Monitor Board of Contributors: When sleep eludes us
Mel Graykin shot on November 17, 2010. She is a new Board of Contributors columnist. (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)
It’s 2:30 in the morning, and I’m awake. Through a dozen time zones, as the hands of the clock sweep toward the wee hours, countless other people share the same misery, punching their pillows, rolling over, and not going back to sleep.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 50 million to 70 million of us don’t get enough sleep. This is not good. We are warned that we are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality and reduced quality of life and productivity. Believe me, I’d just love to be getting the seven to nine hours of sleep doctors recommend. It just seems that my brain has other ideas.
Now, before you go rushing to advise me about your favorite remedy that works every time for you, let me assure you I’ve tried it. Every herbal concoction known to the natural pharmacopia, every tea and supplement, from catmint to chamomile, valerian to passionflower, I’ve brewed it and lain awake afterward wondering what to try next.
Melatonin? Check. Warm milk, cocoa, bullion, turkey sandwiches, check. As for over-the-counter preparations, did you know they are all variations on what you get in your cold remedies that make you drowsy? My nasal passages clear up and I can breath just fine while I watch the hours tick away.
Those of you who have counted enough sheep to fill Texas have probably done as I did, checking online for help.
The National Sleep Foundation advises to avoid caffeine at bedtime (duh), avoid eating a big meal before bed (so why do I feel sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner?), and go to sleep at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning (Who with a family and an active social life could possibly adhere to such a rigid schedule?).
My doctor also advised me not to do anything in bed but sleep. No reading, no computer, no watching television. Don’t go to bed until I feel drowsy. This presumes, of course, that I am eventually going to feel drowsy while I’m not in bed, up doing other things. Following this strategy, I find myself realizing I’ve spent half the night puttering around the house, and it’s now three hours until I have to get up. This does not seem helpful.
Reading does often make me feel drowsy, but if I’m not to do it in bed, that means I must sit somewhere else, like in the living room. So when I finally begin to nod off, I have to get up and go upstairs. By the time I’ve settled in and turned off the light, I’m wide awake again. This, too, does not seem helpful.
Out of desperation, I tried a couple of the prescription meds out there, specifically Lunesta and Ambien. Your results may vary, but my experience was rather nasty. Oh, the drugs worked fine at first, but then my metabolism adjusted and they didn’t work so well any more. I faced the choice of either a lousy night’s sleep with the drug, or no sleep at all without. Withdrawal was not pleasant.
“Just stick to the schedule,” my latest expert sternly advised. “When you get tired enough, you’ll go to sleep.”
Right. Unfortunately, that’s more likely to be while I’m watching television or worse, driving my car, than it is when I pull up the covers and close my eyes.
Now, if your problem is sleep apnea, or some other related sleep disorder, cheer up, there’s hope. They can treat that. But if, like me, you just can’t drop off no matter what you do, the doctors are pretty much flummoxed.
Hypnotics, like the above-mentioned drugs, are a temporary solution at best, may cause side effects, and can be addicting. Sleep is a mysterious process that science is only just beginning to figure out. Bottom line, if all that sleep hygiene stuff with the cool, dark room and the regular routine and all doesn’t work, there’s not much modern medicine can offer.
So I function the best I can with what my busy little brain will allow me. I do my meditation and relaxation techniques, and sometimes it works. In wild defiance of the experts, I read in bed, and sometimes it works. I even scoff at the warning about alcohol and make myself a nice, warm toddy, because sometimes it works. And when I find myself lying awake, I try to make good use of the time, plotting and refining the characters in whatever book I’m working on, or thinking up ideas for blogs and articles.
Like an essay about insomnia.
(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes tries to get to sleep in Deerfield, and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)