How I Tried to Trick My Brain and Cure My Insomnia
10.05.18

This story, originally published in November 2016, is perfect for Dreams Month in that REM cycles and blue light are discussed at length. In the two years since I first set off on my anti-insomnia adventure, I’m happy to report that conditions have improved, largely thanks to the methods I outline below (no screens before bed and meditation in particular). Read on and sleep well.


M

y 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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