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I Tried 4 Natural Insomnia Cures

None of which involved warm milk.

11.29.16
insomnia-cures-man-repeller-7

My brain is a real comedian. Its longest-running joke occurs every night from the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., during which it (hilariously) delves into all the things I might possibly be stressed about. The list includes unanswered emails, the smelly leftover salmon I put in the fridge at work, the lack of exclamation points in a text I just received from a friend, that man who was mean to me that one time on the subway in 2012, the too-small shoes I need to return before the 14-day return window expires, an Instagram caption I should have phrased differently, the overly dressed salad I ate for lunch, money, politics, gluten and Dream Kardashian.

Until recently, I considered insomnia to be one of those mildly annoying but semi-endearing things about myself, like the hair on my big toes. But after one particularly stressful week wherein I slept no more than four hours a night and could barely function during the day, I decided it was absolutely not an adorable personality quirk. I needed solutions.

For this experiment, I decided to test-drive all-natural solutions I would feel comfortable sustaining for a week at a time. Before I began, I kept track of my sleep from Sunday through Thursday night (school nights!) for a few consecutive weeks and found that I averaged around six hours of sleep per night, with sleep quality hovering at around a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. I used these numbers as my “controls” to measure the impact of the following insomnia-fighting experiments:


#1 NO SCREENS BEFORE BED

According to every article I’ve ever read about sleep, staring at an electronic screen before bed is basically like dunking your REM cycle in gasoline and striking a match. It only took a few lazy Google searches to find out exactly why: blue light (the kind of light emitted by devices like computers, cell phones and iPads) suppresses melatonin, a.k.a. the handy dandy hormone that regulates your circadian rhythm and signals to your body that it’s time to go the eff to sleep.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences comparing the sleeping habits of people who read on iPads before bed versus those who read print books found that iPad readers not only took longer to fall asleep, but they *also* felt more tired the following day.

Speaking as someone who typically tucks into bed with an episode or four of Grey’s Anatomy, I figured eliminating this habit was a no-brainer in my quest to combat insomnia. From Sunday through Thursday night, I swapped my nightly Netflix binge with a few chapters of the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels series.

Average number of hours sleep: 7.7

Quality of sleep: 7/10

Quick take: Eliminating blue light pre-bedtime had a definitive impact on both the quantity and quality of my sleep. Surprise, surprise.


#2 MEDITATION

For the next stop on my anti-insomnia tour, I paid a visit to NYC’s MNDFL Meditation Studio for a one-on-one “Sleep” session. After taking off my shoes and shutting my cell phone down, I followed David, my instructor, into a private meditation room. I couldn’t stop fidgeting for the first few minutes, likely because I’m the kind of numbnut who wears a silk chiffon skirt to a meditation class and struggles to sit comfortably on the tiny, chic floor cushions. David was extremely nice and his voice was basically human butter, so I got my act together and dutifully zenned out for the rest of the session.

When I asked David what differentiates a “Sleep” session from other meditation classes, he explained: “While many of the MNDFL classes are designed to either cultivate a certain quality, channel energy or stabilize the mind through concentration, the Sleep class aims for deep somatic rest.” (Ed. note: I Googled “somatic” so you wouldn’t have to — it means “related to the body, especially as distinct from the mind.”) “Instead of perpetuating our mental narratives about our life, our career, relationship and about our own bodies, we drop our awareness deeply into the body,” David said. “We practice non-conceptual, non-judgmental body-scanning that smoothes the sensory wavelengths.”

With this technique in mind (no pun intended), I attempted my own, at-home version of the “Sleep” meditation every night before bed for the rest of the week.

Average number of hours sleep: 7

Quality of sleep: 6/10

Quick take: Disclaimer! This week was the week of the election which SERIOUSLY threw off my sleep. I only got five hours of sleep on election night, and they were about as restful as a bikini wax. That being said, obeying my meditation pledge and mentally draping a warm washcloth over the microphone of my brain to muffle the swell of anxiety for ten or so minutes every night couldn’t have come at a better time.


