The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to. ~F. Scott Fitzgerald
September 11, 2009 11:03 AM   Subscribe

Is there any way to become a deeper sleeper without medication?

I am a terribly light sleeper. The a/c kicks on and I wake up. A child tiptoes to the bathroom in the middle of the night . . . I wake up. My husband breathes . . . I wake up. EVERY little creak and change in atmosphere wakes me up.

I also tend to have a bit of anxiety that I'll not wake up on time and so that contributes to a constant consciousness on my part - making sure I'm with it enough to wake up when the alarm goes off or to be awake enough to be aware that it's time to get up (should the alarm not work for some reason).

I'm 33, female, decent shape, exercise regularly, good diet, blah blah blah.

What can I do? Is there someone to train myself to be a deeper sleeper WITHOUT medication (or alcohol)?
posted by Sassyfras to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I am an insanely light sleeper as well so I feel your pain. For me it has been running a couple of fans all night that has made the difference. This is for two reasons.
1) The white noise from the fans dulls out most of the little noises that would normally disturb me.
2) I sleep a lot better when the air around me is cold. Having the air move keeps my head cooler. In addition to the fans I also keep my bedroom window open all year to get the cold air in. Being snug in my bed under a pile of heavy (as in they actually weigh a lot) blankets with cold air makes me sleep in a practically comatose state and I feel SO well rested afterwards. Once I actually got mild frostbite on my exposed ear overnight, but that was when the head of my bed was directly beside the window and we were in the middle of a cold snap. (I live in Canada...)

Anyway, thats what works for me. White noise and cold moving air.
posted by gwenlister at 11:11 AM on September 11, 2009 [5 favorites]

Have you tried earplugs?
posted by Burhanistan at 11:11 AM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a light sleeper, too (which made living in college housing really fun), but it's been getting a little easier for me to sleep better. Here are some of the things I changed:

-I stopped drinking any sort of caffeine after 2 pm (bonus: now one cup is enough to wake me up in the morning)
-I stopped (for the most part) using my computer in bed, watching TV in the hour or so before bed, leaving my phone on. Basically, I try to turn off every piece of technology I own well before bedtime.
-Stretching, especially my back, relieves tension and gives me a tiny endorphin rush, so that's nice.
-I usually read a novel in bed until I literally can't keep my eyes open.
-If all else fails, I'll pull out my iPod and listen to quiet music, and I'm usually out within minutes. It's just the right combination of blocking out noises and giving my mind something to think about other than the fact that I'm not asleep.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:11 AM on September 11, 2009

For the record, I have a giant floor fan, a medium sized table fan sitting on my dresser, plus a window fan that I run at night.
posted by gwenlister at 11:12 AM on September 11, 2009

Seconding a fan. One you can hear, not a silent ceiling fan. White noise and moving cool air helps me sleep.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 11:14 AM on September 11, 2009

I also tend to have a bit of anxiety that I'll not wake up on time and so that contributes to a constant consciousness on my part

This is your problem. You have an irrational fear. Get two alarm clocks, tell yourself your are being irrational, and go to sleep. If that doesnt do it you can talk to a therapist about what youre obsessing over not waking up.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:16 AM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've had good luck with guided meditation. There's a great podcast called Meditation Station, with a sleep-oriented episode (appropriately titled "Zzzzzzzz . . .") that knocks me out without fail.

I am also a fan of isochronic tones. I have no idea if the science is valid and totally don't care, because it works for me -- deeper, more restful and refreshing sleep. If you have an iPhone, the AmbiScience apps by Tesla are great for this (extremely customizable), but I believe there are also CDs that provide the same effect.

(Come to think of it, I think the guided meditation podcast might employ isochronic tones in the background. Double win.)
posted by somanyamys at 11:32 AM on September 11, 2009

You have an irrational fear. Get two alarm clocks, tell yourself your are being irrational, and go to sleep.

Second this. Your real problem is that once you wake up, you can't get back to sleep, right? For example, last night I woke up around 4 times for whatever reason, but that wasn't a big deal because each time I just glanced over at the clock (to see if I should just get up because it was close to when I needed to wake up anyway) and fell back asleep. This morning I barely remembered that I woke up those times. I know from experience though, that if I'm feeling anxious for some reason, it will be much more difficult to fall back asleep if I wake up like that.

