In no way do I consider myself a doctor. But i've experienced a hell of a lot of insomnia in my lifetime (lifetime = currently 34.75 years on this planet). I know i'm not alone, and am frequently asked about ways to manage it, especially at this time of year, so I thought I would put together some suggestions of ways to banish that beast. It's by no means exclusive, so if you have suggestions of your own, please share and let's have a dialogue.
WHAT IS INSOMNIA?
Insomnia is a term used to describe the difficulty we may experience falling or staying asleep.
It can vary in length and duration and be caused by an indescribable amount of things. It's common for insomnia to show up (or rather, keep us up) when we are feeling a bit anxious. Perhaps it is a looming deadline. Or a kind of apprehensive feeling about something happening in the morning that keeps you awake at night. There might be no reason behind it at all, yet somehow you might find yourself in a dark cavern of relentless wake. Or scary infographics. (This is your body without sleep infographic)
The most frustrating thing, i think, with insomnia, is the cycle of anxiety that ensues from not being able to get to sleep, or not being able to get enough rest. The worry that it will compromise my immunity, make me less alert or productive when I need to be, and also the fear of it continuing and being unable to manage keeps me awake, so to speak. Since my 30s, sleep deprivation also makes me grumpy as hell. So, to save me and the world around me, i've compiled a list of offerings if you´re ever caught up in that insomni-aaaargh vibe.
Here are some suggestions of coping strategies. Remember that what works for one person might be different for someone else so experiment and listen to what feels right for you. With any luck, by the end of this blog you would have dozed off!
Seems an obvious place for this blog to start I suppose! I'm compiling another post with more detail about postures that I use for an insomnia practice, so here is a shorter general guide to wet your whistle.
Firstly, my intention for a yoga practice when i'm struggling with insomnia is to be as restful and effortless as possible. So I start with something I can listen to uninterrupted to see if that helps my mind settle. Yoga Nidra has been a great gift and go-to in helping me drift off.
Here are some sessions i use when i'm struggling to rest:
Here's a playlist of videos i made for evenings and wind down times. Different durations and so on. Have a scroll and hopefully there is something there to help you wind down and ease into a sweet sleep! (tip: press the icon in the top left corner of the video for the list or head here to find my YouTube channel.
a playlist of evening yoga classes:
Legs up the wall // Leg cocoon
I start by trying to get my legs up a wall. If i'm not on the “ladies flow time party”, I will also invert (that is, to take my heart higher than my head) using padding from the sofa underneath my bum.
As I want the feeling to be as effortless as possible I will usually tie something loosely around my legs to hold them there – whatever I have to hand, a scarf, a top or anything long and dangly. Um…yes.
Then I will rest there as long as I can, sometimes I drop off in that position in which case I adopt the “leg cocoon” pose - these are for the desperate times when I just have to get some kind of restoration. I swing myself around and make a kind of cocoon for my legs by wrapping them up in a duvet and rest there. Here's a picture of that cocoon for your collection!
Restorative yoga sequence
I have a video i posted called Balm For Your Bits which is a more restorative yoga session i take using a wall and a blanket. There are a mix of chest openers, hip openers and inversions.
Grounding of the thighs
When it comes to insomnia, I tend to be in a state that's very “airborne”. Worry and anxiety that's making me all up in my head. So doing the opposite and grounding can be a great way to reverse that.
Recently, i've found that the quickest way to feel that downward flow of energy is by grounding the thighs in particular.
The simplest way of doing this could be laying on your back with some kind of weight on your thighs (a cushion/bolster/books wrapped in blankets).
Some other things you could try include forward folds (standing or seated) and gentle hip openers. I generally try to take postures that I can be in for a while, to encourage my body into a mode of “slowing down”. This also gives me an opportunity to really approach a position for a time, slowing down my breath and hopefully feeling the release all the way to my fascia.
Here's a link to a great little sequence which is a nice training for the grounding of the thigh action.
Alternate nostril breathing
Tutorial is here!
A milky drink before bed is one of those old myths that makes sense to me somehow. Here's an interesting dialogue on the effect of milk on sleep and dreams.
Whether your preference is dairy or non dairy you can use the milk of your choice. My latest recipe has been helpful in the autumn evening ritual: Turmeric Milk.
ENVIRONMENT, CLIMATE AND DIET
At the end of my first winter in Norway I was extremely sick, depleted, depressed, lacking in energy and you could hear me clicking from miles away (my joints were so dried up and bones brittle as hell!)
I'd never experienced cold or flu like it. After a chat with a nutritionist and a visit to the doctor over the course of a year (make that many very expensive visits to the doctor), I was finally offered a blood test to see what might be causing the imbalance.
The results showed I was hugely deficient in vitamin D (brown skin in a place with so little sun wasn't great for my melanin production – the struggle is REAL!) and iron was also super low.
It was because of this that i began to really respect and understand why the “traditional” Norwegian diet (not Grandiosa!) was the way it was. Laden with fat, fish, meat and salt.
The main reason for my deficiencies was that i'd moved to Norway as a vegetarian and back then, it was really difficult to find or afford the variety of food i'd been used to elsewhere. Thankfully, it's slowly getting better but is still really costly to eat particular foods or even obtain them. So, I recommend taking into account the environment you're living in.