#3 AROMATHERAPY

I keep a bottle of This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray on my nightstand because a) I got it for free and b) I’m a sucker for clickbait wellness products. I spritz it on my pillow occasionally, and the smell is very pleasant. The fact that such a product exists was reason enough for me to justify looking into the world of sleep-inducing scents, coupled with my longstanding desire to be one of those people who uses essential oils casually.

For an experienced perspective, I talked to massage therapist Lara Katsman at NYC’s Haven Spa. Lara has studied the beneficial impact of alternative healing methods like aromatherapy, acupuncture and heat therapy and is passionate about incorporating these techniques into her practice.

She suggested I try using Bergamot oil to help me relax before bed, explaining that it “soothes nerves, reduces tension and helps to treat ailments associated with sleeplessness, insomnia and high blood pressure.” It also “stimulates the activity of serotonin and dopamine, which are excellent relaxants and sedatives.”

Lara provided the following instructions for maximizing the benefits of my Bergamot oil baptism:

-Dim the light in the room
-Rest on the floor
-Rub a few drops of the oil in your hands for several seconds. Hold your hands close to your nose and take five deep breathes
-Fold a wet hot towel and place it on your bare chest
-Take a dry towel and cover your eyes
-Continue to rest for a few minutes in this position

Average number of hours sleep: 7

Quality of sleep: 8/10

Quick take: Not only did performing this nightly ritual make me feel like a classy witch, it also seriously upped my sleep quality for the week. I’m not sure if it was a placebo effect, but the whole warm towel/oily breathing shtick was a great distraction from my usual bedtime anxiety show, and I think I slept more deeply as a result.


#4 NO CAFFEINE

I cannot stress how much I dreaded this experiment, which is probably why I saved it for last. My almond milk latte is a form of daily self-care, and I look forward to it every morning. I’ve also been told that as long as I relegate my caffeine consumption to early in the day, it shouldn’t affect my sleep. But Krista, former cold brew guzzler-turned-decaf-evangelist, mentioned to me in passing that cutting out caffeine noticeably improved her sleep. Then I was having coffee with my friend Eva (well, I was drinking coffee — she was drinking a kombucha), and she coincidentally said the same thing. Basically the universe was telling me to just give it a try and stop being a baby about it. So I did. I won’t lie to you: The withdrawal headaches were killer. It felt like satan was pressing his thumbs into the softest parts of my brain. But I lasted for four whole days without coffee. Do I get a medal?

Average number of hours sleep: 7

Quality of sleep: 9/10

Quick take: My quality of sleep definitely improved when I wasn’t drinking coffee. I don’t think it necessarily helped me fall asleep faster, but I felt more inclined toward sleep. Does that make sense? It was like my body knew it was bedtime, and it was super pumped about it. (Such a bummer. I was really hoping this particular experiment would be a total failure.)

FINAL VERDICT: All four methods helped me establish a considerably healthier routine and mindset when it came to sleep. Not all of what I tried was 100% scientific, but the mere fact that I was making sleep a bigger priority constituted a huge shift in and of itself. I don’t think I could ever keep up the no-caffeine thing, but I definitely plan to continue mini-meditations and Bergamot oil sniffing before bed. And eliminating screen time whenever possible — although Shonda Rhimes has made that exceedingly difficult.

Special thanks to MNDFL Meditation Studio and Haven Spa. Follow them on Instagram @mndflmeditation and @havenspanyc.

Speaking of sleep issues, what’s the deal with night sweats?

Photos by Krista Anna Lewis; Harling is wearing a Morgan Lane robe and eye mask.

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  • Kirstin Bunton

    Try magnesium, you can take it before bed and it will help soothe your nerves similar to the oil. Nice to have on hand when travelling, and a slightly simpler routine, if hot towels and oil become laborious. Although, ritual is also very good for sleep issues. Happy Z’s!

