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Reasons For Insomnia

A few years ago I was desperate enough to submit to a sleep study. My wife would probably tell you that it was because I was irritable, not desperate, and that she scheduled the whole thing. She might be right…she usually is.

After arriving at the clinic, a bright-eyed lad named Kyle put about 100 wires around my neck. He glued a few dozen more to my scalp. Then I was told to lie down next to a machine that whirred and gurgled constantly. There was enough light to read by in the room and the short bed had a footboard that forced me to sleep with my knees bent about 18 inches more than I would have preferred.

It was the worst night’s sleep I’ve ever had. Insomnia relief? Hardly. They didn’t get any data, since I began pulling the wires out of my head about two hours in. Kyle seemed irritated with me. He probably gets a lot of practice escorting sleepy people out of the clinic in the middle of the night.

So I am turning to the smartest people I know instead: my readers.

The history

It has never been easy for me to sleep. As a child I went through the whole “I don’t want to go to bed I’m not tired!” phase, of course, but even when I got old enough to want to go to sleep, I’ve never had too much luck.

Tourette’s is definitely one of my big reasons for insomnia. It is probably the only factor that I can’t control all of the time. When I lie down to go to sleep, my body continues to do something. Maybe it’s just a toe curl, maybe my tongue is doing something odd, but it’s usually enough to keep me from relaxing to the point where I drift off.

First of all, let’s look at insomnia symptoms.

Either you can’t fall asleep or you wake up and then can’t go back to sleep. There are more scientific definitions, but I don’t care about them.

I would like to spend today looking at some of the other reasons why people (any of you) can’t sleep and talk about some treatments for insomnia, or other successes you have had.

Too much to think about

The pace of life is rarely slow, am I right? I am right at least as far as my life is concerned. Between getting up, going to work, doing my writing, working out, trying to have some social time with my family, and getting my pleasure reading in, winding down can be a challenge.

Sometimes it feels like the only time I have to think is when I would rather be sleeping. Whether I want to think or not. Lying there in the dark is often when I get most of my planning done, when I work out problems that I haven’t had time to focus on, and when I worry about dying (that doesn’t happen often, and usually when I’m half-awake).

So is there a home remedy for insomnia in this case? The most common things I hear and read about are meditation, breathing, relaxation drills, and various combinations of them.

Diet for insomnia

I’m not guiltless, either. I drink too much caffeine, although I’m trying to scale it way back and not drink after 12 noon. I often eat too late at night and then my digestion is not happy with me when I suddenly try to be still and calm.

For those of you who are tuned in to what you eat, how does nutrition affect your sleeping habits? Does it?

Your bed

When we got married we bought a huge California king size bed. This was the first time in my adult like that I had ever slept in a bed that my feet didn’t hang hang off of. It was glorious. It still is, although I’m starting to wonder if we should replace it. It’s been nearly 9 years.

Every morning when I wake up–I do sleep every night, just not as much as I want–I try to gauge how my body feels. Then I try to determine if I’m associating my bed with new aches or pains in the morning.

So, for you bed-heads. Any advice on mattresses that prevent insomnia?

Your sleep schedule

One thing that all the books (and Kyle) preach is that you form sleep rituals. Always lie down at the same time. Always brush your teeth 10 minutes before getting into bed. As a pamphlet stated, “Only use your bed for sleep and loving.” Ha! Whoever wrote that does not know the joys of reading in bed.

My sleep schedule is not as perfect as it should be. I usually know that if I lie down at ten, I will still be awake at midnight. I certainly won’t fall asleep while I’m reading, but I feel like if I’m awake I should be getting something done, not just staring at the ceiling.

I know, I know…whiner.

So: Is there a cure for insomnia? Are there treatments for insomnia that work for everyone? In your travels through bedland, what has worked the best for you?

Also, do not let Kyle hook wires up to you unless you’re planning on staying the whole night. It makes him grumpy.


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Martyn August 3, 2010, 3:54 am

    Hi Josh,
    just to say that I’ve had a terrible year so far suffering from insomnia and it probably goes back to last summer. I think that you raise a lot of different areas to look at and they are certainly the ones that crop up a lot in others’ minds but can i raise the question of whether you’re looking to address the underlying problem rather than “cure” the symptoms?
    At my worst I was taking sleeping pills in the week (when I knew someone was expecting me to do something the next morning) and then friday and sat night would get to sleep fine.
    In my case it has been down to stress and particularly what I imagine other people expect of me. In terms of addressing the problem I have found that only completely clearing the calendar (including work! I’m now changing jobs…) and only taking on commitments that I feel are right and not just what others expect has removed the trapped feeling and I’m sleeping better.
    Through the whole thing I became convinced that sleep is largely psychological – I was never hungry going to bed on a friday night but always was on a sunday night! (on same diet). Hope that is of some use.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010, 10:42 am

      I certainly can’t prove you wrong. Very interesting food for thought.

