In Search of Sleep

14 November 2014 · 14 comments

It’s 4 a.m. on a Friday. I can’t sleep. After an hour of tossing and turning in bed, I’ve got up and moved to the couch so that I won’t wake Kim. Because I work from home, I have the luxury of catching a mid-day nap. She has to be up and out of the house in a couple of hours, so I don’t want to disturb her sleep.

J.D. in his C-PAP machinePoor sleep is nothing new for me. In 2005, when I was fifty pounds overweight, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. For the next several years, I strapped on a C-PAP machine every night. I was amazed at how better breathing led to better sleep.

When I lost weight and ditched the C-PAP machine, my sleep improved. It helped too that I learned my body’s natural rhythm. Most of the time, I sleep in ninety-minute cycles. A perfect night’s sleep is 7-1/2 hours, but six hours will do. (Tonight I only managed 4-1/2 hours.) Building my bedtime around my sleep cycle is key.

It’s also been key to realize that there’s a difference between getting to sleep and staying asleep. Some things, such as alcohol, might help me get to sleep. But these same things actually disrupt the quality of my rest. The trick is to find foods and develop habits that aid with both quality and quantity of sleep.

As bad as I have it, Kim has it worse. She’s had trouble sleeping since she was a teenager. In fact, it used to be a real burden. Much of her life was miserable because she was never well-rested. In time she too has developed tricks to improve the odds that she’ll sleep well. She is what her father calls a “cave sleeper”. That is, she needs complete darkness and no noise distractions in order to sleep well. Although she’s in the other room right now, I worry that the dim light from this laptop may wake her or that she’ll be able to hear the clickety-clickety of the keyboard above the white noise of the fan we run in the bedroom every night.

Oops! When I got up a moment ago to grab a glass of water, I saw that she’d closed the bedroom door. I’m a bad boyfriend.

Kim has sought solace through medication. When we started dating, she was taking Ambien, which was effective but made her moody. For the past couple of years, she’s been taking trazadone, which seems more effective and has fewer side effects. (Over the past year, she’s been working to reduce the dosage she takes every night. She now takes half of what she was originally prescribed and it seems to work.)

Although my doctor has given me some trazadone to tackle my own sleep problems, I almost never use it. (Just as I rarely use the Vyvanse to medicate my ADHD.) Instead, I take diphenhydramine (Benadryl) every night. Well, most nights anyhow.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with new ways to get good sleep. I’ve been increasing my intake of melatonin, for example. And just this week, I’ve begun trying 5-HTP to both address my winter blues and improve my sleep. At the same time, I’ve stopped taking Benadryl.

The results? Well, they’re mixed. I’m falling asleep easily and having very vivid dreams, which is cool. (I feel like vivid dreams are an indicator of deep sleep, at least for me.) But I can’t seem to stay asleep. Two nights ago, I woke at midnight and couldn’t fall back asleep until two. Even then my rest was fitful (maybe because I’d moved to the couch). And tonight, of course, I woke at three with my mind in full gear.

Facebook post about lack of sleep
Apparently Kathleen is struggling too tonight.

To me, the worst part about poor sleep is how I feel the next day. I feel ragged, like I have some sort of brain cloud. I’m half the man I usually am.

I’m scheduled to interview Leo from Zen Habits in a few hours. After that, Joe will interview me. At noon, I’m supposed to lift heavy weights with Cody. Later tonight, Kim and I will meet Brent and Kathleen for a comedy show. But right now I don’t want to do any of this. All I really want is to get some sleep.

Another thing I don’t like? On days like today when I have to get stuff done after a sleepless night, I take my ADHD meds. But not so that I can concentrate. I take them because I know they’re a stimulant and will help me stay awake. Now that is a bad cycle to fall into.

I guess maybe I should stick with the Benadryl. It’s not perfect — I still have insomnia once or twice a month when I use it — but it’s better than the alternatives.

1 Eileen November 14, 2014 at 06:55

JD — I’m curious about a night like last night. Do you revisit the day/evening and see if anything stands out as what may have contributed to it? I work a traditional job (though it’s from home) and like clockwork I wake up on Sunday nights unable to go back to sleep. It’s like all the “to dos” in my work and personal life come alive. I recently read someone’s blog that made a point to write down/review “to dos” before bed each night and that it helped to think about them at that time rather than waking and realizing you still haven’t [fill in the blank] or forgot to [fill in the blank]. I haven’t tried it yet, but plan to. Typically I try to force my mind to think about something else (I used to slowly count backward from 100 but now I think about remodeling my kitchen — lots of details, lol), but that’s doesn’t usually work.