    • Harling Ross

      **RITUAL** is something I desperately need. Will try the magnesium tip — thanks!!

    • Julia Park

      I second this!! Magnesium lotion is AMAZING! I heard about it on the favorite things episode of the Pop Fashion Podcast and was a bit skeptical at first, but it really helps. It makes me sleep deeper and I agree it is a nice ritual. You can order some on Etsy in cute little travel size jars for trial.
      Another part of my ~sleep ritual~ is to drop myself some melatonin thirty minutes before bed. It makes me feel like a baby bird and I sleep well. Yay!

  • Grace B

    f.lux! you need f.lux! It’s made a huge difference for me, and makes me kinda feel okay about screens later in the evening. And yea, no 3 pm coffee ALSO really helps. :/

    • Harling Ross

      does f.lux actually work?? that is GREAT to know

      • Grace B

        I love it! You install it and choose when you want to wake up each day and it mimics the sunset/sunrise in your specific location to dim the blue light on your screen accordingly. It’s great! And you can turn it off easily. Highly recommend.

        • Harling Ross

          i’m 100% doing this

      • snakehissken

        It works, but it throws your colors off. So just remember to disable it if you’re looking for green shirts for an MR article.

    • susan

      recently started using this, I almost feel like it even puts me to sleep a bit (?!)

      • Grace B

        Me too!

    • Catseye Nebula

      For iOS devices, it’s the Night Shift feature in your Display and Brightness settings. It’s the best!

  • Danielle R

    I highly recommend the Sleep lotion (I put it on my wrists) and pillow mist from Bath and Body Works! 🙂

  • Taste of France

    I got a wakeup call, so to speak, about my sleep quality when I got a FitBit. 4.5-5.5 hours a night. I go to sleep immediately but wake around 2 a.m. and then can’t get back to sleep. I switched to decaf for a while (and coffee time ends by noon), but got out of the habit. And the screens–I started catching up on the news at night on my tablet, leaving “Don Quixote” to languish on the nightstand (which is too bad because it is far better and funnier than I’d expected). Then, in the middle of the night, I lie there thinking about how I need to start gardening to feed my family when WWIII starts Jan. 21, or which country would be a safe haven (New Zealand and Bora Bora are the best bets).
    That said, when my kid begged me to read longer last weekend, I promptly zonked out and slept and amazing 7.5 hours despite having no space. Having your kid right there, safe and sound, is the best stress reliever.

  • Samantha Lee

    On the caffeine subject – does anyone know if it can cause eye twitches? I’ve had a crazy case of eye twitching the last several weeks – usually happens in the evenings. Like you, I am hoping coffee is not the culprit, but I am also too scared to WebMD it.
    http://www.wonderlandsam.com

    • Harling Ross

      i’ve heard your eye twitches when you’re tired — ha!

    • Angela

      Eye twitching is usually a sign of stress or anxiety. It’s fairly common.

  • Alanis

    Will be trying these methods! I’m so jealous of those people that can lay down, close their eyes and fall asleep within 10 minutes. It’s definitely not that simple for me! More like 2 hrs

    • Harling Ross

      These are my exact feelings.

  • Angela

    If you can’t sleep b/c of anxiety or a mind that just won’t turn off, I suggest doing a session of Headspace (meditation app). It works really well for me. Or, you know, sex…

  • sarah

    Another fool proof one for me: laying on an acupressure mat for a little while! Esp good for my back which is always in knots but also makes me v sleepy. You can get one from Amazon on the cheaps… they’re basically all the same but I own a spoonk brand one. # l y f e c h a n g i n g

    • Harling Ross

      i love the sound of this

    • belle

      I need to know more about this!!

      • sarah

        It’s so good! It’s kind of like a bed of nails. It’s uncomfortable the first few times but you get used to it fast (the first time I tried it I was like “ah this hurts!” And then immediately fell asleep on it for 20 minutes). The little spikes increase blood circulation to your muscles to help them relax. I’m not 100% sure of the science, but I know I definitely notice the difference in the morning if I skipped it the night before.

        • belle

          I’m assuming it works like acupuncture, it sounds really nice! I definitely want to get one, I take medication that makes me restless at night and I hold a lot of stress in my shoulders.

