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How I Cured My Chronic Insomnia

by | Feb 20, 2013
Photo by Alyssa L. Miller

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 affected 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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For The Love Of Food

by | Dec 7, 2012

For The Love of Food

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

This week how the FDA is killing us softly, rats get fat on calorie-free sweeteners, and why coffee is better than 5-Hour Energy.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Delicious. 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. (And yes, I took that pepper heart pic myself).

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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For The Love Of Food

by | Jun 29, 2012

For The Love of Food

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

This week, the final coffin nail for low-fat diets, how to get kids to eat healthier and the truth about food expiration dates.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Delicious. 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. (And yes, I took that pepper heart pic myself).

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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For The Love Of Food

by | Feb 4, 2011

For The Love of Food

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

In case you missed it, I shared my thoughts on the new USDA Dietary Guidelines over at my personal blog (and on MSNBC, kinda). Also this week fake sugars find themselves in the spotlight, along with dark meat chicken and the culinary crack pipe. And if you were wondering, we here at Summer Tomato have plenty of reasons to believe breakfast is still important.

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 list of my favorite stories check out my links on Digg. 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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For The Love Of Food

by | Jun 25, 2010

For The Love of Food

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

Outstanding reading to be found this week on the interwebs; tough cuts were made. Please read the landmark essay about why the gulf oil spill may be the last we know of bluefin tuna. You should also read about what is going down over California’s strawberry crop. The good news? Gourmet Magazine is coming back…in iPad form!

I’ve also had a lot of fun recently answering questions over at Formspring. Have a question? Ask me anything! www.formspring.me/daryapino

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 Digg. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

  • Tuna’s End <<You probably don’t want to know why you shouldn’t eat tuna. No one likes to hear that what they’ve been doing since childhood is devastating our world, but I urge you to be a bigger person and look at the facts. We cannot eat tuna anymore, but maybe there are alternatives. (New York Times)
  • Misleading Food Labels <<Fat-free half & half? WTF? (Michael Ruhlman)
  • Pork Board Issues Cease-and-Desist Letter Over Unicorn Meat <<BS of the week. I’ll start by saying that ThinkGeek’s offending action was a #@$%ing April Fool’s Day joke. I’ll continue by stating that nutritionally pork is red meat, not white meat, despite the misleading slogan the Pork Board claims rights to (in my opinion they should be sued for false advertising). I’ll end with this quote, “The National Pork Board has just proven, beyond all doubt, that they are the stupidest motherf*ckers on the planet.” Nuff said. (Vegan)
  • Controversial Pesticide Worries Scientists <<The growing trend of scientists being blatantly ignored by government is beyond troubling. Anyone who enjoys facts should be outraged–especially if you eat strawberries. (NPR)
  • Don’t Sound Like a Tool: The Most Mispronounced Menu Words of All Time <<Have a date coming up? You’ll thank me for this one (hint: there’s audio). (SFWeekly)
  • Restaurant Offers Lion Burgers. They’re Grrrrross! <<I wish this were BS of the week, but unfortunately it’s true. I think it has something to do with soccer. I don’t know what to say. (TreeHugger)
  • Gourmet Magazine Revived for the iPad <<Don’t know about the rest of you foodie tech geeks, but this made my week. (New York Times)
  • Coffee Might Guard Against Head, Neck Cancers <<I’m starting to wonder why anyone ever thought coffee was bad for you. Maybe it seems too good to be true, but all I’ve seen are positives for moderate coffee consumption. Mmm…data. (Medline)
  • Iodine Levels a Worry as Salt Use Declines <<Everyone is hating on salt these days, but like most things it does have its place in a healthy diet. Though most people in industrial societies are not deficient in iodine, pregnant women and people on very low salt diets should be sure they are getting their minimum iodine levels. (Medline)
  • Grilled Steak and Arugula Salad with White Beans and Shiitake Mushrooms <<Supposedly this recipe can break the mushroom hater of their unfortunate aversion. Steak to the rescue! (The Bitten Word)

What greatness did you read this week?

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For The Love of Food

by | Dec 18, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

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

I’m back! Sorry for being MIA the past few weeks. But you’ll be happy to hear my thesis committee meeting is over and I aced it. That means I will, finally, get my PhD in 2010. Woohoo!

Also thanks to all of you voted for me in the Wellsphere HealthBlogger Awards! I came in 8th! Not bad for just starting campaigning for votes last Friday. Thanks everyone!!!

Not all the links below are from this week since I had to include a few of the gems I’ve collected since Thanksgiving. I’ve also shared the latest info on BPA, which is getting worse.

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 complete reading lists join me on the social bookmarking sites StumbleUpon and Delicious. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you there. (Note: If you want a follow back on Twitter introduce yourself with an @ message).

10 Best Links of the Week

Did you miss me?

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Last Minute Foodie Gift Ideas

by | Dec 14, 2009
Photo by danesparza

Photo by danesparza

Sometimes the stars just do not align for getting your holiday shopping done early. I know I haven’t started mine yet. But there are still plenty of easy-to-find, yet super valuable gifts out there for your favorite foodies.

Personally I try to avoid giving gifts that require guessing someone else’s taste or style. Instead I rely on things that are either super useful, completely novel or just ridiculously cool.

At this stage of the game your best bets are things you can order online and have delivered in the next week, gift subscriptions, or books that you can find just about everywhere.

Here are some of the coolest tricks I have up my sleeve for 2009.

