How I Cured My Chronic Insomnia

by | Feb 20, 2013

Photo by Alyssa L. Miller

I don’t use the term chronic insomnia lightly. Have you ever heard of a kid who fakes naps during preschool just to placate the teacher? That was me.

Despite my parents letting me stay up to 9-10pm when I was 8-years old—way later than most of my peers (thank you Dad, you rock!)—I inevitably drove them crazy by waking up at the crack of dawn (literally) on weekends ready to kick off the day.

In high school I averaged maybe 5 hours of sleep a night. Even today I rely on the occasional Ambien to make sure I sleep through a flight or get enough rest the night before an important event.

My insomnia is multifaceted. I have trouble falling asleep because I am very sensitive to light (sometimes I joke that I have invisible eyelids). I’m also very sensitive to sounds and have difficulty getting comfortable.

Once I’m asleep, it’s also way too easy to wake me up. And once I wake up, falling back asleep in less than two hours is nearly impossible. I wake up at any hint of light entering the room, or any abnormal noise.

I’ve tried melatonin, tryptophan, St. John’s wort, camomile, kava kava and antihistamines. Most of them just make me extra miserable because I get groggy and drowsy, but still can’t fall asleep. Ambien has been the only prescription sleep aid that works for me without major side effects, but it is not for everyone and I certainly did not want to rely on it for my day-to-day sleep hygiene.

But with a combination of these techniques, I’ve been able to control my insomniac tendencies and boost my sleep to a solid seven hours a night.

9 Tips To Cure Insomnia

1. Get on a consistent sleeping schedule

This one is probably the most important. The circadian rhythms that control your sleep-wake cycle originate in a part of your brain called the hypothalamus (specifically the suprachiasmatic nucleus, for you neuroscience geeks).

These neurons are sensitive to light and work to sync your biological clock to regular light-dark hours. The more consistent these are, the stronger your body will respond to natural circadian rhythms and the easier it will be to fall asleep when you’re supposed to.

2. No interactive screen time 1 hour before bed

As mentioned above, bright light can impact your circadian rhythms and staring into a computer screen late into the night can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Working and other mental activity can also keep your mind alert and prevent it from relaxing enough to fall asleep.

I am acutely aware of how difficult it is to unplug when you’re a workaholic, but a good night’s sleep does more for my productivity than I could ever achieve in the 12th or 14th hour of my workday, so I’ve learned to disengage well before bedtime.

Though I haven’t had any problems from watching TV or a movie, it’s best to stay away from any devices that require input from you for the last hour before bed. This means you should turn off the computers, smart phones, video games and tablets, no matter how badly you want to level up. Instead, try to quiet your mind by taking a bath, reading a book, having some herbal tea, cleaning up the house, listening to music or practicing meditation.

3. Don’t eat too late

Eating close to bed time, particularly a high-calorie, heavy meal, is associated with poorer sleep quality. I’ve also noticed this in myself, and when I avoid late night eating I get better, more consistent sleep. If you’re hungry, try drinking a glass of water and going to bed on an empty stomach instead. You certainly won’t starve to death.

4. Exercise daily

The best sleep I ever got was when I was marathon training at 5am every weekday before school. I fell asleep like clockwork at 10:30pm every night. It was glorious.

Heavy exercise is certainly a great way to invoke sound sleep, but even moderate activity like walking 10,000 steps each day can make a big difference in sleep quality. If you aren’t sure how much activity you’re getting, a Fitbit pedometer might be a good investment.

5. No caffeine after 1pm

This one was hard for me to believe. I’d been a heavy coffee drinker from a young age, and never thought it effected my sleep one way or another. If I was really tired during finals, coffee never seemed to help much and there were a few times when I fell asleep not too long after having a double espresso.

I’m not sure if I changed or if my sleep cycle was just so messed up that I couldn’t detect relevant differences, but now that I’ve switched to drinking mainly tea I’ve noticed that if I drink any caffeine too late in the day it is harder to fall asleep. I try not to drink coffee after 12pm, but 1pm is sometimes more realistic.

6. Use a white noise machine

My old apartment was just two doors down from a bustling freeway off ramp, and as you can imagine the traffic noise was constant. As someone who is very sensitive to noise, this posed a tremendous problem.

I’ve tried sleeping with ear plugs, but I have small ears and find them very uncomfortable. The solution that works best for me to control noise disturbances is the Sleepmate, a white noise machine that is quiet enough to ignore but drowns out most other ambient noise. This thing is a lifesaver if you’re stuck in a noisy neighborhood.

7. Black out shades or sleep mask

I realized early on that I’m sensitive to even the slightest amount of light in a room, even small ones like a laptop charging light.

If you’ve taken care of all the light sources inside your bedroom but are still bothered by light that sneaks in under the door or through the window, consider getting some black out shades or a sleep mask. The shades work great but can be expensive and kind of ugly. If you go with a mask, I find that the cheaper, less cushy ones are the most comfortable. Mine looks a lot like this one for under $2.

