Insomnia remedies
September 13, 2004 5:07 PM   Subscribe

It's been taking me at least several hours to fall asleep every night. What's the best way you've found to deal with insomnia?
posted by transona5 to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The times I have trouble sleeping it's because my mind is racing, thinking about things and unable to stop. It takes a while if I'm really wound up, but I can usually fall asleep by counting my breaths and focusing on not thinking about anytihng else but that. When my mind runs off on a tangent I start over again.
posted by kindall at 5:09 PM on September 13, 2004

Breathing exercises and emptying your mind are the main things. Getting up and walking around helps, too... I don't sleep well if I'm too warm. I also sleep with earplugs in when I have problems sleeping since that eliminates the chance of a small noise

Don't drink caffeine or alcohol in the evening or before bed. Caffeine for obvious reasons, alcohol because your mind races for a while after the alcohol wears off.

Alternately, if you don't already get up a set time every day, get your body on a schedule. Don't try to sleep in to 'make up for lost sleep' or your body will only want to go to sleep later the next night.
posted by SpecialK at 5:13 PM on September 13, 2004

This may not be the kind of answer you are looking for, but nyquil always works for me. Getting drunk isn't bad either.
posted by rorycberger at 5:14 PM on September 13, 2004

Yoga? The "PM Yoga" video/DVD from Gaiam is great.
posted by padraigin at 5:15 PM on September 13, 2004

The "correct" answer is diet and exercise, but fuck that. Two Tylenol PMs, at least three hours before the time at which I want to fall asleep.
posted by PrinceValium at 5:16 PM on September 13, 2004

i need something to knock me out if i go too long.

when i was a kid i would hypnotize myself.
it still works.
i close my eyes and stare at the darkest spot which turns into the lightest spot and i fall in
posted by ethylene at 5:16 PM on September 13, 2004

I listen to old comedy radio plays. They are interesting enough to keep my mind from wandering about, but not so interesting that they keep me awake. Each side of the tape lasts 30-45 minutes, then my tape player turns itself off, so the noise doesn't wake me up later. I do it every night, and now my body is trained to sleep whenever I hear Jack Benny, Fred Allen, or Lucille Ball.
posted by kamikazegopher at 5:21 PM on September 13, 2004

This sounds snarky, but I don't mean it that way: sex. I always sleep readily and deeply afterward.
posted by adamrice at 5:22 PM on September 13, 2004

I have always had bad insomnia which I think stems from fighting my natural urge to be awake at night and sleep in the day. Often I fail to find sleep because I don't do what I know I ought: I have to go to bed at a consistent time each night. It's not fun, the way watching my bird-sized friend eat her weight in chocolate while skipping dessert is not fun. I run to fat, she doesn't. I run to sleeplessness, too, so I pay for those delicious three-in-the-morning weekend adventures with a week full of insomnia.

Not only do you have to go to bed on time each night, you have to do it ritualistically: no food for at least 2 hours before sleeping, showering and brushing your teeth at the same time, etc. You have to teach your body through specific cues: now we sleep. I bought a white noise/fountain machine and that helps too. Also helpful: lots of exercise during the day, and an orgasm about an hour before you want to sleep. No tv, no reading, no mental stimulation of any kind -- just physical wear and ritual is all I've ever found that works. Best of luck.
posted by melissa may at 5:25 PM on September 13, 2004

Response by poster: I actually have been desperate enough to try exercise, but it hasn't worked so far. Since I'm a grad student and I don't have to be anywhere at any particular time, it's hard to get on a schedule, but perhaps it's worth trying.

I'm on stimulants for ADD, but I've had recurrent bouts of insomnia before I started taking them. Not taking them for a day seems to make no difference.

"Racing thoughts" definitely keep me awake, and they're hard to get rid of. Now it's gotten to the point where I have a kind of "performance anxiety" when I try to go to sleep, and then I end up thinking about that. Haven't tried breathing exercises or counting my breaths, though.
posted by transona5 at 5:27 PM on September 13, 2004

Oh lord, you're in grad school? Then, in all seriousness: do as adamrice says and have all the sex you can. Don't take drugs. You can't afford to.

