Desperatly wanting to pay down my sleep debt
January 8, 2008 7:17 AM   Subscribe

I'm totally sleep-deprived, but still have a hard time falling asleep. Any tips?

I work two jobs, one of which is on the extremely early shift, and have two small children. As a result, I've gone four years on about five hours sleep a night. It's way too little, I know ... and yet I still have a hard time falling asleep.

Sometimes I manage to pull aside the time for a lunch nap - but end up tossing and turning the whole 30 minutes, unable to get my mind to shut up. It's like I'm too tired to fall asleep. Nights are pretty much the same way.

Anybody have any tips for falling asleep quicker/easier? I do get exercise, and eat a reasonably healthy, balanced diet. (Part of me thinks I'm just resistant to sleep, and have to have everything just so - I've never been able to fall asleep on an airplane, for instance, even on an overnight/international flight. Just can't do it.)
posted by jbickers to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Here are 12 ways to better sleep from this article:

Wind down prior to bedtime

Do not smoke (nicotine is a stimulant) or consume caffeine

Try warm milk or a light snack before bed (if this doesn’t interfere with another treatment you are using)

Exercise daily, but not right before bedtime

Take a warm bath, but not right before bedtime

Keep a regular bedtime and rising time

Get in the habit of going to bed when you are sleepy and sleeping where you sleep best

Reserve your bed for sleeping only

Don’t have any clocks visible to you

Reduce the amount of time you allow yourself to sleep until you fall asleep easily (your health care provider can help with this form of “sleep restriction therapy”)

Schedule worry time during the day and put worries out of your head when it is time to sleep; you can write them down on 3x5 cards, and then let go of them

Get up if you have not fallen asleep in 15 minutes and practice a relaxing activity (e.g. handwork, reading a boring book) until you feel sleepy

posted by burnmp3s at 7:32 AM on January 8, 2008

For me, part of getting to sleep is catching myself at the right time, I like to read until I'm ready to drop off, if I force myself to stay awake then I can be stuck awake for a while. Your other option is masturbation, nature's friendly knock out medicine.
posted by biffa at 7:35 AM on January 8, 2008

The best way I have found to calm myself down enough to sleep in these situations is to go through a meditation routine. Starting from my toes and inching up my body, I tell myself repeatedly that my body is becoming relaxed, my limbs are growing heavy, I am sinking into the bed--repeating the mantra for each body part, and feeling my feet, calves, back, shoulders, etc. relax as I go.

For instance: my feet are relaxed. I can feel my toes uncurling, untensing. I can feel my heels sinking into the bed as my feet grow heavy and languid...

It isn't a short process, but you're usually so relaxed by the time you reach the tip of your head that you can fall into sleep (it's almost like lulling yourself into sleep by forcing yourself to slow down and, sorta, grow bored).
posted by misha at 7:35 AM on January 8, 2008

Lots of answers in these threads.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:39 AM on January 8, 2008

I may have originally found this tip on AskMe, I can't remember: Pick a category. Then go through the alphabet in your head, naming something in the category for each letter. So, "Fruit": A - apple, B-banana, etc. I actually can't believe how well this works for me, to keep my mind from racing around. Usually I spiral down into sleep when I hit a stumper. J and Q are common sleep-inducing letters, but it really depends on the category.

Just a trick, but a good one.
posted by MsElaineous at 7:43 AM on January 8, 2008

On the nights were I can't sleep or I have a crazy work schedule, I pop in AM/PM yoga and do the PM yoga. I think it helps me because it helps me clear my mind from all the stuff that jumbles in during the day.
posted by spec80 at 7:46 AM on January 8, 2008

My therapist suggested just paying attention to my breathing while I'm laying there trying to sleep. A very simplistic form of meditation, I suppose: any time you start thinking about something else, just go back to focusing on breathing.

I've had problems with both falling asleep and with waking in the middle of the night (damn cats!), and this helps almost every time.
posted by epersonae at 7:49 AM on January 8, 2008

I know someone who has difficulty sleeping and difficulty getting his mind to shut up. He has ADD.
posted by desjardins at 7:53 AM on January 8, 2008

I happen to be a bit of an expert in this area, from my own personal experience. I think I'm wired for a thirty hour day, so fitting in with everybody else causes me grief.

The best thing I've found is Melatonin. You can get it at the drug store. You shouldn't need much and you'll have to work on the timing. I've found that two or three hours before I want to sleep works best.