8. Don’t drink too much alcohol

Though a small nightcap can often help me relax and fall asleep faster, too much alcohol is proven to disturb sleep and can cause you to wake up early. If you like to party, keep in mind that it may be impacting your life in more negative ways than you think.

9 . Practice mindfulness

Though light, noise and bad habits all play a role in my sleep problems, I’m convinced that at the root of it all is a wandering mind. These other factors just add levels of distraction to my already overstimulated brain.

In our plugged in world, constant interruptions are making it progressively difficult to keep your attention on a single task long enough to get it done. For me, the nightly task that eludes me is sleep.

Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis (e.g. spending a few seconds a day focusing on my breathing or taking the time to eat a bite of food slowly with my eyes closed) gives me the power to truly relax my mind when I’m trying to fall asleep rather than letting it drift to all the things I need to get done the following day.

Mindfulness isn’t easy, but the only way to get better is through practice. Whenever you’re waiting for an elevator, standing in line, walking up stairs, taking a bite of food, take a few seconds to reflect on where you are and how your body feels. Focus on a few breaths, in and out, and get accustomed to letting go of your worries. The longer you can sustain this practice the easier it will be to let go of your problems and get a good night’s sleep.

What helps you sleep better?

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123 Responses to “How I Cured My Chronic Insomnia”

  1. mattser says:


    Tips –

    1) cut out coffee altogether. Drink tea but not after 4pm.

    2) don’t over sleep on weekends

    3) do some exercise in the early evening and early in the week (to aid transition to work day week) – in my case swimming

    4) switch off phones/laptops after 9pm.

    After doing all of these I still may wake up to visit bathroom but will go back to sleep before I know it.

    finally if you have a kid in your house that wakes you up (but they still manage 12 hours) … buy a bigger bed and let them sleep in the middle ;-)

  2. tim says:

    I have on the average an hour of sleep a night. I’m 48, extremely ad-hd, ptsd, depression, and stressful social and family life.
    I worry excessively and cannot my brain off. It’s making me crazy.
    I have been on crazy doses of ambien ( 30mg) with soma and Xanax …still no go.
    They simply cannot go any higher. The natural stuff , needless to say doesn’t even make me a little tired.
    Any ideas??

    • Georgina says:

      That depends on what kind of natural stuff you take or have taken, because there is so many different types out there.
      Ordinarily I would suggest 5htp for anxiety, gaba for controlling your thoughts.
      How much you should take is up to how much your body needs, they say always start off with a low dose and then increase it slowly until you find it working for you. And also check with your doctor or on the label of the bottle to see the maximum dosage because you don’t want to overdose, that would do more harm than good.
      5htp works by increasing the serotonin in your body which controls anxiety, depression and sleeplessness.
      At the same time I would also try something like yoga and meditation, maybe even acupuncture. A nice warm bath before going to bed and listen to some soothing relaxing music.

      And I would try to get off those drugs. They are not meant to be taken for the long term and will do more harm than good.

      It’s not an easy but others have been there too and have been able to come off prescription drugs or even harder drugs and have survived.

      Hope that helps?

    • joy says:

      I’m having trouble sleeping too, like going nights with no sleep. Yesterday I had a massage that was specifically for insomnia, it helped so much, i never knew i was so tense. And I slept 12 hours the next night. Also check out Calm Spirits, it is a Chinese herb that is good for you, it detoxes your organs and calms you be restoring normal blood flow. Also you may want to do a sleep study or CBTs.

    • Racquel says:

      Tim, hypnotherapy/hypnosis can work wonders. R

    • Marshall says:

      Hi Tim,

      it sounds like you need hard dosages, either go to the doctor and tell them your life is falling apart and it’s ruining your work, relationship. happiness etc – you need to go to the extreme and give them a 10+ on the ‘help me’ scale to get the doctors to listen to you and prescribe you something heavy duty. If the doctor you see doesn’t listen, see another one. Insomnia has almost no hard and fast cure and doctors are clueless about it. They’ll tell you ‘drugs are not a good option’ or ‘drugs are addictive’, ‘you shouldn’t be taking these’. No sh*t Sherlock, but what DO you recommend doc? Because in my 10+ years of being aware of my insomnia and all the research I’ve done – the only known cure is hardcore psychotherapy (expensive), hard sleep drugs, retirement, or alcoholism.

      None of the options are good. But I feel like you already know that. So, if you ever wanna talk about it or trade tricks and tips that have boosted sleep for atleast a couple hours a week – lemme know.

    • Colin says:

      Hi Tim, the doctor should be able to help with different medications. I’ve been on and off different prescriptions for the past few years as my symptoms get worse and better. My doctor referred me to a specialist two years ago and we went through a list of medications and dosages for anxiety, depression and insomnia. The dosages ended up rather high so we decided to wean off the majority of it, for the past 18 months I’ve been taking very little (currently low dosages of zopiclone and xanax). I build up tolerances to pills rather quickly so it’s a struggle to find something that will work over the long run.

