The Real Reason You Can’t Sleep at Night (it’s Not What You Think)

Insomnia sucks.


I have insomnia. For the past three years, I’ve schlepped around an ugly, cumbersome secret: I can’t sleep.

I mean, I can sleep sometimes.I can’t stay asleep. Or, I can’t fall asleep. Either one. I toss and turn a lot. Every day I sleep through my alarm, and every day I feel tired. You get used to it. Insomnia’s a bully; you can’t just let it steal your life.

But it does affect me. It affects my work ethic. My fitness routine. My tolerance for traffic jams and small children. Being the health-conscious, self-motivated open-minded person I am, I’ve tried lots of solutions. I’ve tried all the solutions.

And I’ve noticed a crazy-making trend amongst the new sleep evangelists that seem to be taking over the Internet: all they talk about is how important and valuable sleep is. They say things like:

“Every disease, whether it’s heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, is connected to sleep deprivation.”

— Arianna Huffington, in an interview about her new book, The Sleep Revolution.

Well thanks a lot, Arianna. It’s bad enough I can’t sleep; now I have to worry about getting cancer?!

The problem is this: so many of the experts are of the opinion that Americans just don’t care about sleep. Which may be true, but if you’ve endured insomnia for any length of time, you get cured of that shit real quick. I know it’s important to sleep. I’m not burning any midnight oil over here.

If I could catch eight hours a night, I’d never leave my bed!  If I could get ten, I’d take ten! I’ll go to bed early! I won’t schedule any early meetings! I’ll stop watching Game of Thrones! (I know. I’m that serious, you guys.)

So I figure, as long as I can’t sleep, I might as well serve as guinea pig for other people who can’t sleep. Below you’ll find ALL the sleep-improvement solutions I’ve tried, from the medically valid to the super woo-woo.

The Winners

Andrew Johnson apps. This delightful Scottish man ALWAYS knocks me out, even though I’ve listened to the same recordings a gazillion times. I still wake up in the night, but I can use the app to fall back to sleep faster, and that works too.

Orchex. Uh, so this is a capsule made of organ extracts. From animals. It’s supposed to calm your adrenals, and I have to say, it’s worked pretty well so far. I call it my “meat pills.”

No electronics in the bedroom. I am a total Nazi about this.

Pitch dark in the bedroom. This too. Although I cheat and use a sleep mask.

White noise. Sleep headphones are amazing and the Relax Melodies app, which has tons of different sounds to choose from. (I like ocean waves + thunderstorm.) I also dig the binaural stuff. This doesn’t work for me all the time — insomnia’s fickle — but when it works, it works well.

No screens 30 minutes before bedtime. Also approaching Nazi levels. (My husband kind of hates me.) It’s not just about the blue light wavelengths that interfere with melatonin production. It’s about giving your mind time to wind down and process the day, versus constantly cramming it full of Facebook memes.

Cat therapy. I invented this, although I’m sure it’s already a thing. Cats are the best sleepers. They are the sleeping fucking champions of the world. If your cat will sleep with you, listen to his breathing. Tune in to his utter commitment to being asleep. Absorb it through osmosis.

Weed. Just a little bit. Works like a freaking charm. I sleep hard, and if I wake up, I always fall back to sleep. Winner.

The Good But Not Great

Acupuncture & Chinese herbs. I had mixed results here. After a few treatments I started falling asleep a lot more quickly. I would actually pass out as soon as the practitioner left the room, and not wake up until she came back. So that was nice. But overall, I didn’t really get much better.

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). My counselor was big into this. It’s not so much a way to cure insomnia as a way to cope with it. She had me get out of bed when I couldn’t sleep, go into another room, and tap-tap-tap-aroo. Eventually it helps me relax enough to go back to sleep.

Herbal sleep aids. Includes teas, tinctures, capsules, etc. These are nice for relaxation, and definitely help me wind down at the end of the day. They assist in the mind-racing department, but don’t ultimately do much for sleeping.

Phosphatidylserine. This is supposed to bind to your cortisol receptors, basically blocking your cortisol uptake. It seemed to help for a few weeks, but then I switched brands and haven’t gotten the same results. (Also, it’s $$$$$.)

Meditation. No doubt — it’s good to meditate. When I can wrestle myself into a groove of doing it regularly, it’s even better. It helps me cope with sleep deprivation. But it doesn’t actually help me sleep.

Journaling. I think if I weren’t already a writer, journaling would help me a lot. I mean… it does help me a lot, but I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Journaling before bed is supposed to help you brain-dump, so your mind can relax. It’s nice to do this, for sure. Hasn’t solved my problem though.

Breathing exercises. I’ve tried Earth breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, counting my breaths, imagining my breath is the ocean, and pretty much any other breathwork I can find. I really like it. Especially at 4 AM when I’m awake for no reason.

Cleansing. I’ve done the CLEAN Cleanse and the Standard Process Cleanse, as well as a sort of combo of the two. You have to be careful, because cleansing can tax your adrenals even more. I always keep solid foods in my cleanses, with ample protein. I had great results with both (the SP Cleanse was more effective)… only, sleeping better wasn’t one of them.

Elimination diet. I gave up gluten, corn, dairy soy, sugar, caffeine and alcohol for about a year. No change. (I mean, my body felt good. My digestion was on point. But I still couldn’t sleep.)

Putting a Celestite crystal under my pillow. I am so not kidding. (When you can’t sleep, you’ll try anything.) Celestite is a crystal that’s supposed to clear your mind and keep you grounded. Or something. I don’t know if it’s helping me sleep, but it sure is pretty to look at.

The Losers (with a Capital ‘L’)

Ambien. I finally agreed to try what I think of as “the hard stuff” after all my cleanses and dietary restrictions and acupuncture and counseling weren’t working. It’s kind of fun to fall asleep so fast, but I don’t stay asleep on this, and then I wake up feeling drugged. Even on just half a pill.

Melatonin. [Thumbs down, blows raspberry.] Does not work for me. Keeps me up WAY more than my insomnia ever does. I’ve heard it works for other people though! Yay for you!

What I Haven’t Tried

Managing my blood sugar. When I found out my cortisol was too high, I also found out my blood sugar was too low. I’ve been counseled to eat more protein, which is surprisingly challenging, and to try eating protein before bed, which grosses me out (but it’s probably why the Orchex seems to help). Still a work in progress on this one.

Hormone therapy. The cortisol test also checks things like progesterone, DHEA, and insulin. My levels at the time were in a normal range (so was my thyroid). But I wonder…

Sleep hygiene. You’re supposed to create a nightly routine that relaxes you and signals your brain to start shutting down. You know, like a 3-year-old — first you take a bath, then you brush your teeth, then you read a story, then it’s time for bed. I haven’t been able to implement this yet.

The Ugly (Baggy-Eyed, Sluggish, Irritable) Truth

I’m starting to think that what I — what we — really need is a technology intervention. The problem is, there’s too much input. All day long, from my morning email check to my evening reading time, I’m bombarding my brain with INPUT INPUT INPUT.

Mostly it’s quality, like the writers’ podcast I can’t get enough of. (Sometimes it’s not, like dog videos on Facebook.) Either way, it’s the quantity that really matters. And we have way too much. It’s a paradox. You’re reading an article about how computer screens are bad for you — on a freaking computer screen.

It’s an addiction. But it’s that same addiction that funds my livelihood. Think of technology like wine. If you drink Two Buck Chuck all the time, you can afford to drink all the time! But Two Buck Chuck is nasty, and wouldn’t you rather spend $20 on a nice pinot, and drink less?

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