EVERYTHING else has failed me. I've tried all of the above.
posted by cdmwebs at 7:55 AM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

A little meditation goes a long way, but frankly its useless if you dont change your lifestyle first to a much calmer and slower one. I found that nothing could help me sleep when I was a more worried and frantic person. Granted, this is something of a chicken and egg problem but the answer to insomnia is rarely one trick. Its holistic and requires some pretty big changes in life.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:55 AM on January 8, 2008

To follow up on mishas advice, you can get a guided meditation that guides you through the same kind of stuff. You can find it here and either download or subscribe as a podcast. It's free, non-denominational and very relaxing. I have their entire series on my ipod and I just listen to it when I need to fall asleep for a quick nap mid-day or if I need to just pass out late at night. Give it a try.
posted by special-k at 8:02 AM on January 8, 2008

The breathing thing helps me too, though I've never really had sleep problems. Works wonders on car trips and airplanes though.

I count my breaths to 4. Each exhale is 1-4, and each inhale is an "and". You're counting 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1... This gives me something to concentrate on aside from just breathing. I try to pause after each count (or and) so I don't hyperventilate. :) Eventually, you start getting that drifty feeling, and soon enough, you're asleep.

(It seems more intuitive to count on inhales, but I always ended up switching to exhales, so I just start there now.)
posted by natabat at 8:06 AM on January 8, 2008

Some people use Ambien or similar, but I find that makes me groggy in the morning, and besides it requires a window of eight hours, which I often don't have.

So I got in the habit of having a beer or two before bed each night, and found that to be pretty dependable in kicking me over the edge into sleep.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:17 AM on January 8, 2008

sleepytime extra tea contains valerian, which is what I was going to suggest. You can get it separately at any vitamin store. Ignore their recommendation to take 3, start with 1. Also, melatonin really messes with some people. I have several friends who stopped taking it because it gave us all horribly vibrant and violent dreams.
posted by TomMelee at 8:20 AM on January 8, 2008

You are me. One Benedryl before bed has saved me.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:26 AM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I rarely have difficulty falling asleep, but I do rest better if I take some melatonin or have a cup of Tension Tamer tea. Alcohol will help me sleep quickly, but I never feel rested the next day, so I avoid it if I have to get up at a specific time. I'm talking just a glass or two of wine, not getting drunk.
posted by owtytrof at 8:48 AM on January 8, 2008

It's the adrenalin from the stress of your life that won't let you relax to nod off.

I'm not much of a drinker myself, but I can recommend half a glass of wine to help you relax and go to sleep.
posted by konolia at 8:55 AM on January 8, 2008

Exercise sometime during the day or early evening, and then listen to audiobooks / podcasts once you go to bed. They take your mind off of trying to fall asleep and work like a charm for me.
posted by kaizen at 9:31 AM on January 8, 2008

If you have stuff on your mind then get a notepad and pen and offload your "to-do" stuff before you try to sleep.

It helps me let go of things I'd otherwise lie in bed and overthink.
posted by brautigan at 9:37 AM on January 8, 2008

I suspect you have too much stuff on your mind. I went through a period of two years where I would have terrible trouble falling asleep. I thought at the time I was, like you, "resistant to sleep". What I actually was, was incredibly stressed out, because I was working two jobs, taking three classes, and was in a relationship that I knew I needed to end. For me, the key thing ended up being getting out of the relationship. Now I still work two jobs (although I did drop one of the classes), and I fall asleep so much easier. You need to figure out what your main cause of stress is (what do you find running over and over in your head when you can't sleep) and see if there's a way to solve that problem. If you can't eliminate any of your stressors, try the trick brautigan mentioned of writing down things that you want to get out of your head before you go to sleep. That way you at least don't have to devote mind space to worrying about forgetting something important.
posted by MsMolly at 9:53 AM on January 8, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks to everybody who has weighed in so far ... there have been some really helpful suggestions here.

A follow-up to the folks who recommended alcohol or pills in one form or another - is this really sustainable? Isn't the need just going to increase over time?

Also, I'd especially love any experiences coming from parents of young children. My kids are at a delightful age, but they're at their most energetic at exactly the time I should be going to bed. By the time we go through the good-night ritual, I'm up too late and have my second wind. On the one hand, I want to go in the bedroom eight hours before I've gotta get up and close the door. On the other hand, my kids are only this age once, and part of me says "shut up and quit complaining and just be tired - they'll be grown and out of the house before you know it."

