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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8 Simple Tips To Avoid Late Night Snacking

by | Feb 6, 2013

Photo by xJasonRogersx

Snacking can be a mixed blessing for anyone learning to eat healthy. On one hand, a small healthy snack after a workout or an hour or so before a late meal can help you avoid making bad, hunger-induced food decisions later. On the other hand, snacking can easily grow out of control and be a source of hundreds of excess calories.

Late night snacking almost never falls into the good snacking category and is usually driven by cravings or habit rather than legitimate hunger. Here are a few tips to help you make healthy post-dinner food decisions and break the habit of late night snacking.
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For The Love Of Food

by | Jan 27, 2012

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

Some awesome news in the science of weight loss (hint: it involves making your fat into a calorie burning machine), why you should only eat organic strawberries (at least for now), plus two awesome winter recipes I’m dying to try.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links on Twitter (@summertomato), Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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Farmers Market Update: A Midsummer Day’s Dream

by | Jul 25, 2010
Star Squash

Star Squash

“And, most dear actors, eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and I do not doubt but to hear them say, it is a sweet comedy.”

– A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 4, Scene 2), William Shakespeare

It is hard to imagine having anything but sweet breath after leaving the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market this weekend. I must have tried at least a dozen different varieties of pluots, and at least as many peaches and nectarines (my favorite this week).

Organic Yellow Peaches

Organic Yellow Peaches

Nectarines

Nectarines

There were strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Apricots and figs. Melons and tomatoes. All sweet as can be.

Organic Raspberries

Organic Raspberries

Even the greens looked tender and sweet. I couldn’t help but get some of this red kale from Green Gulch Farm. There is something amazing about fresh picked greens grown with care. They look so soft, yet crisp and nutritious.

Beautiful Collards

Beautiful Collards

Red Kale

Red Kale

I would have bought some of the beautiful collards as well if I had been able to resist the beautiful chioggia beets, whose greens came attached for free (here’s my favorite beet recipe). I also grabbed one of their tea bouquets. Yes, we have some seriously sweet breath up in here.

Fresh Tea Bouquet

Fresh Tea Bouquet

Chioggia Beets

Chioggia Beets

I’m very excited to see that midsummer is in full swing and the eggplants are finally worth noticing. And being the chiliphile that I am, I was delighted to find that the peppers are starting to heat up.

Green Hot Chili Peppers

Green Hot Chili Peppers

Rosa Bianca Eggplants

Rosa Bianca Eggplants

I noticed fresh green beans have appeared too (no wax beans yet).

And lastly, does anyone know what glacier lettuce is??

Glacier Lettuce

Glacier Lettuce

Fresh Green Beans

Fresh Green Beans

Today’s purchases:

What did summer bring you this week?

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For The Love Of Food

by | Jul 16, 2010

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

If you are certain milk is good for you, please read the Los Angeles Times article explaining why it may be time to reconsider. There’s also good news this week about the benefits of green tea, exercise, vitamin D and fish oil. I love good news!

I read many more wonderful articles than I post here each week. If you’d like to see more or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. For a complete reading list join me on the new Digg or StumbleUpon. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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30 Ways To Slow and Prevent Aging

by | Nov 18, 2009

Darya PinoToday is my 30th birthday and a perfect time to reflect on life, the universe and everything.

Despite being female and thus held to tough and often unrealistic physical standards, hitting the end of my third decade doesn’t cause me anxiety about either my appearance or place in the world.

In my experience, age is not an amount of time but a state of mind. As a child I always wanted to be a grown up, so I acted like one. It freaked my parents out sometimes, but that’s just how I was. In my mind, I still feel pretty much the same in that regard. I love to work hard and I thrive in positions of responsibility. Since both these traits get more important with age, I have actually enjoyed stepping into the adult role I’ve always felt I belonged in.

But that’s only one part of me.

In many other ways I’m as juvenile as ever. If you spend much time with me on Twitter (@summertomato) you’ve probably noticed I have the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy. I blame my dad for that one. I’m also still shocked every time I hear that friends my age are getting married and having children. In my brain we’re not nearly old enough for that yet! But in reality, it is my friends who are normal and I’m the outlier.

Oh, and did I mention I’m still in school? Up until a couple years ago I carried a backpack with me everywhere, for better or for worse.

Darya's GunsAll these things give me a sense of agelessness, so it is hard to think of this birthday as anything but another day to do things I love. But part of my peace of mind certainly comes from the fact that I’m in pretty good shape physically–probably the best of my life. And at 30 this is definitely something to be proud of.

Summer Tomato readers know I attribute my good health almost entirely to my eating habits. I also spend a good amount of time in the gym, though I don’t workout nearly as much as I used to. But healthstyle extends to more than just diet and exercise.

Here I’ve compiled my favorite 30 habits to slow aging and keep you young in more than just your heart.

