A Confession: Learning How to Sleep Again

I’m going to go a little off the topic of food today but not off the topic of health. As you can probably attest, getting adequate and good-quality sleep is super important when it comes to feeling your best and experiencing good overall health. But what if you just can’t sleep even when you have the chance? Ugh. Unfortunately, this is something I can relate to all too well.

Learning How to Sleep Again on 100 Days of Real Food

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My Growing Insomnia Issue and Getting Help

I used to be an excellent sleeper. In fact, my husband was even envious of how I could just fall right asleep the second my head hit the pillow. But then I had babies. And (inadvertently) started our full-time family business after getting laid off from my corporate job (hello pressure). And decided to write a book. And then another book (which is not fully done yet – don’t remind me!). And built and moved into a new house last year after our kids got redistricted (which involved making a meeellion tiny decisions). And tried to continue to stick to my self-imposed laundry schedule and grocery schedule and children’s ever-growing activity and social schedule with an occasional international trip thrown in the mix along the way.

Yes, I’m type A in case you’re wondering. But regardless, even when things seem like they’re (finally) starting to slow down the list somehow goes on and on – as any other busy parent can attest! And just to be clear, I know these are all good things in life that are keeping us so busy. But, as I read in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, just because things could be worse it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t want to make things better.

As a result of all those things I mentioned above, it has become harder and harder for me to shut my brain off at night. Whether it’s at bedtime or in the middle of the night when I randomly wake up and am devastated to find out it’s only 3 AM, I’m greeted by my new friend insomnia! So I decided it was time to figure out how to regain control of this growing problem of mine before things got any worse. That’s when I found Dr. Kristin Daley, a “sleep doctor” (as I like to call her) that specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia here in Charlotte, NC.

Some of the tips I’ve learned from Dr. Daley have been incredibly helpful so far and, in some cases, so simple! I’ve found myself sharing them with friends whenever I get the chance. So today (with Dr. Daley’s permission), I thought I’d share those tips here on the blog since I know there are many of us out there who could use a little help when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep and feeling rested in the morning.

Sleep Tips from Dr. Daley

If you’re not a great sleeper, then the details matter and can make such a difference. These are simple tips for learning how to sleep that have been helping me so much lately. In fact, while I am still officially going through my “sleep training” to get myself on track, there have been a couple days where I’ve woken up to my 6:30 AM alarm feeling more rested than I have all school year! As in “ready to hop right out of bed” rested. I didn’t know how important some of these things were before now!