Anyway, thanks again. I appreciate all ya'all.
posted by jbickers at 10:34 AM on January 8, 2008

No on alcohol. You'll sleep, sure, but your body will get dehydrated and you will be even more tired the next day.
posted by special-k at 10:45 AM on January 8, 2008

I have a technique that works brilliantly for me. Concentrate on the swirling patterns on your eyelids, and try to pick out one that looks like something, much like you would when you stare at clouds. Then pick out another, and another, and so on. If you don't see anything that looks like anything ackowledge what you do see, and insist that your brain ascribe some kind of meaning to it.
This really succeeds in shutting up my internal monologue, and eventually my brain starts to play along with the imagining, and the daydreaming gets more and more vivid until I'm practically dreaming. Works a treat.
Anyone else every do this?
posted by greytape at 10:49 AM on January 8, 2008

I have to add another plug for melatonin. It used to take me an hour to fall asleep unless I was severely exhausted. But I recently started taking 1-3mg of melatonin as I get into bed each night and I find that it helps me go from feeling a little wired and mind-wandering quickly into the "oooh I'm falling asleep". It effectively swats down any second-wind I've gotten from watching tv or playing on the internet. YMMV, but I usually get that rush of sleepiness 15-20 minutes after I take the pill. From what I've read it's not habit forming, and not bad to take long-term, but IANAD, of course.

As far as being maintainable long-term... I have noticed that, on nights where I don't bother with the melatonin, it seems like my body - or perhaps my mind - is better trained to shut off when I crawl into bed. So it may be that after a few months of using either melatonin or one of the other herbal remedies mentioned above, you can start falling asleep better on your own.

Hope that helps, and I hope you get some good sleep soon!
posted by ahimsa at 11:13 AM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have the same exact problem and have been making it part of my end of 2007 begining of 2008 to try to get a handle on it.

What I see in my own situation is that if I bring the laptop to bed I end up staying 2-3 hours later than if I get into bed with a book. My current book is "guns germs and steel" which I've been taking to calling "guns, germs and sleep" since once I finish a chapter my mind has calmed down a lot and I am able to nod off after turning off the light.

I've also made my room as dark as possible with 2 sets of curtains. It makes it a little harder waking up in the morning, but I still find that it gives me a lot better sleep.

I find that counting helps me when my mind is still racing. I also will try to plan non-work related projects if I still can't my mind off of things.

If I have a beer or wine with dinner it usually keeps me up a little longer than if I don't.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:21 AM on January 8, 2008

This works like a charm for me. I've used "A Trip to the Beach" for years. I don't think it's ever once failed to put me to sleep. I really can't recommend it highly enough. It's on iTunes now as well.

I find Benadryl pretty sedating. When I was younger I could handle it but now, pushing 50, it gives me vertigo the next day. Not worth it. That said, prescription sleepers like Ambien work great and have fairly few side effects for most people.
posted by pammo at 11:55 AM on January 8, 2008

Just wondering: are you a natural-born night owl or early bird whose shift is pretty much opposite from how you used to normally sleep? (I'm not sure how to define "extremely early" shift here. 1 a.m. on? 6 a.m. on?) I don't have a solution to it, but trying to switch your sleep orientation drastically can REALLY bugger you up. I'm a night owl who was having similar issues when I had to work really early mornings (well, also I probably do have ADD), and I just started getting less and less sleep because I was so stressed out about waking up on time.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:13 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

You, my friend, need a Happy Eye Pillow. The light pressure on the eyes helps me feel sleepier faster.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:31 PM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just wondering: are you a natural-born night owl or early bird whose shift is pretty much opposite from how you used to normally sleep? (I'm not sure how to define "extremely early" shift here. 1 a.m. on? 6 a.m. on?) I don't have a solution to it, but trying to switch your sleep orientation drastically can REALLY bugger you up.

If it were entirely up to me, I'd go to bed around 11 or 12, get up around 7 or 8. But the job requires me to be up at 4:30. Trouble is, I often end up staying up to 11 anyway, and living the next day in a mental cloud.
posted by jbickers at 2:45 PM on January 8, 2008

I also have problems sleeping and the most effective method that I have found is focusing on past dreams. The best to replay are meaningless and don't involve anything touching on my actual existence. I replay them in excruciating detail and find the detachment to be helpful. I try to remember that, absent actual sleep, mere rest is helpful. I heartily second the tip to not have a clock visible.
posted by Morrigan at 4:45 PM on January 8, 2008

Best answer: I used to have the same problem and I actually got this advice from either lifehacker or AskMe. Try this program Pzizz. I bought the Sleep version and it has changed my life. When I started using it, it would take me about 30 minutes of listening to fall asleep and now I am out in under 10. It seems to have conditioned me back to a normal sleep pattern. I don't use it every day though, only when I am having problems..hope that helps.
posted by Raichle at 8:11 PM on January 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Cut out the caffeine. It will be rough, esp. since you probably rely on it too much to maintain your schedule. But I would lay odds that the problem just goes away, to be replaced by the problem of how to get by on four to five hours.

Whether you take that advice or not, try this relaxation technique both as an aid to falling asleep and to improve the quality of your rest.
posted by Manjusri at 10:52 PM on January 8, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, Pzizz is incredible. Totally worth the money. Thank you Raichle!
posted by jbickers at 11:41 AM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

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