February 18, 2008

When sleep is just a dream

[By Merry]

"How do people go to sleep? I'm afraid I've lost the knack." - Dorothy Parker

Sleep is good.

Working so much overtime that you get hooked on coffee is bad, but that's where I'm at right now. (I have to write documentation for an application, but the only time I can get access to the software without some bloody engineer tinkering with it is between 8pm and 5am, so I've become really, really appreciative of sleep.) The trouble is, if you get into the habit of punishing your body with excess caffeine, when you finally lay down you're still twitching with aggravated adrenalin jolts.

Trying to find research that has helpful suggestions led me instead to the ultimate vindication for your inner slug: getting up early can be harmful to your health. Apparently, "getting up early is also more likely to lead to muscle aches, cold symptoms, headaches and significantly worse moods." [They needed a study to figure that last one out?] Of course, not exercising because you slept in isn't great for your health either.

I mean, I do realize some of the bad things that can happen to you if you don't sleep:

How do you get to sleep when you're wired-but-tired? I'd love to hear how you manage it. Here are some of the suggestions that I've gathered so far:
  • Do try that deep breathing/counting stuff. Even if the mind is going around and around like a Starbucks-addicted hamster on an exercise wheel, the body can affect the mind; besides, if you’re lying there in the dark staring at the ceiling, it gives you something to do besides being irritated.
  • Don’t drink when trying to get to sleep. Helps you fall asleep, but can cause you to wake in the middle of the night, which is invariably the most depressing time of the whole 24-hour cycle. Besides, unless you’re on the Wine diet, it’s not going to help the waistline.
  • Avoid 12 Frappacinos before bedtime. (Okay, so some of the suggestions were pretty obvious.)
  • Try some milk, if you can stomach it. Or a turkey sandwich. (Or both, since both contain tryptophan.)
  • Instead of regular sleeping pills, try the homeopathic ones like Moondrops. [Note: this is not an endorsement or a warning against this stuff. I'm passing on a suggestion I received.]
  • Avoid if possible sleeping pills that might cause strange behavior. Several cases have been reported about people taking Ambien, which apparently made them get up in the middle of the night, not fully conscious, and go driving. Even if it doesn't have that effect on you, it has been known to get people up in the middle of the night to raid the frig. Seriously. (If you're going to raid the frig, you should at least enjoy the moment!)

Does anyone have any other suggestions?

Until I find a solution, it's comforting to know that scientists are tirelessly working on this problem. Researchers at Wake Forest have discovered a naturally occurring brain peptide that can improve the cognitive performance of sleep-deprived monkeys. Hell, if it can make monkeys think better when they're short on sleep, maybe it can do the same for technical writers. Very similar species, after all.

Sketch courtesy of Flickr.


  1. Well crap--that study on waking early and cortisol etc is NOT encouraging.

    Over the past year or so I've been waking up earlier and feeling kinda proud and smug about it--perhaps it's just a stress thing and is an indication that I've got more yucky cortisol in my system, not that I'm suddenly a more energetic efficient version of my former self.

  2. I've never tried it, but one of my friends swears by melatonin. It's a natural product that helps you sleep and apparently gives you really vivid dreams. You have to have about 8 hours to devote to sleep though, so I'm told if you take it at midnight, sleep until five, you'll still be kinda groggy until 8, when it will miraculously lift.

  3. melatonin, hmmm? Sounds like a plan. Thanks, Leth R!

    Crabby, sounds like your body doesn't agree with that study at all -- good for you. I mean, you wake up early and feel proud and smug rather than grumpy, like the people in the study. Sounds like a much nicer way to live. :)

  4. I do way better when I get up early. I guess I'm just one of those people.

    Investigate progressive relaxation. It's a technique used in hypnosis and self-hypnosis to relax the body. You systematically go through your body toe to head (or head to toe) and tell each part to relax. Deep breathe while you're at it if you like.
    I have used this and it works except when I am awakened by the full moon.