2 jdroth November 14, 2014 at 07:12

Great question.

When Kim can’t sleep, it’s often becomes her “wheels are spinning”, as she says. She starts thinking about something and then can’t stop.

That can be a problem for me too, no question, but most of the time my sleeplessness seems to be more biological (?) than mental, if that makes any sense. Sometimes I can trace the cause — too much caffeine, too much alcohol, using my Vyvanse too often — but most of the time it’s mysterious.

When I can’t fall asleep, it’s usually because my body is tense. If that tension is because of stress, that’s easy to see. But sometimes I’m just tense for no reason, even if I’ve exercised or meditated or generally just had a good day. I can usually tell within ten or fifteen minutes if this is going to be a problem. When it is, I take more Benadryl (or a trazadone) and then wait on the couch until sleep comes (about an hour later). Problem solved.

Sometimes I have fitful sleep during the night. This is often because I’ve had too much to drink. Again, alcohol makes it easy to fall asleep, but it really messes with the quality of sleep. Other times the fitful sleep comes because I’m worried about something. Not stressed necessarily, but worried. Maybe I’m worried about a project or a relationship or a business deal. If I wake in the middle of the night and I’m worried, that can keep me up.

But the insomnia like I had this morning? The kind where I wake early and then can’t fall back asleep? That’s tougher for me to explain. I went to bed fine. I was tired. I was happy. I slept well for six hours (not the 4-1/2 that I thought — my fitness tracker shows I got six hours exactly). But I woke at 3am and was wide awake. My body felt like it was time to get up. So did my mind. I wasn’t worried about anything, and I was fully productive. (I wrote this article and answered email.)

Sometimes I know why I can’t sleep. Other times it’s a mystery. For last night, my only guess is that I should have taken a Benadryl before bed…

3 Morgan November 17, 2014 at 21:21

I’m a huge hypocrite for suggesting this, but have you tried cutting down on screen time in the hours before you want to fall asleep?

Also, I’ve found this bedtime calculator to be useful in terms of catching my sleep cycles at their most effective: http://sleepyti.me/

4 Nicole November 14, 2014 at 07:08

I can relate but I worry how the medicine will affect you in the long run (but it sure does work; whenever I’m sick I take cold medicine at night and get my best sleep). I always sleep better on non-work nights and/or nights my husband falls asleep on the couch. I’m a light sleeper like Kim so my husband always makes sure to close the door if he can’t sleep. He also puts a towel outside the door to prevent light from the rest of the house getting into the bedroom. It really helps! I’ve started taking magnesium to help me sleep too. I take one in the morning but I’ve read you can take a second one at dinner time so I’m going to try that. I try to stick to the natural route when possible (like melatonin) but sometimes it doesn’t work. Another suggestion is a product called Midnight. I love it because it’s natural and doesn’t knock you out if you only have a few more hours before you have to get up (hence the name). Good luck! A good night’s sleep is priceless.

5 jdroth November 14, 2014 at 07:16

Yeah, I worry about long-term use of medication too. I want to avoid it. That’s why I’m experimenting with more natural alternatives.

I began taking magnesium again this week too, which is something I’ve done during the winter for the past three years now. When I sought therapy for my anxiety a few years ago, she recommended magnesium as a natural way of coping. The 5-HTP I recently added to my regimen is also for this. There’s no question that I suffer from seasonal blues. Mid-November hits and I get funky. After a few weeks, I learn to cope. But until then, the magnesium (and 5-HTP?) helps.

6 ruth November 14, 2014 at 16:26

Since you were diagnosed with sleep apnea, you have obviously seen a sleep specialist. Have you been back recently? Has Kim ever gone to one?

My very close friend is GP who retrained as a sleep specialist. She now runs the sleep clinic at our local hospital. There are SO many different parameters involved it’s unbelievable.

I’m obviously NOT one, but I’ve heard her give people advice over the years. I know you both exercise. You should NOT exercise within several hours of going to bed. And, my friend has 4 kids, all teens now … they were never allowed to take their computers or phones into their bedrooms. I know that is very “hard core”, but it’s because late-night screen time DOES indeed affect one’s sleep.