Regardless of how deep or light of a sleeper everyone is, we all have the same sleep cycle that goes from very deep sleep to very light sleep. I've used a SleepTracker watch, and it actually tracks those sleep cycles and wakes you up during the points where you are practically awake already. So no matter what you do, there are going to be times when you can be woken up very easily. But, as long as you can just as easily fall back asleep, that shouldn't have much of an effect on your overall sleep quality.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:37 AM on September 11, 2009

seconding earplugs
posted by 3mendo at 11:49 AM on September 11, 2009

I know you said without medication. I don't know if melatonin falls under that umbrella, but even if it does: nyah! gonna say it anyhow!

It works wonders for me. I sleep like a baby every night and wake up feeling like a million dollars before my alarm. No groggy, no drowsy, no stupid -- just good sleep.
posted by wrok at 11:50 AM on September 11, 2009

Vitamin B12
posted by notyou at 11:52 AM on September 11, 2009

I'm not sure if you'd call this "medication," but I once heard on NPR that the supplement melatonin works best as a sleep aid when taken four hours before you want to sleep, and that its forte is getting you to sleep as opposed to keeping you asleep, so you can still wake up on time just fine. I do this pretty often (taking it at dinner around 7 PM), and I've found it effective. It's good for falling asleep quickly when you know earlier in the day when you want to go to bed, but it's not like I get knocked out, either. I just feel a gentle tiredness fall over me, almost like my brain is saying, "Look, it feels like a good time to sleep, let me tuck you in." I wake up feeling refreshed and not drowsy. Most people tend to take it right before sleep, so they're probably just getting a placebo effect.

Chamomile tea right before bed also helps a lot of people, although the results are a bit mixed for me.
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:54 AM on September 11, 2009

I was also going to suggest two alarm clocks. And placing the second one away from the bed. If I'm anxious about waking up on time, I will have the exact same problem. But having both alarms set gives your brain permission to relax because you know that even if you sleep through one- or shut it off in your sleep- the second one will wake you up.
posted by Eicats at 11:55 AM on September 11, 2009

PS: Also experiment with your bedding. You might find you sleep better with heavy blankets, or vice versa. Having a distinct feeling when you go to bed will probably help a good amount. Also nthing white noise of any sort, although I get the feeling any type is just as good as the other.
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:56 AM on September 11, 2009

There are ways. I came across this awhile ago. The ice bath sounds very unpleasant. Maybe smoke a joint?
posted by bravowhiskey at 12:00 PM on September 11, 2009

Here is my checklist:

1. Sleep in a separate bed
2. Heavy wool blanket over window
3. 33dbr foam earplugs
4. Keep it a little colder (sleeping in basement)
5. Try not to eat after 7pm
6. Keep lights low in the evening
7. Don't stare into the bright laptop before bed time (ah, who am I kidding, I never keep this rule)
8. Start going to sleep early enough that you awaken long before you need to, on your own
9. Quit using caffeine
10. Consider a sleep study. There could be something going on
11. I've been taking calcium/magnesium tablets before bedtime. I wake up with less muscle cramping, and anecdotally it is helping my sleep a little.
posted by mecran01 at 12:02 PM on September 11, 2009

My husband started having issues with this when we had the baby. It was caused by a mild anxiety that he wouldn't wake if she woke up crying, which was initially the case. After a while, every tiny noise interrupted his sleep. When she started sleeping through most nights and we agreed that I'd take care of her any time she did wake up, he began to sleep better again.

I've had similar anxiety on a couple of occasions when it was particularly important that I wake on time, and I had similarly poor sleep.

If your anxiety has to do with being afraid of not waking up on time, try purchasing a high-decibal alarm clock with battery back-up or with a second alarm clock as back-up, investing in a white-noise maker, and practicing good sleep hygiene.
posted by moira at 12:06 PM on September 11, 2009

Also nthing white noise of any sort, although I get the feeling any type is just as good as the other.

From personal experience, I have actually had no luck from white noise generators. For whatever reason the fans work exponentially better for me.
posted by gwenlister at 12:06 PM on September 11, 2009

Thanks for the great responses so far!

Regarding earplugs: I have three small children and so I KNOW if I used earplugs I'd just be THAT MUCH MORE conscious straining to hear them the entire night should they need me. Same with white noise (although we do have a ceiling fan that helps).

I have issues. We set three alarm clocks and still I stress.

Melatonin: tried it. It worked for a few days and gave me really really bizarre (more bizarre than my usual) dreams. Then it stopped working. :(

burnmp3s - yes! I wake up, anxious about the time or because I heard something and then it takes me forever to get back to sleep only to wake up a few minutes later because I heard something and then it takes me forever to get back to sleep only to . . .

Maybe I'm doomed to be this kind of sleeper.