I think I got an average of 4 hours a night in grad school, and the only way it worked was because I was high on toner and lust.
posted by melissa may at 5:33 PM on September 13, 2004

"Racing thoughts" definitely keep me awake, and they're hard to get rid of. Now it's gotten to the point where I have a kind of "performance anxiety" when I try to go to sleep, and then I end up thinking about that. Haven't tried breathing exercises or counting my breaths, though.

The big thing to remember is that, unless it goes on for ever and ever, occasional insomnia is fairly normal. I've got an ADD boyfriend, in law school, and basically one or two nights a week, he doesn't sleep, or sleeps like hell. Our routine involves waking completely up and having a conversation about something that's not really sleep related, usually something that might be the subject of the racing thoughts. No talk about "shit it's late!" or "you better go to sleep, you're making me crazy" just sort of low-tech chitchat about what's going to be happening tomorrow, plans for the weekend, whatever. When all else fails and there's really something important that requires good sleep, a shot or two of scotch can help at least quiet the racing thoughts. Sex works too, quite well.

The breathing thing works well if you can stick to it. I do a routinized version where I'll breathe in for a four-count [1...2...3...4...] then hold for a four count, breathe out for a four count, hold that for a four count. It's odd getting used to counting when you are neither breathing in nor out, but it can calm you down pretty quick.

The other routine that no one mentioned is not lying in bed stressing about it. If you can't sleep after 30 minutes or so, get up and wander around, read a book [I think staying away from TV/computer is good but it works for some people] or do something else.
posted by jessamyn at 5:39 PM on September 13, 2004 [1 favorite]

Peruse the Ask.Me Archives?

Seriously, it's a useful thread and it took me about twenty minutes to find it and I knew it was there.
posted by stet at 5:49 PM on September 13, 2004

i developed ADD, now i know why teaching my brother was such hell. i had no idea how hard it was to concentrate.
we both always had insomnia.
mine is more that i naturally work at night and in bursts and crash for long periods of time.
posted by ethylene at 5:51 PM on September 13, 2004

Try this: lie in bed, on your back with as few clothes or covers as you can be comfortable with. Spread your arms and legs a little just so none of your limbs is touching any other part of your body. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and hold it just for a few seconds, then release. Immediately after releasing, take an even deeper breath (fill your lungs to capacity on this one) and hold it until it begins to feel a little uncomfortable, then release slowly. Immediately following that breath, take another breath like the first (deep, but not maxing out your lungs), and release. After the third breath, let yourself fall into a normal breathing pattern. Observe your breathing but don't control it consciously. Slowly imagine every muscle in your body relaxing, starting with the tips of your toes and progressing up to the top of your head. Once they're relaxed, don't move them.

And now a few words from my fiancee, who knows a thing or two about insomnia:

Do you smoke (if you're ADD, I bet you do--wp)? Nicotine will really mess with your sleep habits, so if you do try to avoid cigs at least an hour or two before bedtime.

I recommend taking a warm bath about an hour before you want to sleep (see here for why). A cup of chamomile tea with milk in it helps too. These will help get your body ready to sleep, but your mind might still be racing. If you're worrying about things you need to do, try keeping a notebook by your bed and writing down what's on your mind. A guided relaxation tape might also be useful. Good luck!
posted by willpie at 5:55 PM on September 13, 2004

Slowly imagine every muscle in your body relaxing, starting with the tips of your toes and progressing up to the top of your head. Once they're relaxed, don't move them.

This works... I do something similar for really bad cases... I'll tense up one muscle group at a time, as in isometric exercise, then relax it... after I've done that all over my body I'll try to lift my arms and legs one at a time, giving it just a smidge too little effort to actually lift the limb... and hold it there as long as I can... this quickly tires out the muscle and your limb really will be too heavy to lift after a few rounds of this. At this point it is pretty easy to convince your mind that you're tired, since you can barely move your arms and legs.
posted by kindall at 6:03 PM on September 13, 2004