      Last year, I was enrolled in a stress reduction course based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness clinic. I’m still trying to integrate it into my day-to-day life but the yoga and meditation does help me fall to sleep easier at night. I think part of why it helps is that it builds a pre-bed ritual so I’m more able to fall asleep after completing it. I fell asleep in the middle of a meditation session at the stress reduction program!

      For the past two months, I’ve been doing a daily exercise routine and that has helped burn off some of the anxiety.

      I also suffer from excessive worry problems in the middle of the night. I’ve begun to see some improvements in the past few months – fragile improvement since a bad anxiety day can set off many bad insomnia nights but there is improvement. (I’m 46 and definitely had the anxiety issues as a kid although I didn’t know what it was back then; I have a long history of bad anxiety and stress).

      In my experience, there’s a place for medication along with other techniques. Some nights, only the pills can get me to sleep; other nights I don’t use them at all now.

    • Bob S. says:


      My wife’s mind works overtime a lot like yours! It doesn’t stop. She would be in the same condition as you if she did not take Klonapin (2mg/night). Nothing else helps except maybe soma on rare occasions. Just a word of warning — Klonapin is extremely hard to quit and it must be reduced gradually over months. My wife actually went through the withdrawal bit (with a million withdrawal symptoms) but, once she was off of it, her sleep became as rare as yours! Other pills in her arsenal were worthless. She felt like she was dying (because she was). So after a month, she returned to Klonapin and now sees it as a life saver and also as a pill for life.

      Bob S.

    • di from Oregon says:

      Ambien can effect your memory Tim. Can you get Dr Caroline Leafs book on controlling your toxic thoughts? Called: Who Switched Off My Brain.” It would help you, I’m sure. Google her to get it.

    • Ruxi says:

      Hello, Tim!
      (please excuse my poor Google-Translate-English)
      Your short story broke my heart. I am an insomniac too, I am also depressed – it seems to be a vicious circle here. My liver is worse day after day… I open every single day my computer and read hundreds of advice and opinions. Nothing worked yet.
      But I am writing to you because I recently read about EFT – Emotional Freedom Techniques. My advice is to read on internet what you find, to download the free e-book (I think I’m not allowed to mention the author here) and to find a practitioner in your town.
      They say is also very good for PTSD.
      It seems to be a kind of stupid thing, but you have nothing to lose if you try. If I wasn’t so desperate, I would not have tried it.
      I didn’t cure my insomnia (probably because I didn’t find the root yet), but it works for me concerning headaches, allergies, cravings, sore throat, etc.
      I wish you all the best and hope to read here if something good happened to you.
      Fingers crossed,

  3. Brian says:

    My problem and I think I’m finally realizing after many years and test is that I have a very fine tremor – more of a vibration that is preventing me from getting into restorative sleep. If you know what I’m referring to I’d love to hear from you. And any possible cures or treatments.:::

  4. Dave says:

    You’ve simply regurgitated the advice on every other lame insomnia forum. I live on probably 1 hour/night. Nothing helps except a cuddle but they’re just too hard to get when you’re driven crazy with insomnia. Vicious cycle!

  5. Claude Borel says:

    I’ve had insomnnia for all my life and it worked for me.

    I’m sorry it did nothing for you.

  6. Natasha says:

    I have horrible insomnia for a year. It started from health related stress and since that time I started waking up after 3 hours. I started trying medication and nothing worked until I was put on 300 mg Seroquel. I slept with it for several months but started tapering too fast since I was scared if this med. I stopped last September and tried sleeping with supplements. I was getting 2 hours of sleep and after 2 months could not take it and started Trazodone. I am still using Trazodone and I add Ativan when Trazodone does not work. With all these I am still getting 5.5 -6 hrs of sleep. Sometimes less. I am 46 and use to be very active. Now I have bad anxiety all day long and think about my sleep all the time. I am also dizzy during the day and my hands stated trembling. I am loosing hope that things can change and I am just wasting my life. I don’t enjoy anything and always scared. If you can give me some hope, I would appreciate it. I did tried everything natural, acupuncture, etc. I would love to talk to someone in similar situation… I just don’t know how to go on…

  7. Claude Borel says:

    Hi Darya,

    Can you please delete my comment about the 12 rules above?

    I need it to be deleted

    Thank you

    Claude Borel

  8. Marshall says:

    You’re just repeating the same stuff everyone who really hasn’t had chronic insomnia says. Please, unless you have a specific medication or a referral to a successful psychoanalyst, please refrain from suggesting things like “clock watching”. If I hear one more person suggest yoga or tea, I’m gonna lose it.

  9. Marshall says:

    Hey all,

    I started a website for people who have chronic insomnia, where people can share their stories, hardships, tips and tricks, about dealing with insomnia. I have a hard time finding others who have the same level of insomnia as me, and whenever I find stories of people having the same specific issues and feelings about it, it makes me feel better, if only ever so slightly.

    Anyway, share it round if you like, i’d love to get some fantastic content on there to help people like us.

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