Wendesday March 31, 2021
I struggled to write this blog. I had hoped that after months of research and trial and error, I would have found the unicorn solution to a very common problem, insomnia.
I have always been a great sleeper. We joke in our household that I could sleep through a train running though our house, whereas my partner could awake from hearing a pin drop in Antartica in his sleep. I was such a deep sleeper in fact that I had to have the baby monitor full blast right by my ear to ensure I heard my daughter through the night when she was an infant. Even so, like most people, during certain exciting or stressful events in my life, I experienced short bouts of what I would describe as insomnia, awaking at 3 in the morning ready to solve the worlds problems for several days or weeks at a time.
When COVID first emerged, not surprisingly, I had a lot of trouble sleeping. After a few weeks, it seemed to resolve on its own, despite the ongoing stressors of being a business owner and a hands-on health care practitioner. In September, out of the blue, despite there not being any significant change in stressors or the state of the pandemic, I began to experience regular 3 am wake ups with an inability to fall back to sleep, along with full but brief awakening every 2 hours leading up to that time. I figured it would sort itself out as it always had. By November, with the frequency of insomnia worsening and fatigue setting in, other stress-related symptoms popping up, and given the health problems that result from poor sleep, I decided to try to remedy it, and for good reason. While I have always preached the importance of sleep in the recovery process to clients and athletes, poor sleep quality also increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, mood disorders, impaired immune function, impaired mental function and reduced life expectancy ( Resource: Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School). Getting a good night’s sleep is definitely worth working toward achieving!
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, insomnia is defined as “persistent difficulty with sleep initiation, duration, consolidation or quality”. To officially be diagnosed as insomnia, there must be sleep difficulties that occur “despite adequate opportunities for normal sleep”, and “daytime impairment that directly results from that poor sleep quality or duration” (source: www.sleepfoundation.org). There are many possible causes of insomnia, such as ingestion of stimulants, health problems, poor sleep habits and of course stress.
My first line of attack was to begin meditating to address the stress I was experiencing (see Vickie’s Quest for Zen November 2020). Regular meditation had a profound affect on my other stress symptoms; the repeated cold sores, tummy troubles and the occasional vague tightness in my chest did resolve. My sleep improved in that I did manage to get a couple of nights each week where I would sleep through without awaking until 3am, and I had much better energy during the day. But I was still awaking most nights through the night, and rarely clocked the recommended 7+ hours.
My next step lead me to borrow the book, “Sleep Smarter” by Shawn Stevenson from our local library. In the book he outlines several suggestions for improving sleep, from nutrition, to exercise, to various suggestions on sleep environment. He is a self-proclaimed science geek, and quotes many great scientific studies to back up his suggestions. Much of the information was not new to me, but a good reminder of the importance of things like getting off the screen 90 minutes before bed, adhering to a regular sleep schedule and trying to create a completely dark sleeping environment. He has a 14 day sleep makeover from which I made some changes with strategies I had not yet tried. I tried epsom salt baths before bed, magnesium spray, getting direct sunlight for 10-15 min in the morning (no easy feat in January!!!), a different mattress, sleeping in a blacked out room vs my open-concept loft room that is unfortunately impossible to black out . I even tried “gut smashing” (gentle soft tissue work with a soft Pilates ball in the abdominal area-didn’t help my sleep but sure relieves some tightness in my obliques!) Frustratingly, nothing seemed to make a difference.
At the same time, I also decided to seek an assessment with a Naturopathic Doctor/Nurse Practitioner who could order the blood work to determine if hormones such as cortisol or progesterone were a factor. The results of my blood work were quite interesting: while my cortisol and other hormone levels were completely normal (chalk one up for meditation!!), I was majorly deficient in vitamin D!! I was put on a 5000IU daily dose of D3. Unexpectedly, within a week of beginning the supplemental D3, I was sleeping through without awaking until 3-4am every night, and my energy during the day was even better. Within a month, however, I returned to awaking every 2 hours again leading up to my 3am wake up time, and I was starting to get tired again. Finally, I tried a low sugar, anti-inflammatory diet (I actually did not eat dark chocolate for 9 days!!), as well as adding EFA and magnesium supplementation, and finally noticed that I was sleeping longer most nights, although not the amazing deep sleep I am accustomed to.
I now understand the frustration expressed by so many clients. With so many factors that affect sleep, it was a daunting task to wade through all the possibilities and go through the trial and error process. Perhaps I was, and occasionally still am, simply suffering “COVID-somnia”, a term coined by neurologists who specialize in sleep disorders to describe the surge in insomnia, hypersomnia, night terrors and the misuse of sleep medications noted since last March (Neurology Today July 2020)? Maybe this is part of the aging process? Regardless of the cause, this journey to seek better sleep did lead to many other positives, such as making the effort to get my EFAs, leading to my joints feeling much better, and discovering my vitamin D deficiency. I can’t help but think what would really fix my sleep is a nice vacation at tropical beach so I can get a massive dose of much needed vitamin sea. In the meantime, I’ll be back to the books to research other natural ways to get my sleep health back.