Last Minute Gift Ideas That Aren’t Lame

1. Artisan foods from FoodzieFoodzie_Facebook_Logo

Decadent food is one of the easiest ways to make someone happy. But Summer Tomato readers know that I do not take my indulgences lightly. If I’m going to eat something that isn’t healthy, I want it to be beyond awesome–the healthy food I eat is just too delicious to bother with anything less.

That’s why Foodzie is so cool. If you don’t live in San Francisco, New York or LA, finding high-end artisanal foods can be a challenge. But now thanks to Foodzie, anyone can have Bacon Jam or Single Malt Scotch Bars delivered to your doorstep. Just be sure to order in the next day or 2 or your orders won’t make it before Christmas without extra shipping costs.

2. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]0143038583&fc1[/amazon-product]

As you might imagine, I’ve read A LOT about nutrition and have tried almost every diet myself. One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in this research is that while the content of your diet is certainly important, how you think about and approach food is one of the most influential factors in your long-term health and happiness.

By far the best book I’ve read on food philosophy is Michael Pollan’s landmark work The Omnivore’s Dilemma. This book is remarkably well-written, meticulously researched and an overall pleasure to read. It is also the perfect gift for the curious yet unconvinced soon-to-be healthy eater.

If you are still looking for more, check out his practical guide for following these principles, In Defense of Food.

3. How To Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]0764578650&fc1[/amazon-product]

For someone who has decided to start cooking but doesn’t know where to begin, this book has everything you need to know. Mark Bittman is the brilliant author of the New York Times food column, The Minimalist, that includes fantastic 2-3 minute cooking videos also available as a podcast.

Bittman demystifies the kitchen by explaining basic cooking concepts and fundamentals in this classic cookbook. There is even a vegetarian version for those who aren’t interested in the perfect roasted chicken.

4. Splendid Soups, by James Peterson[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]0471391360&fc1[/amazon-product]

The only other cookbook I consider indispensable is Splendid Soups, by James Peterson. Soup is pretty close to perfect food, especially during these cold, stormy winter months. Soup is also perfect for dinner parties and potlucks, since it stays warm all night and doesn’t require a set “dinner time.”

I recently re-ordered this cookbook for myself (my last copy actually belonged to a former housemate) even though I have most of my favorite recipes memorized. I’ve benefited so tremendously from this book, I just feel better if it is always in my kitchen.

5. Cuisinart Hand Blender[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]B0006G3JRO&fc[/amazon-product]

This makes a great bundle gift with Splendid Soups, since a purée is often the last step in soup-making magic. Though it is possible to make a wonderful soup in a regular blender or food processor, it is exponentially easier if you have an immersion hand blender. You can also use an immersion blender for smoothies and other blended foods, like hummus.

The Cuisinart hand blender is especially awesome because it comes with attachments that transform it into either an electric beater or a mini chopping food processor as well.

For $50 this is some of the best value you can get out of a kitchen gadget.

6. Fagor Pressure cooker[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]B00023D9RG&fc1[/amazon-product]

My pressure cooker is the one special piece of cooking equipment that I cannot live without. The reason is that the first time I tasted beans made from scratch I knew I could never go back to canned. But beans are such an essential part of my healthstyle that the 1-4 hr cook time is a bit too inconvenient to be practical for real life.

Enter the pressure cooker. A pressure cooker cuts bean cooking time down to under half hour. It’s also great for grains and a ton of other foods. Fagor is the only brand I recommend bothering with. You don’t want to mess around with high-pressure cooking unless you are sure about your gear.

7. Audible membership

I rave about Audible every chance I get. If you’ve never heard of it, think Netflix but for audiobooks. While a monthly audiobook subscription isn’t for everyone, for those of us with commutes or jobs with extensive manual/technical (aka mindless) work, Audible is a godsend.

Though audio is still not my favorite way to “read,” it is perfect for those books in which I only have a passing curiosity. If I find a book I love (which happens often), I will buy a hard copy as well. Sometimes I listen to a book more than once. Rarely am I disinclined to finish one.

Audible is a great way to finally read all those food and health books you’ve been meaning to get to.

Have I mentioned I love Audible?

8. Zagat subscriptionzagat_twitter_bigger

Yelp is great if you want to find the best tailor near your house or need a place to get your pets groomed, but I never use Yelp for restaurant recommendations. There are very few people I trust in food taste, and in my experience Yelp reviews reflect the typical American appetite for cheap, big and cheesy. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

When I’m curious about the best Korean food in SF or if I’m traveling to a city I’m not familiar with Zagat is where I turn. I never hesitate to renew my subscription and recommend it to anyone looking for reviews by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

9. Bialetti stovetop espresso maker[amazon-product align=”right” bordercolor=”#ffffff”]B0001WYDP0&fc1[/amazon-product]

I’m something of a coffee purist, and of all the home brew methods I’ve tried (most of them) the Bialetti stovetop espresso maker is my favorite. It’s relatively inexpensive and has the added charm of being a little old-school.

This is how everyone makes coffee at home in Italy.

10. CSA membership

Busy people have trouble finding the time to buy fresh fruits and vegetables every week. CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture brings fresh, seasonal produce to you. The idea behind a CSA is that you subscribe to a farm or collection of farms and pay a certain set price (varies by farm) for a box of their goods. For your fee you are provided with a week or two worth of fruits and vegetables of the season.

Buying someone a subscription to a CSA is a great way to encourage healthy eating and support local farmers. All CSAs are a little different, so you need to find ones in your area and contact them to work out the details. Most deliver to your house or a nearby pick up point and allow some filtering for your particular food preferences.

There are also meat and dairy CSAs, which you will become more interested in after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Visit Local Harvest to find CSAs in your area.

Good luck with your shopping and happy holidays!

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