxical effect of irritability.” I have definitely felt the irritable anxiety from both sativa and indica strains, but did not get that feeling from CBD oils under 0.3% THC. Would recommend.
Sleep remedy 7: Take Meditation
Sleep remedy 8: Trazodone
Technically trazodone is an antidepressant, but it is also used to treat sleep disorders and is often used as a sleep aid in people without depression. When I take trazodone I need to be within falling distance of a bed because it is a full KO. I feel the effects of this one in my body before my head. My limbs and eyelids start to feel heavy before I am mentally calm, and the effect is akin to a pale shade of sleep paralysis — which I don’t particularly enjoy. Another downfall of trazodone is that it loses its effectiveness quickly, so it’s not ideal for treating chronic insomnia. It is my last resort fix when melatonin or CBD aren’t working — and when I really need to end a stretch of insomnia.
See also: 9 reasons you can never get enough sleep.
Sleep remedy 9: Camping
This is not a commonly cited sleep aid, but it is mine. Sleeping outside in the fresh air of a densely treed forest below a galactic light show of stars has produced some of the most delicious and restorative sleeps I have ever had. (Plus it’s great because day drinking and fires and hikes and swimming and campfire mac and cheese.)
I didn’t make the conscious connection between camping and catching my best Z’s until a few years ago. I investigated it to see if it was indeed a thing. It turns out that superficial light vs. natural sunlight can mess with our circadian rhythms. Basically, our biological clocks want to synchronize to a natural light-dark cycle, so electric lighting (including computer and phone backlighting) and reduced exposure to sunlight can throw us off. Electrical lighting actually sets our circadian clocks later than would naturally occur. This explained my Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome in a way that made sense, and I cannot deny the therapeutic effects camping has on me. Highly recommend.
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