30 Healthstyle Tips To Keep You Young

  1. Be happy The physical damage caused to your body by stress has only recently become appreciated by the scientific community. Fill your life with things you love and get rid of almost everything else. Practice stress relieving activities like meditation and exercise, and learn to appreciate joy when you find it. Happiness does a body good.
  2. Eat vegetables There is good evidence that oxidative damage caused by toxins and metabolism contributes to the aging process at a cellular level. Foods (but not supplements) high in antioxidants seem to protect us from oxidative stress.
  3. Avoid sugar Sugar is a direct cause of aging and significantly reduces lifespan in organisms from yeast to primates. Not by a small amount either.
  4. Moisturize The appearance of your skin is largely dependent upon moisture. Help it out by using moisturizers to keep your skin soft and hydrated. Work with a professional to determine what type is best for you.
  5. Don’t raise your eyebrows Credit my mother for teaching me this one, it has been a lifesaver. As a kid she used to warn me about raising my eyebrows, saying it would give me wrinkles and I’d regret it. I thought she was crazy, but still learned to express myself without much forehead crinkling. As a result I have far fewer forehead lines than some people years younger than me.
  6. Sleep For me the most important determinant of how I look (and feel) on a given day is how much sleep I get. Seven hours is my ideal, but everyone is different.
  7. Eat fish Some evidence suggests that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are particularly beneficial to the skin.
  8. Wear sunscreen I love the sun and spend as much time in it as possible, but I never walk out the door without sunscreen on my face. UV radiation from the sun damages your skin and promotes aging.
  9. Don’t smoke Smoking is one of the easiest ways to look older than you really are and shorten your life at the same time. Avoid both primary and secondary smoke like the plague.
  10. Step out of your comfort zone Mental exercise seems to be one of the key elements of quality aging, but this doesn’t mean you should sit around all day doing crossword puzzles. Neuroscientist and cognitive aging specialist Dr. Adam Gazzaley suggests going out of your way to challenge yourself mentally, doing things like traveling and learning new languages even over the age of 60.
  11. Take vitamin D Some research suggests that vitamin D may be particularly important in slowing the aging process. The jury is still out on the value of vitamin D supplements for aging, but they seem to have enough other benefits that it’s worth the investment.
  12. Eat fruit Like vegetables, fruits have an enormous amount of antioxidants and help with hydration. Vitamin C in particular is thought to benefit skin.
  13. No foundation or powder makeup Generally I avoid putting any makeup directly onto my skin. I realize I have a very flexible work environment and this is not possible for every woman, but skipping the makeup does help maintain your skin’s hydration and elasticity. I do wear makeup occasionally, maybe once or twice per week. But in general I find that mascara and lip gloss are enough for most situations.
  14. Hydrate Your skin is very sensitive to water levels. Stay hydrated by sipping water and eating fruits and vegetables throughout the day.
  15. Whiten teeth I know this isn’t something you can find at the farmers market, but when you drink as much coffee and red wine as I do, minor (and admittedly superficial) fixes like teeth whitening can go a long way. If you don’t believe me, try and remember the last time you saw a 20-year-old with yellow teeth….
  16. Wear sunglasses If you’re a happy person (and I know you are), your wrinkles will most likely be caused by smiling and show up predominantly around your eyes. Block out extra sun (and look super cool) by always wearing sunglasses when you go outside.
  17. Eat beans and lentils Legumes are a fabulous source of minerals that can help keep your skin hydrated and looking young.
  18. Tea Afternoon tea time is one of the greatest discoveries I’ve ever made. Not only is tea full of antioxidants and other cancer-fighting compounds, a midday break can be just what the doctor ordered to sip away stress.
  19. Cardio I’m not the biggest believer in cardio exercise for weight loss, but it is still important for vascular health. Not to mention how awesome you feel after a good session. Cardio doesn’t need to kill you, but you should do it regularly.
  20. Strength training Building strong, toned muscles is one of the most effective ways to look younger than your years. Ask anyone who looks fabulous and they’ll swear by strength training. A little goes a long way.
  21. Eat intact whole grains Intact grains (not fake “whole” grains that are ground into flour) are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and soluble fiber. They are also perfect fuel for those killer workouts.
  22. Olive oil It is hard to think of something more versatile, healthy and delicious than olive oil. It breaks my heart that dietary fat got such a bad rap the past few decades, since the benefits of healthy fats like olive oil are innumerable. Fat isn’t just “not bad” for you, it’s essential.
  23. Kill your television We all have things we enjoy watching (I’m partial to NBA championship teams), but if it takes up a significant amount of your time each week (>5 hrs) it may be time to reevaluate. How many years of your life do you really want to spend on your couch?
  24. Don’t stuff yourself Cutting back on calories is the single most effective way to slow aging and extend life. I don’t advise starving yourself, but it’s a good idea to avoid overeating in any situation.
  25. Eat nuts Nuts are the perfect snack food and are filled with anti-aging fats, vitamins and minerals. They are also great for suppressing appetite–just don’t eat more than a handful.
  26. Avoid dairy Studies of aging skin have shown that milk and milk products are associated with acne, which can lead to scaring and age spots.
  27. Avoid processed meats Processed meats are associated with many different health problems in humans. No need to get too hung up on this, but you may not want to eat deli meat every single day if you want to stay young.
  28. No processed carbohydrates Just like sugar, processed carbohydrates are a direct cause of aging and disease. I eat these things occasionally, but don’t let it happen too often.
  29. Coconut oil Fats come in all different shapes and sizes, and I try to incorporate a good mix of all of them. Medium-chain fatty acids like those found in coconut oil are starting to be recognized as important by researchers, but the evidence is limited. Coconut oil is also a healthy source of saturated fat for vegetarians. I always use coconut oil when cooking Southeast Asian food.
  30. Red wine Red wine has a powerful anti-aging compound in it known as resveratrol. Though it is unlikely that the dosage of resveratrol in red wine is high enough to impact lifespan, drinking alcohol in moderation is also associated with decreased risk of heart disease and other vascular problems. Cheers!

Do you have any anti-aging secrets?

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