  • That bergamot oil ritual sounds amazing! I want to try this. I feel the exact same way when it comes to falling asleep, all the random crap I can’t remember during the day suddenly resurfaces.

  • pterridactyl

    I suffered from insomnia about four years ago and over a period of a few months was averaging 2 hours sleep a night, whilst trying to maintain a labour intensive job by day. I was so, so reluctant to go down the medication route so tried all of the above, to no avail. I eventually gave in and saw a doctor, was prescribed a sedative and within a week I had managed to form a regular sleeping pattern again. I can’t speak for everyone but sometimes natural remedies just don’t quite cut the mustard!

  • Isidora

    When you can’t fall asleep: try white noise sounds from youtube. It’s for soothing babies, but put me to sleep every time. There are various kinds, so you can find what suits you.

    • Harling Ross

      ah I’ve been meaning to try that! I feel like it would also be a great way to drown out the noise of my upstairs neighbors who seem to enjoy moving furniture at 1:00am

      • Isidora

        Yes, it helped me with other noises, too. My husband uses ASMR, cause he finds white noise annoying. To each his own

      • Ashley

        There’s an app I use called “White Noise”. I think its costs $1.99 or something but it is SO WORTH IT. There are so many sounds/combinations to choose from & you can set when the noises go off and when an alarm rings. I can’t sleep without it now.

      • snakehissken

        I bought a pricy app ($5 plus another $5 for all the options) called Sleep Genius that plays pink noise. It’s supposed to be better for you than white noise. It does seem to help, but I was pretty desperate.

  • Thefullcolorlife

    You guys are the best. I love everything about ManRepeller.

  • Alice

    I have the opposite problem, I love sleeping and I’m almost always sleepy. I’ve gotten tests done and there’s nothing wrong with me. Oh, and I’m immune to caffeine which is something I haven’t yet decided if it is good or bad(good- I can drink all the tea I want at all hours; bad-when I’m sleepy or tired there’s no way around it)

  • Cristina

    Valerian Root is really good in some night time tea. I used to have major sleep problems in college, probably because I ate like crap but mostly because I’m such a light sleeper. I ran through tall OTC stuff, Benedryl, NyQuil, then Tylenol PM, then Tylenol PM without the headache medicine. Finally, someone suggested Valerian Root in some tea. It’s related to the poppy (that makes Dorothy and her friends fall asleep in the Wizard of Oz!) it smells like stinky gym socks but comes in drops and tastes pretty mild. It doesn’t knock you out like sleeping medicine, but once you fall asleep, you stay asleep and don’t wake up wondering what day it is or what your name is. I get it at Whole Foods!

  • Robin

    when I grow up I want to be a classy witch

  • pamb

    Surprised not to see melatonin or magnesium listed in the article.

  • J Mac

    Just started doing this a couple days ago and it’s worked like a charm: Eat a spoonful of coconut oil, raw honey, and sea salt before bed. It’s delicious, for starters, and then makes me sleep like a baby – I fall asleep much faster, stay asleep, and if I happen to wake up in the night I can get back to sleep fast. Great dreams, deep sleep, wake up feeling super refreshed and calm. LOVE

  • rita

    very strange solution that i discovered this summer: before you go to bed, put your legs up on a wall. i lay in bed, scooch my butt against the wall, and throw my legs straight up. i do that for like 3 minutes, sometimes while moisturizing my hands. puts me right to sleep and i have no clue why but it works.

  • Annie

    So this goes completely against the “no screens” idea – but I’ve been hitting up that ASMR once I’m in bed. My mind usually races and just circles around stuff rather than letting me sleep, but with the asmr videos (I like Gentlewhispering – they’re all a bit odd but she’s the least sexual/awkward/she seems nice) my brain just calms down and I fall asleep while listening to the videos just about every time. If that’s too weird, there’s also a podcast called Sleep with Me that is worth checking out! It’s funny and the guy drones on until you’re fast asleep. He talks about Game of Thrones a lot and I’m into it.