  1. White Noise
    I actually have a white noise machine that I use when traveling, but I was not using it at home. Now that my kids are old enough to come to me if they need something in the night, I was told to let that go and block out unwanted noise with the constant shush of a white noise machine (as opposed to one that has the rise and fall of ocean sounds). While it would be ideal to sleep in a completely pristine and quiet environment, it’s not exactly realistic for most of us to achieve in this day and age. No matter what you do, a car might drive by, a bird might chirp, your partner might snore, or your A/C might turn on. It does take a few nights to get used to sleeping with white noise if you’ve never done it before, so be sure to hang in there for this one. I’ve had this machine since my girls were babies. While it’s a little pricey, I love how small it is for travel, and it has been going strong for 11 years now!
  2. No Interruptions
    My husband is a night owl and would often do a little work or watch a little TV after I went to bed. That meant he would creep into our room to join me after I was already asleep, but no matter how quiet he was trying to be (and I know he was), it often sounded to me like he was literally busting through the door. I guess it’s that mother’s instinct of mine on hight alert! And I noticed that my quality of sleep was often really poor for the rest of the night after he came to bed. So we had to nip that in the bud, which thanks to #4 below has not been hard to tackle.
  3. Cool Bedroom (between 65 and 67 degrees F)
    This tip was a little shocking to me. I normally like it much warmer in our house! But apparently it doesn’t matter what’s going on from the neck down. Keeping your head cool is what’s key. So I invested in a heated mattress pad, which allows me to get into a warm bed every night while still following this important rule, which goes back to satisfying our instincts from the caveman days.
  4. Maintain a Strict Sleep and Wake Schedule
    I initially found this tip the most shocking, but (possibly thanks to the other areas of my life that I like to have so scheduled) this has actually been a much easier change than I expected. What this means is that I need to go to bed and wake up at basically the same time every day – even on the weekend. Yikes! AND, the most shocking part is that I’m only supposed to be in bed and sleep for 7 hours each night. I thought for sure I needed more sleep than that, but I’m willing to try anything at this point! The exact requirements may vary slightly from person to person, but this will result in higher quality sleep and help reduce tossing and turning for hours on end.The part I unexpectedly like about this new schedule (11:30 PM – 6:30 AM, with an extra 30 min until 7 AM on the weekends) is that there are no more decisions to be made about when I should go to sleep or wondering if I will be able to fall asleep or if my husband will want to turn in early with me, etc. I also no longer wake up in the morning and wonder if it’s a decent time to get out of bed yet or if I’m going to see 4 AM on the clock. If my alarm hasn’t gone off, then I just try to go back to sleep without having to look at my clock (which is a big no-no!). It’s honestly kind of freeing, and I am getting used to the 7-hour limit.
  5. No Light Exposure at Night (and I mean NONE)
    Say goodbye to your night light, digital clock, and even that little red light on your smoke detector (just put a piece of black electrical tape over it). And since you aren’t supposed to look at your clock at all in the night, it shouldn’t matter if it’s now living under your bed. Also under this category no computer or devices for your last 2 hours before bedtime. Watching TV is okay since it’s not usually right up in your face, but your iphone is definitely off-limits! (Which is honestly not such a bad habit to incorporate.)
  6. Exercise with Intervals
    I was already exercising (usually running 2 to 3 times a week), but apparently I wasn’t increasing my heart rate in brief intervals like I should be. You ideally want 10 different 30-second bursts when you exercise, so I’ve now incorporated sprints into my routine (which will help me run faster anyway!). It’s best to do this every day, but since I want to do exercises other than sprints (and 1 or 2 days a week the option to not exercise at all) I am just doing the best I can with this one.
  7. Unfiltered Outside Time
    This is one of those super simple tips that I had no idea was so important. Unfiltered outside time means no sunglasses, no windows, and no screens. Before meeting with Dr. Daley, I probably NEVER had unfiltered outside time because my sensitive eyes love to be behind sunglasses. This one will help set your circadian rhythm and jive nicely with that super dark room you’ll be keeping at night.
  8. Deep Breathing (for at least 5 minutes each day)
    I suppose some would call this meditating, but it’s really just as simple as 5 minutes of quiet, deep, slow breathing (without letting your thoughts take over) each day. This has probably been one of the harder tips for me to remember to do, but I understand the value and am trying!
  9. Write Down Your Thoughts
    This tip right here is just brilliant. If you sit down and write out a few bullet points with what’s on your mind at the end of each day (both bad and good stuff), then when your brain tries to “save the world” in the middle of the night you can know you’ve already tackled that issue by writing it on your paper. It will of course still be there waiting for you in the morning.
  10. Limit Food and Beverage Before Bed (yes, including wine!)
    I’ve never been an after dinner snack kind of person, but I do love my evening glass of wine. And in many cases, I feel like I need that wine to relax enough to fall asleep. The guideline is to limit your carbohydrates to less than 5 grams within 2 hours of bedtime. So for me, this means I can have no more than one glass of wine between 9:30 and 11:30 pm (my new scheduled bedtime). But I certainly don’t want to rely on wine as a “sleep aid” every night. So right now, I’m trying two nights on and one night off to get my body used to falling asleep all on its own again.
  11. BONUS TIP (from my mother-in-law): Have a Mantra
    I know this might sound all new-agey or something, but seriously – hear me out because it has saved me countless times from pointlessly lying awake at 3 AM for hours on end. Basically, come up with a meaningless phrase that you’ll repeat in your head over and over again the moment you wake up in the middle of the night. I don’t know about you, but when I when I randomly wake up my brain can somehow launch right into a thousand thoughts (good and important thoughts that I am convinced I need to remember the next day) but, alternatively, it is too hard to keep your brain clear and think of nothing. So, instead, block out the thoughts by instantly thinking of your mantra on repeat … it could be “99, 100, 99, 100” over and over or another phrase or number that has absolutely no meaning (and does not make you think of anything else important). When I wake up now I immediately start my mantra and within moments I am back to sleep. It is wonderful!

One of the best things about Dr. Daley is that (as you can see from the tips) she doesn’t believe in giving me sleeping pills to solve my insomnia. As soon as I learned this about her, I knew she was the right person to help me. She also isn’t a big fan of melatonin or other natural supplements because, in some cases, the results might just be a placebo effect, which won’t help in the long run. Being able to sleep all on your own is obviously the best solution!

Sleep Tracker Apps

I’ve been tracking my sleep (as well as my caffeine, exercise, outside time, and wine consumption) on a printed sleep chart for her. I know some watches and apps are popular tools for tracking sleep, but Dr. Daley said she has occasionally seen people who get a little too obsessed with the tracking feature and end up hurting their sleep cycles even more as a result. So just be careful if/when using those! We only do it occasionally!

This is the Sleep Tracker that we own and recommend. We actually bought it for our children, but I’ve tried it a few times and thought it was super interesting to see!

Insomnia and Anxiety

Another interesting tidbit I’ve learned is that at the root of insomnia and anxiety, you’re basically dealing with the same thing – your brain not shutting off. So (as someone who has had my fair share of anxiety in recent years), it’s a relief to know these tips are a great starting point for anyone who struggles with anxiety.

I really hope this advice helps you. If you try these tips out, please come back and let me know how it goes in the comments! :)

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  1. I got rid of caffeine completely about 5 years ago and I sleep like a rock for a solid 5-6 hours. It’s not quite enough but such an improvement over 8-9 hours of poor sleep.