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My Journey with Insomnia and How I Found Lasting Sleep

For as far back as I can remember, I had trouble sleeping. I’m not sure my exact age, but let’s say 4 years old. I can’t total remember why sleep was an issue in early adolescence, but I know a lot of it was around anxiety and fear of things, or people, lurking in my closet. As I got older and was in High School, it didn’t get any easier. I no longer was afraid of the dark, but I just couldn’t fall asleep as easily as everyone else. I’d wake up groggy and grumpy. When I became an adult at 18 year old, my sleep was still an issue.

After college, as I became more of a functioning adult who needed to wake up and go through a work day with energy, sleep became more of a looming issue. I turned to prescription medicine. My doctor prescribed me Ambien. I grew up with Western Medicine and regularly relied on other drugs such as Tylenol and Motrin for pain relief, so I had no issues with something that would help me get a good night's rest. At first I loved Ambien. As I drifted off to sleep, it gave me this angelic high. Almost like smoking a joint, getting the initial high and then falling asleep with a smile. For a while, it worked. The more I took Ambien, though, the more my body needed it. Soon, I was taking it and still not sleeping well. I would fall asleep, but wake up 3-5hrs later, leaving me sleep deprived and groggy the next day. I tried to stop taking the medication a few times, knowing that it wasn’t doing me any good, but it was hard to stop.

Ambien is addictive. I went through years of on and off taking Ambien. Quitting cold turkey and then getting hooked again when I anxiously felt like I needed a good night's sleep. I was basically a sleep drug addict, except that I didn’t need an underground market for my drugs, I just needed a doctor and doctors were easy to find. They handed it out like candy on Halloween. Nobody ever tried to actually address my sleep problem, but rather covered it up with medication.

Then, I found acupuncture. It wasn’t my sleep that brought me to acupuncture, but a physical injury. I got interested and started learning more though. The more I learned, the more I understood that the medicine I was taking, my lifestyle and my diet, although seemingly very healthy from the outside, was actually hurting my sleep and my body big time. Simply put, I was out of balance. I needed more Yin energy to help my body relax and sleep.

The concept of Yin and Yang is central to Chinese Medicine and something most of us have heard of at one point, but what does it really mean? Yin is night and Yang is daytime. Yin is cold and quiet and calm. Yang is hot and energetic and lively. You can’t have Yin without Yang and you can’t have Yang without Yin. When we have too much Yang in our lives, we eat up the Yin. Working long hours, exercising until exhaustion and the constant “go go go” lifestyle that a lot of New Yorkers live -- that’s all coming from Yang energy. The more we overuse our Yang energy, the less Yin we have left. Ever felt “wire, but tired?” That comes from the exhaustion of Yin. Our bodies are tired and depleted, but there’s just not enough Yin (rest/calm) to hold the (yang) energy down. A lot of the time when people are having trouble sleeping, they do the opposite of what is needed - they try to tire themselves out. When actually, the process of tiring out is what is making it hard to sleep in the first place.

With herbs, acupuncture, diet and lifestyle changes I was able to shift my poor sleep and the anxiety I’d created around sleeping. I now will still occasionally have bad nights of sleep, but I know how to deal with it. Often I understand what’s causing it and I address the problem rather than grabbing a band aid.

How Can Acupuncture Improve Sleep?

There’s so many ways acupuncture can improve sleep! The simplest way is that it relaxes your nervous system, reduces stress and anxiety and allows your body to ease into a restful sleep. Acupuncture also works to balance your body and when your body is in balance, it can do what it’s supposed to do (like sleep!). Some people have issues sleeping because of a lack of Yin (like I mentioned above); but some people can’t sleep because their qi is constrained; or they don’t have enough blood (a Yin substance) to allow a restful sleep. An acupuncturist can pinpoint and address these issues.

Herbal Remedies and Sleep

There’s a lot of different herbal remedies and formulas for sleep. There’s no one size fits all because everyone’s sleep patterns are different. There’s also different sleep issues: Falling asleep vs. staying asleep vs. not getting restful sleep. For me, when I first was dealing with insomnia, herbs for Yin deficiency (not enough Yin) really helped. I was in a constant wired, but tired state and my body needed that extra Yin energy to calm down. Other times though, I’ve taken herbs for Blood deficiency and Liver stagnation. Herbal remedies help balance your body with what is going on with you at that time.

Other Tips for Improving Sleep

  1. Sunlight 14 - 16 Hours Before Bedtime: Getting sunlight 14 - 16 hrs before your bedtimes helps to set your circadian rhythm and prime your body for a good nights sleep. It’s best to get light outside, not through a window and without sunglasses. The light doesn’t need to be bright or shining directly on you and it doesn’t need to be long: 5 - 10minutes does the trick.

  2. Sunlight Throughout the Day: Aside from it being a great mood booster and wonder for your immune system, getting proper sunlight throughout the day helps set your circadian rhythm. If you’re stuck at a desk, or it's a very cloudy day, using an LED light is a good second best. The LED lights on writing pads, or Wake Up lights will work.

  3. Exercise Early: Getting your body moving in the morning, helps set your internal clock for a proper sleep cycle. It doesn’t need to be a lot, just 10 minutes of exercise can make a difference. Even better, do it outside.

  4. Try Cutting Caffeine: Caffeine affects different people differently. Some people can have an espresso at 10pm and still sleep at night. For others, though, drinking coffee even at 9am, can keep you up at 10pm. I’m one of those people. As much as I love the taste and smell of coffee, it messes with me. If you’ve been regularly drinking coffee for a while now, you may not even notice how it affects your sleep. Try cutting it out for a week and see how you feel.

  5. Red Light at Night: Red light waves stimulate the production of melatonin which is needed for sleep. Simply a red light bulb won’t do it, though. It needs to be a light that sends red light waves. Joovv and PlatinumLED have some awesome red lights (that are also helpful for a host of other things). You can definitely find more affordable options though, like this on Amazon.

  6. Journal: I see a lot of people in my practice that have trouble sleeping due to anxiety, their mind is running. I’ve been there too. In order to release your thoughts before bedtime, right them down. Anything that is circling in your head, your to-do list, big project at work, whatever you're angry, worried, or excited about - write it down. Write it down and let it go. Release your thoughts to the words on the page.

  7. Meditation: Meditation has a whole host of benefits and I won’t get into them all here, but in terms of sleep, it relaxes your mind, body and releases anxiety. I’m not going to tell you things like not to watch TV at night, because if you’re like me, that’s just not going to happen. I know the TV screen hinders sleep, but it’s also my time to veg out and get lost in a show. Maybe it’s the same for you. After I watch TV, though, and before I go to sleep, I meditate. I lay down in bed and depending on the day, plug in my headphones for a guided meditation, or focus on deep breathing and quieting my mind. Sometimes I meditate on a positive thought or mantra. Whatever your meditation preference, do it. If you need help on where to start, Headspace is a wonderful app with a lot of choices, or Gabby Bernstein has some excellent meditations. If one meditation style doesn’t work for you, try another.

  8. Supplements: Magnesium & L-Theanine are both helpful to promote relaxation and improve sleep quality. There's a lot of different types of magnesium on the market and they have different direct effects. For sleep, magnesium glycinate has been proven to improve sleep quality. For sleep, generally a dosage of 100mg - 400mg of both magnesium and/or l-theanine is recommended.

Everybody is different and not everything works for everyone, so play around with what works for you. If you find you’re struggling with sleep and would like help or to learn more, contact me.

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