Beating Insomnia: A Game of Inches

Today’s post will be something a little different. While this won’t be martial arts related, martial arts did play a part in overcoming one of my biggest struggles: insomnia. I have always been a night person, but there were points in my life where I simply could not sleep. I would lie awake anxiously all night and be too tired to function the next day. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I would sleep for 16 hours straight. During this time, my schoolwork, my job, and my personal life all suffered greatly.

Insomnia is a medical condition, and I am not qualified to offer any medical advice, but what I can do is talk about what lifestyle changes I made that helped me. It’s important to remember that there is no quick fix for insomnia. There are medications (both prescription and over-the-counter), but they make you drowsy and can be habit-forming – making insomnia worse in the long run. The lifestyle changes I’ll talk about today are slow-acting, sometimes difficult, and might not seem to make a difference at first – but each one will get you a little closer to a good night’s sleep. Like the title said, it’s a matter of improving one inch at a time. Plus these are good ways to live healthy even if you aren’t an insomniac!

Caffeine

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This is the big, obvious one. Caffeine makes you less tired for 3-6 hours, then much more tired afterwards. To make matters worse, even after you feel the caffeine crash there’s still enough caffeine in your body to disrupt healthy sleep. If you have caffeine in the morning, you will sleep worse that night, and tomorrow you’ll be tired and repeat the cycle all over again.

Decrease gradually! Caffeine is a legal drug, and a very addictive one. Don’t stop cold turkey – reduce your intake gradually. If you must have some, only drink it first thing in the morning. Afternoon pick me ups will be even worse for your sleep.

Decaf VS Caffeine Free – they aren’t the same. Decaf means roughly 1/3 the caffeine of regular coffee/tea. Caffeine free means absolutely 0 caffeine. If you’re not sure, look up the product online to find its caffeine content.

Exercise

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This is another no brainer, but worth exploring more. Most of us here practice martial arts and know that a good workout can relieve stress and help you sleep. One thing that is important to know is that intense exercise closer to bedtime can actually be detrimental to your sleep. Get your workout in early in the evening, and then relax and wind down before calling it a night.

Alcohol

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The world seems to never be able to agree on how healthy or unhealthy drinking in moderation is, but everyone can agree excess is bad for you. What a lot of people don’t realize is that alcohol consumption can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night – and not just to run to the bathroom! When your body is done processing alcohol, it has this annoying habit of waking you up to tell you. Think of your phone screen lighting up when it’s done charging. It’s kind of like that, but your whole body, and it’s very hard to get back into a deep sleep after that.

Sunlight

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Getting natural light is very important to regulating our sleep cycles. People who lack sun exposure often report unusual sleep habits. If you can, go outside for 15 minutes early in the day. This will help set your internal clock correctly. Another great trick is to put a light on a timer so your bedroom is bright when it’s time to wake up. They make sun simulator lamps expressly for this purpose!

Darkness

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Light makes you wake, dark makes you sleep. Try to eliminate all your exposure to white and blue light at night. Your phone screen is the worst offender, but many newer models have a filter mode that makes the screen appear dark and red (red light has been shown to be less disruptive to sleep). Also cover up any power LEDs on TVs, phones, or other devices that stay on all night.

Limit Screen Time

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Holding a glowing white box up to your face is really, really bad for your sleep. You’re tricking your brain into thinking it’s the middle of the day. Skip checking your email before bed, but if you must, use the red filter I mentioned above.

Weekends

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This is a hard one – wake up early, even on your days off. Beating insomnia is all about maintaining a healthy sleep-wake cycle. If you wake up at 6am all week, and sleep until noon on Saturday, you’re going to have a rough time on Monday. I know it’s hard, but getting up early, even if you’re tired, will set you up for success in beating insomnia.

Meditation

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One of my Karate instructors once called meditation “taking out the trash.” You can either wait for things to get piled up and deal with how bad it got, or you can clean up a little bit every day. Meditating for a few minutes every day is better than an hour long session once a week. Experiment with what time of day helps you the most. Meditating at night helps me sleep, but for some people it will have the opposite effect. Just like all of these suggestions it’s up to you to experiment.

So there you have it…

…If you suffer from insomnia or poor sleep, try any or all of the above. When I was struggling the most, I would try one of these changes and have no luck. I was so frustrated I would then give up. It was only after painstakingly combining all of them that I started to have a healthier sleep schedule. Now that I’ve been sleeping every night for a long time, I can have some caffeine, check my phone before bed, and enjoy a drink on the weekends, but I can always tell that my sleep is worse when I do. If your insomnia is very bad like mine was, I’d recommend not allowing yourself any exceptions until things have improved. It’s all about developing good, permanent lifestyle changes.

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