  • Kris Wragg August 3, 2010, 4:06 am

    I had really bad sleep problems when I first moved into my new house, but it all sorted itself out eventually. I blame it on stress!

    I find Epsom Salts (magnesium sulphate) in a warm bath before bed works quite well, add some oils like lavender, rosemary etc… pamper yourself with an awesomely girly bath 🙂 Also magnesium absorbs very well dermally and so its good for increasing your magnesium levels which are helpful for lots of hormones and relaxing muscles.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010, 10:41 am

      All right, girly bath coming right up:)

    • Robby G August 14, 2010, 8:16 pm

      I’m also having difficulty at my new house, but I don’t think it’s the stress, it’s the actual atmosphere of the room. I really enjoyed sleeping at my old house, but it just feels eerie in the new place.
      So the only cures I find to help me out is to watch TV which is in my room until I pass out or read a book until I get too tired, or just drink a few beers. Without those remedies, it will take me hours.

      • Robby G August 14, 2010, 8:17 pm

        Also, another thing that helps A LOT is playing relaxing music on my phone while I’m trying to drift off. This one helps most to be honest. Koop is the perfect band for it, too. 😉 Cheers.

  • Milo August 3, 2010, 5:40 am

    I have also struggled with insomnia but now I use the hypnosis CD that comes with Paul McKenna’s book ‘I Can Make You Sleep’: http://www.amazon.com/Can-Make-You-Sleep-Overcome/dp/1402765746

    The book has much the same simplistic advice you mention above such as go to bed at the same time every night which isn’t that easy to adhere to in practice.

    But the hypnosis CD really works for me at least 90% of the time (which is a big improvement on trying to stop my mind’s constant whirring through sheer willpower alone!)

    • Kris Wragg August 3, 2010, 5:49 am

      Milo, I am guessing that the CD uses binaural beats to lower your brain wave patterns in a similar way to meditation CD’s do?

      • Milo August 3, 2010, 5:59 am

        Kris, very possibly, there is definitely some double-tracking going on. I had to look up binaural beats on wikipedia so can’t claim to be an expert!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010, 10:41 am

      I’ll take a look, thank you.

  • Lisis August 3, 2010, 6:14 am

    I’m a mom, Josh… so I gave up the notion of ever sleeping soundly through the night about ten years ago. I am more of a cat-napper now. Whatever. I’ll take what I can get.

    But I wanted to second your notion about reading in bed. As far as I’m concerned, sleeping and loving can happen anywhere… but reading?! Snuggling in my bed, propped up on pillows, with just the right lighting is the *perfect* place to read. I thought that was what my bed was made for!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010, 10:41 am

      Mark Twain has a great essay called The Dangers Of Lying In Bed that I thinking you’d like.

  • Heather August 3, 2010, 6:17 am

    Have you tried a melatonin supplement? That worked for me for a little while. Valerian tea might work as well, and chamomile is also a good choice, but if you have allergies to either of these herbals, you’re pretty much screwed. As far as the caffeine—yeah, dude, respect the high-noon cut-off. Stress is my biggie. I try to exhaust myself physically when I’m stressed mentally. Only problem with that. . . . my legs want to move. I don’t know if I’ve got Restless Leg Syndrome or what, and it isn’t all the time. Yeah, yeah, yeah, working out before bedtime is bad because it cranks your endorphins and your metabolism, blah-blah-blah. . . . BLACKOUT DRAPES!!!!! I always slept the best at my grandmother’s house in Connecticut, because she had blackout drapes in every bedroom. Try cooling the room down, too. Have you guys tried flipping that mattress? Good luck, Josh!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010, 10:40 am

      I have. And it also seemed to work for a little while. I do a lot better in the dark as well. I think my ideal bed is probably a sensory deprivation chamber.

  • Eric | Eden Journal August 3, 2010, 6:18 am

    Hey Josh, I have an eBook in the works on learning to fall asleep. It’s still a bit rough at this stage, but I’ll send you a copy when I get home tonight. I also have a post on my blog about it, but I don’t have the link handy.

