Sleep is the best drug ever

6 tips from a recovering insomniac

Seven hours. My optimal dose of sleep. More gives me a sleep hangover. Less zaps my creatively, drains my productivity, and makes me grumpy. My overall health suffers. I am convinced sleep is the best drug ever invented and is key to good health, productivity and happiness.

Until I moved to Denver, I slept like a baby. Divorce, hellish workloads or bad relationships didn’t faze me. Head hit the pillow, and I was out.

Moving to the Mile High City in 2005 was the turning point. Apparently, living and sleeping at 5280 feet is not easy. I was in a new job, industry, city and state. I didn’t know a soul or where to get my haircut, buy groceries or find a good plumber. I was remodeling and moving into a new house. The brilliant woman I had moved 1300 miles to work for left the company. To top it off, a family crisis bubbled up that made me feel very far away from everyone I loved. Goodbye peaceful sleep. Hello insomnia.

I dropped two dress sizes in a month and was tested to find out why. Nothing was physically wrong. I had a faux heart attack that turned out to be a panic attack bought on by lack of sleep. I was a complete mess – physically, mentally and emotionally.

I was lucky. My doctor was also an insomniac and had experimented on himself. He helped me slowly get back on track with some simple habits and medication. It took years to get off the medication and return to quasi-normal sleep patterns. I still struggle.

“When I get off this routine, life sucks.”

Here are a six tips that work for me. They are distilled from my personal experience and advice from sleep and productivity experts.

#1 - Have a routine and stick to it.
I’m a morning person. I get up by 5:30 a.m. and go to bed by 10:30 p.m. I need at least seven hours of sleep. When I get off this routine, life sucks. You may be at your best staying up later and getting more or less sleep. That’s cool – just create a routine and stick with it.

#2 – Remember. Nothing good happens after 10 p.m.  I need to be home and getting ready for bed by 10 p.m. If not, I tend get a second wind, have another glass of wine, watch trashy TV, stay up way too late and get into trouble. Of course, I can’t sleep in because of the aforementioned routine of getting up by 5:30 a.m. Your witching hour might be later than mine; find out what it works for you.

#3 - Get physical.
I try to do something physically exhausting every day. Running, yoga, Pilates, hiking, whatever. When I’m sore and tired, I sleep like a log.

#4 - Good sleep hygiene. Back in 2006, by doctor shared a few tips with me that work.

  • Use your bed for sleeping or spending time with your partner. Don’t have a TV in your bedroom or read in bed.
  • Steer clear of anything too stimulating at least 30 minutes before bed. And, yes. That includes your iPhone! Pay attention and scale back on anything that winds to you up.
  • If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and read. I find that long biography or a boring, must-read business book is best. I get sleepy after about 10 pages!

#5 - Empty your mind of stress and worries.
This is a tough one for me, and I imagine many of you. I inherited worry wart tendencies from my mother. To dos swirl through my brain day and night. What to do? Like my mother, I’m a list maker. I keep a master list of every to do that pops into my mind. I keep a pad of paper and pen by my bed, so if something is keeping me awake, I can write it down. I check my list every morning, deleting completed items and adding new ones. It keeps me focused and lets me turn off the noisy conversations with myself that keep me up at night.

#6 - Count your blessings.
To quote an old Irving Berlin song, “When I'm worried and I can't sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep. And I fall asleep, counting my blessings.” Think about people you love and what you achieved that day. Send healing vibes out. Say a little prayer.

“When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep
counting my blessings.”

- Irving Berlin 

Remember, I’m NOT a doctor! If you still can’t sleep, don’t hesitate to see your doctor. Many serious health conditions can cause sleeplessness.

I admit that I continue to struggle with following my own tips. I get off track easily.

What works for you? I would love to hear from you!

Helpful resources:

-        The Toll of Sleep Loss in America, MedMD

-        Morning People Vs. Night Owls: 9 Insights Backed By Science, Fast Company

-        Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer, Harvard Business Review

-        Up All Night: The Science of Sleeplessness, The New Yorker