  5. Thanks, Leah!
    The full moon keeps you awake? I know it affects the tides and suchlike, hadn't heard that it has an effect on people's sleep habits. Learn something new every day :)

  6. Merry, I wish I knew something that worked, I just lie there thinking that at least my body is getting rest. Hmm, now that I have a new bed, I hope that won't be a problem anymore.

  7. i've gone thru some nasty/stressful bouts, leaving me anxious at bedtime with a racing mind. when i started doing sudoku puzzles in bed, my focus shifted enough for me to relax and fall asleep. and now (years later) a pavlovian effect makes me doze minutes after cracking the book. and sure - maybe not sudoku for everyone, but something that requires similar concentration.

  8. Michelle,

    Interesting that you say that - I often do crosswords/number puzzles/etc right before going to sleep, and it definitely helps me wind down and get sleepy. People have always thought I was strange to do that, they thought it wouldn't be relaxing. I've finally found someone else who thinks the same way I do!

  9. This is a really useful post for me now as I'm having sleep issues. It's weird because I'm not under any unduly stress. I'm just wide awake at 1-3am. Someone told me about melatonin too. Haven't tried it yet. I have tried the deep breathing exercises an those do help to relax me.

  10. Melatonin IS good, it works on me but also gives me a nasty headache the next day. It didn't years back. I have found that since I started (finally after like 10 years at least of knowing I was low) thyroid medication, it has helped me both to sleep better and wake up more refreshed.
    Leah! I also have the full moon syndrome, I dunno, it seems to affect my blood and I feel like I should be running with wolves in the moonlight. When I was a working artist, I wouldn't fight it, but would stay up until 4-5 am and get some great work done!
    Reading helps me get sleepy, maybe it's the same concentration thing that sudoku or crosswords do. If I'm not too sleepy, at least I'm enjoying a good book and am warm and cozy next to my sleeping spouse!
    Progressive relaxation is good too, or reciting a mantra. (Om mane peme hum, mantra of Chenrezig, the Tibetan Bodhisattva of compassion, (each sylable represents purification of one of the six perfections) or Om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha! (Looser translation is "Gone gone gone to the other shore, arrived on the other shore, to beyond the other shore, having never left", or "Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, hallelujah".)), which is the great mantra of Avalokitesvara (aka Chenrezig) from the Heart Sutra. Chanting either is supposed to further your enlightenment. It's another concentration thing, which makes my tired body decide it would really rather sleep!
    Also, I take my whole Cal/Mag/Zinc supplement about an hour before bed, and it's a great muscle relaxer and very good for the nervous system, and it kicks in in about 45 minutes to an hour. IF I ride my exercycle for about 1/2 hour starting about an hour before bed, that really helps too.
    I'm 50, so I have the insomnia thing that comes with middle age, and all the above really seem to help me a lot.
    I think the getting up early thing is only bad for nite owls like me. :)

  11. Deep breathing, yoga nidra (led meditation that you are not supposed to fall asleep during but I always do) and Valerian Root (herbal). It helps you drift off and has no side effects (no grogginess in the morning), but it does smell horrible. I struggle with sleep issues often and must repeat the mantra "there are worse things than being tired" but after reading this....I am not so sure!

  12. I agree. Melatonin works wonders...but as already said, it takes about 8 hours to run thru the system and makes some people very groggy.

    My 2 cents:
    To stay awake, there is a drug made for narcoleptics called Modifinol that actually chemically suppresses the need to sleep. It's not that you can't sleep if you don't want to...you just don't need to, but can if you want to. It sounds bizarre I know, but I've had it explained that way to me and onserved it to be true. I've a friend who takes it as he has sleep apnea and was tired of being exhausted all the time from eternally lousy sleep. It helps him be alert and awake when he needs to be, but sleep when he finds he has time to...and doesn't effect the quality of sleep at all, or leave him groggy during the day. It was a prescription thing from his doctor - maybe if you asked about it your doctor would tell you if it were somethign that would work for you. From all the giggity research I've done reading into it (I'm a geek and like to know what things do) that it's not addictive and has no groggy side effects like other sleeping pills or things that help you stay alert. I've seen the difference it made for them. Just a thought.