I can't believe no one's mentioned melatonin yet. It's the body's natural sleep hormone, and if you're suffering from a melatonin deficiency the change will be amazing. What I do is let 1-3 pills dissolve under my tongue about 45 minutes before bed. The chalkiness takes some getting used to, but they take effect much more quickly than swallowing them. Since it's the same chemical your body uses to signal itself that it's time for sleep, you actually get quality sleep instead of "sleeping pill" sleep. It's available at any health food store, and costs pennies per night.
posted by TungstenChef at 6:12 PM on September 13, 2004

One thing that works for me is lying on my back and staring intently at the ceiling. I find that the act of keeping my eyes open keeps my mind from racing so much, but the fact that I'm focusing on something as uninteresting as the ceiling bores me very quickly, and within minutes my eyelids start drooping uncontrollably and before I know it I'm ready for sleep.
posted by llamateur at 6:12 PM on September 13, 2004

I tried melatonin, but found that
(1) if it didn't put me to sleep right away, it would paradoxically keep me up for several more hours
(2) it often left me in an inexplicably foul mood the next day

But as always, YMMV.
posted by xil at 6:32 PM on September 13, 2004

debunking time from a guy who works in a circadian biology lab (namely me).

-melatonin is only surging during rest in diurnal mammals, and upwards of 80% of the research that has been done on sleep uses nocturnal mammals such as lab rats. melatonin is associated with the night, but not necessariyl with sleep. pretty clear that you can have lots of melatonin and not be sleepy, 'specially if you're a rat or hamster. since nearly all sleep research uses animal models, we can't say for sure how melatonin and sleep are associated in humans. so far studies on melatonin in humans have yielded unclear and often contradictory results. give it a try but don't expect much, as it doesn't seem to help much unless you're 50 or older.

-alcohol before bed is a bad idea. you'll fall asleep faster if you're drunk but your sleep quality will suffer, as too much alcohol inhibits certain sleep stages. your body needs X amount of every stage of sleep, and if you miss some stage one night you'll be sleep-depreived the next, experiencing rebound (even more sleep) to recover what you lost the night you were drinking. more can be found here (pdf link).

-exercise before bed can actually lead to insomnia. activity can phase shift your internal clock - rssetting it such that you'll wake up later and go to bed later, which is the problem you're trying to avoid. exercise in the morning would probably be a much better idea than exercise at night. it's pretty clear that activity increases arousal, and a lot of studies have shown that cycles of strong physical activity have direct effects on the internal clock.

strong bright light in the morning and throughout the day. dim light at night, cut the caffeine intake (yes, i know, i'm in grad school too - but still you need sleep, so kill the afternoon coffee) and if it's really bad and affecting your work, i strongly suggest hitting a sleep clinic, or volunteering for a sleep study in the local psych or neuroscience department if you can't afford the clinic. sleep deprivation is a serious medical issue, and not something to take lightly.

hope this helps...
posted by caution live frogs at 6:55 PM on September 13, 2004

Things that have worked for me:
1. Lay in bed, relax as completely as possible. Now, your goal is to see how long you can lay there while moving NO muscles in your body. You have to concentrate a bit, but it always works for me.

2. If my mind's racing, I make myself think about my next art project. Colors, designs, that sort of thing. Or if I'm feeling garden-y, what I'd like to plant where. I guess this can be summed up as "think about nice things."

3. Read a book with lots of technical terms, or unfamiliar words, or deep ideas. I read somewhere that reading something that you have to work to understand is a good way to put yourself to sleep, and it works for me.
posted by icetaco at 7:22 PM on September 13, 2004

You might want to check out Valerian. I've had good results using capsules.
posted by lobakgo at 7:47 PM on September 13, 2004

I'll add one good idea that seems to help when my mind is racing in bed: focus deeply on one thing. It could be an art project or a "nice thing" as icetaco said, but for me it often turns out to be a technical problem - how to organize a database, or what to do about an overloaded web server.

It's like I give my mind permission to race but on one specific topic. Usually I end up making a bit of progress on the problem and that makes it feel like I've accomplished enough for the day, so I can sleep.
posted by mmoncur at 7:48 PM on September 13, 2004

-alcohol before bed is a bad idea. you'll fall asleep faster if you're drunk but your sleep quality will suffer, as too much alcohol inhibits certain sleep stages.