    For me, it was a matter of focusing my mind on a single phrase or mantra, and repeating it over and over again. Doing this focuses the mind and prevents it from wandering all over the place.

  • John August 3, 2010, 6:33 am

    My problem is usually with falling back asleep if I wake up in the middle of the night. Once I wake up, my mind starts racing with things that need to get done the next day, projects that I’m working on, or things that I should be doing. Then I start getting irritated that I’m thinking about that instead of sleeping (which of course makes getting back to sleep that much harder).

    I second Eric’s thoughts above…once I am able to focus my mind on something / anything instead of letting it wander I can usually relax and fall back asleep. Spending the money on a nice bed makes a huge difference too. My wife and I had an epic battle over our current bed and she was 100% correct (big surprise) that spending the extra money was worth it. Now the problem is that I can’t sleep anywhere else because it’s just not my bed 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010, 10:40 am

      What is it that wakes you up?

      • John August 3, 2010, 11:16 am

        never seems to be the same thing twice. Sometimes it’s obvious (like my three year old climbing into the bed after she had an accident 🙂 )

        Others I can’t put my finger on it and it seems like my thoughts were what woke me up because the minute I wake up my mind is racing.

        I find that since I’ve started running more seriously, I have fewer issues sleeping. Maybe I just had too much left in the tank before and now I’m so exhausted my body doesn’t argue.

  • Todd August 3, 2010, 6:36 am

    Once my head hits the pillow, I’m out like a light. My problem is actually going to bed. Shear laziness. I’m a night owl, and do most of my stuff after the wife and kids go to bed.

    Late night snacking, and caffeine is definitely an issue. I’ve cut soda from my diet (of course I replaced it with iced tea). I have to tell myself to stay out of the kitchen though around 10 o’clock.

    As for the mattress, all I can say is that my back pains were largely relieved when we purchased a new mattress. The old one was ~7 years old.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010, 10:39 am

      That’s how Janette is, too. I really think caffeine is going to prove to be my major sleep disorder.

  • Blaine Moore August 3, 2010, 7:11 am

    I have a few thoughts:

    Too much to think about.
    Get a journal if you don’t have one already, and write down everything you can think throughout the day in general and before you go to sleep specifically. Include a to-do list of what you want to get done in the morning. If you give your mind a chance to dump all the crap in there to a place you know you’ll check later, it will be less likely to dwell on those things.

    I find that I sleep better with something in my stomach, but it depends a lot on what it is that I am eating. Try some milk or a some crackers not too long ahead of time. Not a ton, just a little bit.

    After 9 years, I’m guessing a new mattress is in order. When you change the sheets, flip the mattress around (foot->head) and twice a year, flip the mattress over (top->bottom). We used to flip it over at daylight savings but now that it’s so lopsided we just try to do it every six months. That’ll extend the life of the mattress instead of making 1-2 people sized depressesions in it.

    Sleep Schedule
    Nothing to add here.

    So, hope that’s helpful…the only other suggestion that I can make is to make sure you are getting some form of exercise during the day, and possibly to try getting in a quick 20-30 minute workout in the evening. For some people that keys them up so they can’t sleep, for others it helps them sleep well. I’m of the latter group, myself.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010, 10:39 am

      Thanks Blaine. Maybe we’ll be splurging on a mattress soon.

  • Ben (From TIC) August 3, 2010, 7:26 am

    Monitor caffeine intake. As I mentioned before, I stopped drinking coffee and replaced it with black tea only in the morning. I could feel my heart beating harder with coffee. Drinking tea gives me a caffeinated equilibrium.

    I saw a house in Architecture Digest that had a bedroom which only had a bed in it. That was it! As soon as I move into a bigger space, I’m going to try it.

  • Boris Bachmann August 3, 2010, 9:11 am

    My wife can’t sleep well either and there are stress issues as well. I give advice, but she never takes it. I’m sure I could frame it better, but I probably do a crappy job teaching the people closest to me…

    My suggestions to try would be:
    *Quit caffeine completely for a month – see what happens.
    *When you go to bed, turn out the light, sigh, and think “Oooooh, this is soooo nice and relaxing…” and allow your mind to drift lightly. If your thoughts start to get bogged down, reset, sigh and think “Oooooh, this is sooo nice and relaxing…”.
    *Stop ‘trying’ to fall asleep. Sleep is one of those things that ‘trying’ makes it worse.
    *Get up when you wake up in the morning and get busy. I don’t know if you’re a slow riser or not, but half-assedness in the morning doesn’t help you (not “you”, but anyone) feel better the rest of the day. That half hour of snooze button pushing won’t help either.