I'll be trying to get the house a little cooler/colder at night (we're in AZ - so it's gonna kill me on the electric bill) to see if that helps.
posted by Sassyfras at 12:12 PM on September 11, 2009

Many people report sleeping more deeply when they exercise a lot.
posted by jeb at 12:19 PM on September 11, 2009

burnmp3s - yes! I wake up, anxious about the time or because I heard something and then it takes me forever to get back to sleep only to wake up a few minutes later because I heard something and then it takes me forever to get back to sleep only to . . .

Are you actively thinking about the things that make you anxious while you're trying to get back to sleep? If so, focus on not getting trapped in that line of thought.

Two things that have worked for me are to focus on making my mind completely blank and not thinking of anything, or thinking about something relaxing. Whatever you do, don't think about anything negative, because if you wake up and start thinking something stressful like "Oh no, not I'm not going to get enough sleep!" it will just make things worse.

Also, if knowing what time it is makes you anxious, you might be better off making sure that no clocks are visible from your bed (unless of course not knowing the time makes you even more anxious).
posted by burnmp3s at 12:47 PM on September 11, 2009

So you're not only anxious about waking up on time, but also about not hearing your kids. Having three alarm clocks and a husband present isn't helping.

What happens if you sleep in one day? What happens if one of your children needs you in the night, and you don't hear him/her? Imagine these scenarios realistically. Does your husband hear? Do your other children hear, and come get you?

What would it take for you to be completely at ease at night? What kind of reassurance do you need?

Do you have anxiety during the day, as well? Is there a bigger anxiety picture that needs to be addressed?
posted by moira at 12:53 PM on September 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

Just wondering: on weekends/days you don't have to get up, do you constantly wake up in the middle of the night then? I have the same problem, but it's not as severe on weekends. Unfortunately, knowing at all that I have to be up at a certain time is enough to ruin sleeping for me, especially since I'm a born night owl forced to live on early bird scheduling.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:25 PM on September 11, 2009

I guess I have two (if not more) issues:

1. Waking up due to hearing any little sound (a/c kicking on, bumps in the night, did I just hear someone calling for Mama?) and change in my environment.

2. Waking up due to anxiety - over what time it is - is it close to time to wake up? Will I miss the alarm clock?

My husband is a DEEP sleeper and I think I overcompensate for that by being a super light sleeper - I can't count on him to hear the kids or to hear someone breaking into the house (although that's never happened). I must be the watch dog.

On weekends/days that I don't have a commitment to be up at a certain time usually means that I'm not being anxious over what time it is BUT am still waking up A LOT due to hearing every little thing.
posted by Sassyfras at 1:42 PM on September 11, 2009

I have a time anxiety issue when I sleep too.
I wake up in a panic wondering what time it is and if my alarm is working.

Multiple alarm clocks helped me. But, they have to all run from multiple, independent sources in order to ease my nerves. So that if one fails (let's say a power outage at night takes down my alarm-radio) I can trust that the alarm on my phone will work. And if oddly enough both of those are out I have a wind-up alarm clock that will also go off. Also my iPod which runs off a battery, and this little calculator-calendar gadget with its own battery. And my watch. Sometimes I even set my TV to turn on.

For the "WHAT TIME IS IT!?" panics... My alarm-radio actually has a projector. It projects the time onto the wall or the ceiling (you can aim it) and now, instead of thrashing in my bed frantically groping for the alarm clock or my phone I just open my eyes, look at the ceiling, close my eyes and fall back asleep. ... I have freaked out a few times though. Sometimes it'll be 2:00am but the projection only says "2:00" and I'll bolt out of bed screaming "2:00PM!" and realize it's still dark out.
This type of panic pretty much disappears though once you have a reliable alarm system.
posted by simplethings at 2:04 PM on September 11, 2009

After I trained myself to sleep with both a sleep mask on, and ear plugs in, I have slept REMARKABLY well.

You just need a little sensory deprivation.
posted by sickinthehead at 2:48 PM on September 11, 2009

You mention alcohol as an option you would not like to try. Alcohol helps people fall asleep but actually will often keep you from getting enough sleep, the process of sobering up tends to wake you up, and you sober up sooner then you are fully rested.
posted by idiopath at 4:06 PM on September 11, 2009

Would getting a dog or cat be an option?

I have two cats who act as feet-warmers and generally awesome animal companions. The one who has claimed me as 'his' human comes with the bonus feature of apparently 'knowing' when I wake up (or at least when HE wants me up because he's bored and wants to play play play). So, 5:30-6:30am every morning, I'm treated to the full-on routine of bringing his rattley toys in, meowing in circles around my head, pawing at the blankets, kneading my kidneys, etc.