How much is too much? When I can't sleep, I find a single shot of vodka makes a great difference. I'd say I turn to this about once every two months or so. But if it's actually making things worse, maybe I should try something else.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:15 PM on September 13, 2004

I also take stimulants for ADD, and have experienced pretty much the entire panopoly of possible sleep-related side effects associated with them, which can often be paradoxical. Sometimes it was quite easy to fall asleep while the psychostim was still active, or much more rarely, the friggin' thing would actually make me drowsy for the day.

But, for those other times, whether caused by adderall XR or just plain old insomnia, I have a few techniques that usually work, and two 100% foolproof guaranteed insomnia cures.

Melatonin very well may be a placebo, but I've found it to be a powerful one. Liquid melatonin (the brand I use claims to have 3mg/dropperful, and has an odd but not unpleasant flavor) is the best delivery method I've found.

Soft, familiar music helps to block racing thoughts by providing another stimulus to pay attention to. Music with somewhat unintelligible lyrics helps to munge the language centers of the brain even more.

I also have an illicit mp3 of binaural beats which claims to help one "wake up, and know the answer". It's a sort of nutty kind of self-hypnosis, with swooshy white noise that is supposed to entrain one's brainwaves into certain frequencies, to make one relaxed and more suggestible, to eventually help ypu have "normal, natural, healthful sleep" (I can pretty much quote the whole thing verbatim). Yes, it's probably bull, or at least a thin veneer for run-of-the-mill self hypnosis. But, it works for me. Sometimes.

Foolproof insomnia cure #1 is Ambien, which the same doctor that prescribed your ADD meds will probably write a prescription for. I don't take Ambien unless I am sure that I'll be getting at least 8, if not 9 hours of sleep. Despite the manufacturer's claims, you'll still feel a bit groggy when waking up--but whatever psychostimulant you're taking will zap the brain fog quite effectively.

Foolproof insomnia cure #2 is one that I use quite often, especially when I simply cannot get comfortable, despite my contortions. I put my pillow at the other end of the bed, and sleep with my feet facing toward the head of the bed.
posted by LimePi at 8:21 PM on September 13, 2004

There are a variety of things I've done when I can't sleep:

A stiff shot of liquor usually calms my mind right out. From racing thoughts to peaceful mellow sleepy-time. If I drink too much, though, it doesn't work at all. Needs to be about an ounce of hard liquor.

Changing sides/ends of the bed. I'm a freak: I need to be on a certain side of the bed in order to get a good sleep, and the side changes from night to night. And sometimes I need to sleep flipped head-to-foot. Gah. Luckily, my wife adapts well!

I'm very susceptible to sleeping pills, so a half-cap of senior's strength Tamazepam (sp?) would knock me out cold for the night. Seriously great sleeps from that stuff.

I could achieve exactly the same results with any antihistamine. Pop, zonk! It's kind of pathetic, really.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:24 PM on September 13, 2004

I've suffered fairly chronic insomnia my entire adult life, because I'm more afraid of the drugs (and their interactions with other aspects of my life) than of the effects of lack of sleep, or whacked out sleep. That said, there are some things which do help me even at my worst, the most crucial of which is to have entire darkness, as I've found that light is far more sleep-prohibitive than sound. My bedroom has blackout curtains and blinds. They allow no light in. I've also installed a curtain over the doorways of my bedroom so that light seeping around the frames doesn't affect me.

Second, I also allow my mind to "race" on one specific topic. For me, it's black. I try to envision black, the word black in very black, bold fonts (Impact, Arial Black, etc.) the color black dominating my entire "field" of mental vision as though someone put an opaque cloth over my eyes, and most importantly I try to hear it in my ears as a chant. One word -- the word associated with darkness and the entrance to sleep -- in a rhythm, can have the same sleep-inducing effect as the sound of wheels on a road. Very useful.