    About the breathing (and I was going to blog about it sometime but who knows when that will be), the only things I remind myself about breathing lately are these:

    *Belly breathe.
    *Inhalation = excitation
    *Exhalation = relaxation

    Is there more to breathing? Of course. But I think the lessons above are the biggies.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010, 10:38 am

      I’m a pretty fast riser. I’m going to writing tomorrow about the sleep experiment I’m about to embark on. I’ll be weighing your suggestions with all the gravitas they deserve:)

      • Blaine Moore August 3, 2010, 11:12 am

        Ooh, a sleep experiment…

        Is it a polyphasic sleep pattern? I hope it is! What’s your schedule going to look like, 20 minutes every 4 hours?

  • Casey (North and Clark) August 3, 2010, 12:52 pm

    My uncle once asked me what time is it when you wake up at night, when I started to answer he interrupted, “Wrong! you shouldn’t know what time you wake up. You shouldn’t have a clock visible and you shouldn’t check the time when you wake up.”

    I don’t have too much trouble sleeping, but it always sounded like sound advice to me.

  • Daisy August 3, 2010, 12:55 pm

    Ask your doctor about melatonin. If it’s okay, then order from a reputable company instead of buying generic off the shelf. It does make a difference in quality.

  • Larissa August 3, 2010, 1:27 pm

    Ethan has a very difficult time sleeping as well. Sometimes I wonder how he is even functioning when he tells me how many times he has woken up in the middle of the night. And it’s so funny to hear him tell me what kinds of things he thinks about when he wakes up. I don’t know if you have OCD, but I think that is definitely what causes Ethan’s mind to race all through the night. He thinks about everything and he can’t turn it off! Obviously meditation is not going to really happen with a 10-year-old, so we just hooked him up with a cool reading light, and he just reads until he can go back to sleep.
    I can’t wait to hear about what works for you! 🙂

  • Rose August 3, 2010, 4:51 pm

    I’ve had a very bad relationship with sleep most of my life. Now, at almost 50, I seem to have most of it figured out for me. YMMV.

    Until a couple years ago, I didn’t know how to relax. Sounds stupid, but I just never really learned. I got a biometric feedback device and taught myself using that. I only use it once every 3-6 months now, but I continue to forget how to relax. Using this machine has made a tremendous difference in my ability to sleep. (stresserasor is the brand I have.)

    I am sensitive to light, not to noise. I have made my bedroom very dark. This helps me sleep and stay asleep. You may want to figure out for yourself if you’re sensitive to one or the other, then invest in more curtains or a white noise machine.

    I have a temperpedic mattress. It is the mattress of the gods. It does get warm, but that isn’t an issue for me. If you’re replacing your mattress I would recommend looking at one of those. Plus the pillow.

    I’ve changed the light on my computer. This has helped me feel more sleepy late at night, while I’m on the computer. http://www.stereopsis.com/flux/

    I can’t drink caffeine after noon. Caffeine tends to affect me for 12 hours. If I want to get to bed by midnight, no caffeine after noon.

    I’ve tried a bunch of other things that people always suggest, always going to bed at the same time, playing specific music, turning the lights down, etc. The things above have been the only things that now work consistently for me. Again, YMMV.

  • Dustin August 3, 2010, 9:12 pm

    I second the comments about magnesium. I put magnesium oil on my skin before bed. It has improved how quickly i fall asleep and the soundness has also improved.

  • Jeanette Swalberg August 9, 2010, 12:27 am


    Thanks for asking this question–just so that we insomniacs can get some other ideas. I know I have!
    My daughter started the Melatonin supplements and has had marked improvements in her ability to sleep.
    I use a visualization technique that I have been teaching my son (who has TS, by the way). I heard this tip on Good Things Utah: Picture an ice cube melting. Watch the water drip off, and the ice cube shrink. I actually visualize a mountain stream with snow and ice along the edges and “watch” the water melt away the ice.
    Room temp is also super-important, and so is getting fiber in the diet!!! With a nod to Heather, above, Potassium deficiency mimics RLS, so that’s a good one to check for, as well as dehydration. My skin is dry and sometimes my lower legs feel “twitchy” until I get up and put lotion on.

    Keep up the great blog.

    Another Jeanette