You know those people who seem to fall asleep before their head even hits the pillow? They drift off right away and when they wake up in the morning, you can see they feel refreshed just by the look on their face, which secretly makes you want to punch them.
Then we have the others, like me, who for years struggled with everything related to sleep—getting to sleep, staying asleep, waking up from sleep, sleeping enough (but not too much). The concept of feeling rested was beyond recognition for my body. Most days I wished for a magic pill that didn’t have crazy side effects. Luckily, after many years, I’ve found my way.
Recently, I’ve been hearing that more and more people have struggled like me. In their delirium from lack of sleep, they have turned to substances, both legal and not, to aid in their nighttime routine. Whether it’s alcohol, marijuana, or pills (the ones not designed for sleep, like pain killers), we have become dependent on substances that are actually making it worse.
Alcohol is a sneaky one. It lulls you with the feeling of sedation that makes drifting off to sleep not only easy, but often pleasant, unless you drank too much.
But let’s say you don’t drink too much. Every night after you get the kids to sleep, you break out a wine glass and celebrate your victories of the day. If you stop at one glass, you are better than I am. In the beginning, one glass was fine. Then after a while, one glass wasn’t cutting it, so I added one more. I mean, it was just one more…how bad can that be really?
As time passes, and it does so quickly, you find that two glasses aren’t working as well either.
“What about marijuana” you say? “Aren’t their people who get medical prescriptions to use it for insomnia?”
Yes and no. Yes, there are people who get prescriptions for it to help with insomnia.
Much in the same way that alcohol gives you that initial sedation that makes it easier to fall asleep, marijuana can help you wind down and drift off. The problem is, there isn’t a lot of data on its effectiveness because until a short time ago, it wasn’t legal. The short term studies are showing you may do well in the first stage of sleep, but by the fourth stage, you are coming up short. What’s worse, research on addiction studies shows there can be a long term decline in cognitive skills that is irreversible.
Pills not designed for sleep carry the same risks of addiction and overuse/abuse as alcohol because your body quickly adapts to them, requiring more and more to get the job done.
So what do you do? If you have found yourself tipping back that glass a little too often, relying on marijuana or even pills to get to sleep, here are some pointers to help you quit:
A Different Drink
Find a clean, healthy drink that you enjoy. It can be a smoothie, a sparkling water, or a cup of decaffeinated tea. In fact, there are several decaffeinated teas that have proven effective in helping you fall asleep faster, like Chamomile, Lavender and Valerian root. The important piece of this is having something in your hand that you can sip on as you try to wind down in the evening. It will make managing the cravings easier.
Don’t be fooled by the whiplash effect. When you drink or use drugs, your body quickly tries to flush the toxins from your system, while at the same time trying to counteract that brain suppression the substances induce. When you first quit, you will be conscious of the choice, but your brain isn’t going to recognize or trust in that fact right away, so it’s going to continue to try to keep your body from that suppressed state. This can actually cause insomnia in the first few days to a week. Hang in there—this will pass as soon as your brain accepts that it’s not getting dosed anymore.
Take care of your body and it will take care of you. Eat nutritionally complete meals, exercise and create a bedtime routine to give your body the best chance to get sleep naturally. This will allow your brain to do its job restoring your body to health during the night.
Cope with Anxiety
Anxiety is real. If you find that you are lying awake worried about all the upcoming (or missed) deadlines or even unpaid bills, and working out and eating right isn’t solving this, see a doctor. Anxiety medication has come a long way. There are many options to help reduce anxiety with little or no lasting side effects. Determining which medication is right for you is still not a science, since we cannot soundly test brain chemistry (yet!), so if the first one doesn’t work, give different types a chance. Finding the right one can be a game changer in your sleeping life.
It May Not Be You!
When getting to or staying asleep is less about you than your partner, it’s time to have a conversation. If you have slept well your whole life and then upon sharing your bed with the love of your life, find you don’t get a wink of sleep because he or she is snoring or gasps so loudly that it startles you awake, there might be some easy options to improve both of your quality of sleep. Whether it’s just snoring or potentially sleep apnea, they have devices to help reduce or eliminate the problem.
While some people are resistant to getting the help, because “it doesn’t bother them,” you can gently remind them that over time they will suffer the effects of sleep deprivation from missing out on the deep sleep stage or the very real danger of ignoring sleep apnea, which damages the heart. Much of the resistance comes from the idea of having to wear a contraption called a cpap mask every night, but like anxiety medication, science has come a long way. You can now see your dentist for a fitted device that is the equivalent of a retainer. It’s easy to use and can even take with you if you travel. Soon, better sleep can belong to the both of you.
So what if you have tried all this and you are still having trouble? It may be time to sign yourself up for a sleep study. It can help you find and resolve any underlying causes you may not be aware of.
Lastly, I would talk to your doctor about sleep medication. Please note, I intentionally listed this last. It’s important you try to crack the code to your sleep issue and resolve it first, if you are able. Sleep medication carries some risks and potentially unnerving side effects that you may not remember when you wake up, so it should always be your last line of defense. That said, if you have tried everything else, sleep is critical. So talk to your doctor and put some jingle bells on your door to alert your loved ones if you try to go for a drive during the night.