If "black" doesn't work however, I give myself permission to sit up, turn on the light and read something completely mindless, like Entertainment Weekly or People magazine or at worst, watch mindless late night TV like Conan. (Enjoyable, but nothing which makes my brain work too hard.) Then I try again. What cannot be done is worry. Fret, and you'll just make things worse.
posted by Dreama at 9:28 PM on September 13, 2004

Response by poster: Wow, these answers were exactly what I was looking for. Thanks, everyone. Now to sleep...
posted by transona5 at 10:24 PM on September 13, 2004

"The miracle of my master is, he eats when he is hungry and drinks when he is thirsty." Yep, and the miracle I'm looking for is to go to sleep when I'm sleepy and wake up when I'm not. But that's simply ruled out by the life I'm locked into until further notice, and I expect lots of you guys are in the same boat. My natural circadian rhythm is a sinewave that's longer than 24 hours, and life requires that I turn this into a squarewave that's exactly 24 hours long.

For the waking-up part of the squarewave I have an alarm clock and a mug of very strong tea (it's been steeping all night) at bedside. The going-to-sleep part of the squarewave is a lot harder. Everything's been mentioned already: melatonin, a religiously adhered-to bedtime ritual and hour, no evening booze (really ruins sleep quality for me), no afternoon caffeine. All this in combination works most of the time.

One trick that hasn't been mentioned: if I'm in mind-race mode when it's lights out time I try to concentrate on remembering a previous dream and letting my thoughts race around on that subject, rather than thinking about daytime concerns. That seems to lead downward to sleep, while thinking about daytime stuff leads back to wakefulness.
posted by jfuller at 3:32 AM on September 14, 2004

A relaxation tape. I've used the same one for years and it had a double benefit: takes you through some of the exercises mentioned above to relax your body, while the sound of the guy's voice gives your racing mind something to listen to and focus on.

Often I'll go most of the way through it still awake only to drop off right at the end.

If its successful and you keep using it, it gets better because your body starts to recognise the cue to relax and sleep.

Maybe try a few from the library first if you can find them - there are some really irritating new age ones out there that'll make you wanna get up and throw the stereo out of the window.

Only drawback is switching off the stereo at the end. I found a normal stereo clicked too loudly at the end and started using a walkman. Somehow I can sleepily drag it out of my ears and switch it off without really waking up.
posted by penguin pie at 5:25 AM on September 14, 2004

Despite caution live frog's excellent scientific analysis, I'll join the chorus supporting melatonin... I periodically have to work in Western Europe. If I book a dinner time, direct flight from Chicago, take melatonin an hour before take off, put the seat back down and tell the flight attendants "wake me for breakfast," I will fall asleep and wake up to have a coffee on the way in to Zurich or Munich or wherever. It takes a little longer to "wake up," but I get to the office around 9 EU time and am perfectly fine working a whole day. The only caveat I'll voice is not to take melatonin if you don't have at least eight hours to sleep - waking up after three or four hours makes me feel draggy and gross...
posted by JollyWanker at 6:26 AM on September 14, 2004

Sometimes your mind races because you need to think about something you haven't thought about yet. It might be worth taking a few minutes to try to figure out what (if anything) is really bothering you. Even if you don't solve it, you can tell yourself, "Oh, I need to think about X. I'll do that tomorrow during lunchtime."
posted by callmejay at 9:00 AM on September 14, 2004

After preview, yes blackout curtains or shades and yes to white-noise machine. I use an air filter.
posted by callmejay at 9:04 AM on September 14, 2004

Also, make the bedroom a place that is exclusively used to sleep, even if that means you're having to have sex on the kitchen table. Develop a routine you follow without variance as you prepare for bed. And then do something ritualistic just before you shut your eyes, whether that's to do a prayer, sniff a vanilla candle, or look at a photograph of some favoured scene.

These will all serve as cues to your brain that it's time to sleep.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:45 AM on September 14, 2004

I have no problems sleeping, but I often hear that a joint (cannabis, not beef) is a perfect solution, if you're into that sort of thing.
posted by wackybrit at 1:28 PM on September 14, 2004

RE: alcohol. a little is fine. just don't have so much you're drunk, but if a shot or two helps you relax go for it.

RE: melatonin. as i said, the jury's still out - do what works, just don't expect miracles yet.

and valerian root seems to help, but it also seems to give both my wife and i some very, very weird dreams, so be prepared for it if you give the valerian a shot. i don't know if this was just us, but it sure wasn't just me.

(and someone remind me not to eat dinner at fff's place unless we eat off of TV trays.)
posted by caution live frogs at 1:42 PM on September 14, 2004

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