    I've never had troubles sleeping...I've often been teased as I can fall assleep *anywhere*. But this came to mind...

  13. This sounds goofy--and I'll probably do a whole post on it some day when I can't think of anything else, so I'll apologize in advance for the repetition--but I have a trick I call "the randomizer."

    After I've counted backwards or whatever to get rid of some of the distracting thoughts, I'll nudge my mind to "go random": to move from thought to thought without letting myself stop too long on any single one. Images or sounds are best, but whatever. Just keep it movin'.

    At first the "random" thoughts are not really random at all, they're pretty forced. But eventually the associations start to loosen and I get little weird snoozy bits of imagery mixed in with more conscious thoughts until finally, the dreamy stuff takes over.

    But if you have a more normal brain your mileage may vary with "The Randomizer" (pat pending, all rights reserved).

  14. Ooo, I forgot, Ambien can be a really scary med for some people, be careful! I had a friend who was dying from cancer, and he was taking Ambien (along with a morphine derivative for pain) and every night his GF said he was acting bizarre; he'd start crawling on the carpet and under furniture, and yelling, and she wondered if he was having flashbacks to Vietnam. I said maybe, but it had to be the Ambien that was instigating it, becuase he was fine except at night. She went through Hell the last few weeks of his life.
    My Mom was taking it years back when it was new as a sleep aid, and she woke up one night standing at the kitchen sink, washing a paper plate. Scared the bejezus out of her!

    I had a nacoleptic friend who's meds didn't seem to work all that well, but if the narcolepsy med mentioned worked well in a "normal" brain, I would think it would be on a fast track to being marketed as a perfect sleep aid for the general public.. because most of what we have available has rotten side effects or is addictive. The natural remedies posted here are likely as effective and much safer, the you have to be careful with melatonin. Take the smallest amount that works.

  15. ah to sleep, perchance to dream... melatonin's great especially if you're traveling... i definitely tend to sleep later during the winter (can you say "hibernation") but i tend to be an early bird anyway.

    milk or a chardonnay (not together ) :) work to get some zzzs.

    gp in montana

  16. If reading doesn't work, I try a visualisation exercise... basically I pick a color, and try to think of as many things I can that are that color. Alternatively, I'll pick a topic (say, U.S. cities) and go through the alphabet trying to think of a city for each letter. All of the above gets my mind off of whatever it's reeling on, and before I know it I'm fast asleep.

  17. I also go for a yoga technique. If I can really focus my brain on the area of my "third eye" I almost instantly relax. Sometimes it helps to put your fingers on the space on your forhead between and a little above your eyes. It takes a little practice, but it is a wonderful way to quiet your mind and find a little peace, which generally leads to sleep.

  18. Yoga, mental exercise, or melatonin seems to be the three most recommended routes to try. They all sound like they'd have limited side effects so long as you're careful (sudden vision of self with my legs stuck in the Lotus position, unable to get free).

  19. I just realised it's Modafinol.
    Spelled it wrong.
    So um...now it isn't.

  20. GAH!
    I need some caffeine...

  21. as someone who has struggled with awful sleep problems for eight years (just saw my doc yesterday! wee! yawn.), I am very thankful for all of these suggestions. Like Monica and Crabby suggested, visualization and deep breathing has helped me the most recently. Also, it sounds so obvious but turn your alarm clock so it is not facing you. I think having the number stare you down as you sleep somehow prompts you to wake up and stare. Even if you do wake up, you don't have to obsess "oh, 3am....great, now it's 4:15" because you won't know.

    tk - agree with you on ambien - I was on it for 2 years straight and getting off it was horrible :-(

    good luck, everyone!!!

  22. busily making notes
    modafinil, visualization exercises...

    weightinggame, I'm glad you're finding these suggestions helpful too. It's heartening to know that so many people have had these problems in the past, which is exactly where you want insomnia!


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