7 William Cowie November 15, 2014 at 05:26

Do you take afternoon naps? I’m one those fortunate people who sleep well, but a few years ago we had to shut our business down because of partner betrayal actions. During that time I also couldn’t sleep because of spinning wheels and stress and stuff. Two things ended up working for me:

1. I transferred audio Bible studies by Chuck Smith to my iPod and went to sleep with comfortable headphones. He talks enough common sense to make you want to hear what he says, but the peacefully droning voice doesn’t take long to let you drift off peacefully.

2. The other thing I did was take naps after lunch. I just figured it adds daily hours of rest, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.

8 Kerry McQuaide November 15, 2014 at 07:09

I just read this great article about how before electric lights, people often slept a “first sleep” of about four hours, woke up and hung out (reading, writing, making love) and then took their “second sleep” for another few hours. The author says that the whole 8 hours straight of sleep is a modern result of later bedtimes and 9 to 5 work schedules.
I love a full 8 hours of sleep when I get it, but the article opened up the possibility of embracing those wakeful hours as a gift. A time when we are lucid and creative, instead of beating ourselves up for not performing optimally according to a prescribed schedule. It’s an interesting alternative view: http://aeon.co/magazine/psychology/why-broken-sleep-is-a-golden-time-for-creativity/?utm_source=farnamstreetblog.com

9 lee November 15, 2014 at 07:32

Why do we think there has to be consistentcy in every part of our lives? Yes, our bodies have mechanical similarities, but, they are not machines. We are living breathing organisms subject to a wide array of stressors that cannot always be controlled for, or explained. Be aware of those things you “can” control and just accept the random sleepiness nights until they become problematic. It happens.

10 Courtney November 15, 2014 at 08:01

It’s very likely a blood sugar issue keeping you up. If you fall asleep, but can’t stay asleep, diet and lifestyle changes can definitely help. Neurotransmitters also play a significant role in sleep, energy, mood, etc. Using Benadryl or prescription drugs to sleep is not a winning proposition for your long term health. It might be worth your while to seek out a nutritional therapist in your area. ;-)

11 Teckpu November 16, 2014 at 17:53

JD – not sure if you are still on a low carb / paleo diet but this can have implications on your metabolic rate which in turn can affect one’s sleep. Matt Stone has written a number of books on diet and metabolic rate. According to him, one of the symptoms of low metabolic rate are:

“Insomnia, especially that ominous, consistent 2-4am wake-up and difficulty falling back to sleep. Those who can still sleep a lot don’t feel particularly rested no matter how much they sleep.”

Eating with a view to increasing one’s metabolic rate could give improvements to sleep quality (without having to resort to sleep supplements).

12 Elizabeth November 17, 2014 at 16:02

I’d suggest taking Valerian Root, it smells awful but has worked for me and doesn’t make me drowsy the next day like Tylenol PM. I’m also a cave sleeper; it has to be dark, chilly (with a warm comforter) and silent. I love Bucky Blinks eye masks because they allow you to open your eyes and blink while falling asleep so it feels less constricting: http://www.amazon.com/Bucky-Blinks-Sleep-Mask-Navy/dp/B00BXYXGYY/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1416268831&sr=8-3&keywords=bucky+blinks&pebp=1416268835360. And of course, you have to have good ear plugs that you can sleep in.

13 Jean November 18, 2014 at 08:11

Like one of the other commenters, I usually only have problems on Sunday nights – which doesn’t really makes sense. If you would follow the logic that thinking about work is keeping me from falling asleep, I should also have problems Mon – Thurs nights as well. But I digress…

My husband has occasionally sleeplessness, and I’m waiting on my order of Essential Oils. Not sure if I will try a diffuser or using them topically first to see if that will help him. If it does, I’ll come back to let you know. I’m with you that I want to take as few meds as possible. I’m going to try to EOs for my allergies.

14 LisaG November 26, 2014 at 17:16

I had sleep apnea, lost weight, still had sleep apnea. It’s a function of how my airway is shaped and how short my neck is. Just out of curiosity, have you had a recent sleep study? APAP, a much more advanced version of CPAP is my friend. I sleep like crap without it. Just a thought….

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