Make sure you feed said cat in the morning at least once (I've only made this mistake three times and am still trying to untrain him), and your kitty alarm brigade will kick into high gear.

Now, I don't own a dog (yet), but my friends' dogs always sound the alert if anything strange is going on, and they're much louder than air conditioners.

I was a very light sleeper too - the white noise of a fan, plus music playing on low (a relaxation cd) has really helped. Impress on your kids that they can come in and even shake you if you don't wake up right away, and then maybe you'll have some peace of mind.
posted by bookdragoness at 4:27 PM on September 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Melatonin didn't give me bizarre dreams. It gave me horrible nightmares. So I cut the dose. And I did it again (down to a quarter). When I have a night where I didn't sleep well, the next night I try melatonin and/or Niacin about an hour or so before bed. Really helps.
posted by filmgeek at 4:46 PM on September 11, 2009

How about practicing some relaxation exercises -- breathing, perhaps -- that you can do once you've woken up and are anxious? That way, when you realize you've woken up, you'll think "ok, I know what I need to do, I do the breathing", rather than "arrgh, now I'll not get back to sleep and I won't get enough sleep and...."

It may work better to practice the exercises during the day for a while so that they can become automatic and easy for you use even when you are anxious and tired.
posted by wyzewoman at 7:07 PM on September 11, 2009

I'm also a very light sleeper. I started a couple of years ago not allowing myself to look at the clock in the night. The alarm never failed me and really, if it did because of a power failure or something, am I going to be fired for being late to work once? At first I had to turn the clock away or put a book in front of it but now I just don't look. I was surprised how quickly this worked. When I wake up I just assume that I have lots of time to get more sleep and my alarm always wakes me. Sometimes I get weak and cheat and I look at the time, this means I will be awake for ages.

I know you don't want medication suggestions, but I add this because I also didn't want to start sleeping medication for fear of becoming dependent on them. I, like you, wanted to just be a better sleeper without drugs. I have sleeping pills (zopiclone). I hardly ever take them, but when I have not slept well for a few nights I do and it seems to reset me and I'm good for another long while. They are also handy when staying away from home. I just don't sleep well at other peoples houses, so when visiting in-laws and what not it's good to know I can get a good nights sleep. Less stress all around.

Good luck!
posted by sadtomato at 7:18 PM on September 11, 2009

I take calcium/magnesium at bedtime (lessens PMS, too), and a drop of skullcap tincture.
posted by Riverine at 7:23 PM on September 11, 2009

I wake up when I hear tiny things, worry as a result that bugs or mice or intruders have gotten into my space, and have a hard time falling back asleep. Running a fan—a tall floor fan, like gwenlister described above—really helps remove that distraction and keep me asleep. I keep it pointed at the bed in warmer months; in cooler months, the furnace runs often enough, and makes enough noise when it does, that I don't often need to run it.

During in-between times like fall and spring, though, I have a lot more trouble sleeping, just because sometimes running the fan makes it too cold, and pointing the fan away leaves me too hot, and I can't decide how many layers of clothing and blankets to go with. Could the change in temperature be contributing to your current problems sleeping?
posted by limeonaire at 8:43 PM on September 11, 2009

I don't really think this will help, but I'm going to throw it out just in case - what if you brought your kids to sleep in your room? In sleeping bags on mats or something. Probably more little noises in the night, but you'd have the reassurance of knowing they're right there and are fine.

Big cons to this of course; you'll have a hard time getting them back into their own beds if they like the arrangement and you don't, and no privacy.
posted by lakeroon at 9:59 PM on September 11, 2009

I find that I'm becoming a lighter and fussier sleeper as I get older. I found two things that have worked wonders for me:

1. I stopped drinking **ANY** caffeine (I really hated having to do this but it worked). This made the largest difference - even the slightest amount of caffeine will impact my sleep! I think I might be allergic.

2. I tended to toss and turn a lot, and that contributed to my light sleep. By lying in bed and thinking about what made me need to adjust, I determined that sleeping on my side, though preferred, is an uncomfortable body posture. By putting one pillow between my knees and another between my arms, I am able to maintain a much more comfortable sleeping position.

Best of luck. F. Scott Fitzgerald was 100% right.
posted by Terheyden at 10:07 PM on September 11, 2009

posted by jeri at 12:32 AM on September 12, 2009

Gonna crank the a/c and see if the chilliness helps! Thanks for all the great ideas!!
posted by Sassyfras at 9:39 PM on September 12, 2009

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