Essentially, If we become out of sync with nature's rhythms, we tend to feel the effects. We can become unbalanced, and one way we might notice it is through our digestion, or through our sleep cycles.
Also, if you live in a place with little light, chances are your body will struggle with adjusting to the natural rhythms. And vice versa. Check your exposure to light and also notice what you're eating and the effect this has. It can make such a huge difference and I wish I had known this years ago. It's seemingly obvious i'm sure to many, but I had no idea that being mixed race would affect me living a couple of degrees up from my normal latitude! If you're unsure of anything I might be talking about, go check with your doctor/nutritionist or ask for advice at your local health store. Knowledge is power my friends!
The main points about environment, climate and diet:
Get outside in daylight (wear sunscreen if the sun rays are strong – good to check for a non-toxic sunscreen)
Check your diet is nourishing you and making you feel good.
Keep an eye on your vitamin d and iron levels. A simple blood test can tell you. I also value the Norwegian ritual of taking omega 3 every single day to keep my joints lubed!
Another addition to my diet has been some Ayurvedic herbs:
Ashwagandha - read more here
Chyawanprash - read more here
I take these to help support the natural systems of the body, reduce stress and for many other reasons which you can explore through the links. Best to do your research and check with your doctor, especially if you're pregnant or on any medication.
Valerian tea for a long time was my go-to fix. That was until my friend Aida sorted me out with an even better fix of some amazing damiana tea. Find that valerian is a dream for some people but for me, I tend to be quite groggy the morning after. Different strokes for different folks so putting this in here as part of the offering! Limeflower and Chamomile are alternative herbs that might help!
Avoid eating late meals.
Lordy, this has been a big one for me. I am ashamed to have boasted before that my evening mealtimes to be around 10/11pm. For a long time this was just how it was – especially if I was running to teach in the evenings.
As continental as I like to think I am, after lots of experimenting, I really feel that eating earlier is better all round. Better for being ready for sleep, better for my sleeping experience, (less bad dreams but perhaps that´s a coincidence!), the disappearance of the morning stomach ache too (– late eaters, you know what i´m talking about!), less bloatedness and general lethargy. I´m also SUPER excitedly famished for breakfast in the morning which is great because breakfast is regal and so very important.
My recommendation is to give it a try. If you´re a meat eater, here´s another one. Try consuming your meat for your lunchtime meal. Then vegetables in the evening. Let me know how you go!
Go for an evening walk
If it's unavoidable to eat earlier than 8.30pm, then recommend adding an evening walk to your ritual. I know, you´re already cosy and warm in your pajamas but I am known on many (every) occasion to be in my jim jams for these walks. Makes it extra extra special! So try it. Doesn't have to be far, but perhaps around the block, get some digestive stimulation going on.
Reduce caffeine (obviously)
Yeah. That late afternoon pick me up has a tendancy to keep me up much later than normal. I substitute if I can, and limit my consumption – defo no coffee after 3pm for me. If I need a lift after lunch, I tend to go for green tea. In general it feels better for me and there´s lots of reading around that one on the internets.
Some of my fave ways to combat insomnia is introducing more indulgent pampering. It´s been a revelation in helping me relax before bedtimes.
Bath with Epsom salts - Magnesium soak! I might add a few drops of essential oil (lavender and mandarin feel appropriately indulgent here)
Which leads me to:
Essential oils- As with many of these references, research and caution is key in your journey, but my go-to oils include:
Lavender – great for reducing nervous tension. More here.
Mandarin - citrus scents are often referred to as being energizing, but they´re also great for relaxing too. More here.
Frankincence - a dab on the base of my feet - it´s a very grounding and earthy scent, i find it a super sedative, sometimes too well! More here.
Remember that many essential oils require a base oil before applying on your skin. There are also many oils that you need to avoid if you´re pregnant or driving or operating machinery. So as always, do your research!
Massage – a great way to get involved with sleepytime preparation is through some relaxing massage. If you´re lucky enough to have a massage with a gifted therapist, it can be a real treat and kickstart your journey towards more restful sleep. If you aren´t able to get to a massage therapist, you can simply get involved in high pleasure action with some self massage which is also a lovely way to practice that inward focus.
In terms of what to use for massage, sesame oil is said to be oh so soothing with many benefits (more on that here) but to be honest I use whatever I have laying around, sometimes combining it with a drop or two of relaxing and grounding essential oil if that works. I usually concoct some kind of oil mix and massage that into my skin every day, particularly focussing on my hands and feet. They might include:
Jojoba oil - I use this all the time – the closest oil to your skins own sebum and arguably absorbent and balancing (more on that here)
Shea butter – usually I combine this with other oils, in winter I use a proportionally larger amount to combine, as it can be quite dense and warming.
AND SO TO BED
Limit screen time - Switch off your screen or use something like flux which is is free software that makes the colour of your computer's display adapt to the time of day (warm at night and sunlight during the day). Pretty cool!
Head to bed earlier if you can. In Ayurveda, bedtime is recommended before 10pm. I know! More on that here.
Finally, if you´re still awake, here are some bits and bobs you might find interesting on the topic:
Something for you if you still can't sleep, from the School of Life
If you're struggling with insomnia I really hope some of these might help you. I hope at the very least you can make some time for yourself and receive the benefits of some self care. If you know someone who is struggling, please share and let me know how you go.
Rest well, dear hearts,