Managing insomnia: do whatever worksMy husband’s Uncle Walter has talked about his insomnia before, and one night when I saw him in northern Michigan, he brought the matter up again:

“You know what I do that helps me sleep?” he said. “You’re an expert on sleep, so you probably wouldn’t approve. But here it is: I listen to the radio. What do you think of that?”

“Do whatever works!” I replied.

Listening to the radio at night is not an insomnia treatment recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine . . . but I stand by my advice. While I have great respect for sleep specialists and the research-based solutions they set forth, I think homegrown insomnia remedies can sometimes work as well.

The Company Line

Once at a conference I asked a sleep therapist from the Stanford Sleep Center what she thought about using audiobooks to get to sleep.

“We don’t recommend it,” she said. “It reinforces the idea that you need something like an audiobook to help you sleep. The truth is, sleep is an involuntary behavior. All humans do it whether we want to or not, and we come fully equipped to do it without any props, whether audiobooks or sleeping pills.”

Well, OK, I found myself thinking in response. I’d rather fall asleep on my own than have to rely on “props” like audiobooks and radio shows. But where is the harm in using little assists if they enable us to feel OK about the sleep we get? Being shipwrecked on a deserted island might deprive us of our props at night, and our sleep might suffer as a result, but just how likely are we to find ourselves in that predicament?

Individual Solutions

I came away impressed, after interviewing dozens of insomnia sufferers for my book, at the strategies some had devised to manage insomnia on their own:

  • Visualization: At night, Jonathan recalls what he saw on various hiking trips he’s taken in the Sierra Nevada, which sets his mind at ease and puts him to sleep.
  • Resistance training: Larry finds that vigorous weightlifting sessions during the daytime are a fairly reliable way to assure a good night’s sleep.
  • Going with the flow: Toby, who has frequent wake-ups at night, does not spend her wakeful moments in bed. She gets up, drinks decaffeinated tea, reads a romance novel, and then returns to bed for another brief sleep. The cycle repeats itself a few times every night.
  • Taking a bath: Urania, whom I met years ago in Mexico, takes a late-night bath to relax herself enough to fall asleep.

I’m sure the ways I routinely manage my sleep—getting up at the same time every morning, exercising late in the afternoon, reading a novel before bed—would be endorsed by at least some members of the academy. But I don’t do them based on their say-so. I do them because for me they work.

If you’ve come up with some fairly reliable insomnia remedies, please share them!

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

7 Comments

  1. Classical music on the radio’s sleep mode.

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  2. Also valerian root capsules and lavender on my pillow or nightclothes plus Tylenol to subdue little annoying aches.

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  3. Thanks for the suggestions! In the past I’ve been skeptical about scents that are supposed to promote sleep, but now I’m thinking I’d like to try out the lavender. What’s to lose?!

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  4. Thanks for the vote. Boring audiobooks do it for me.

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  5. Sometimes the advice offered by sleep experts is a bit rigid for my taste. They DO have access to all the studies, though, so their advice is research based.

    But I also have lots of empathy for people who want to manage sleep on their own.

    Cheers to boring books, audio and otherwise!

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  6. After decades of insomnia, who knew a bedtime story would put me to sleep in 15-20 minutes. I listen to an audio book, of my one of my favorite books. 1, I already know the story 2, I know i like it!

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    1. Hi LeeAnn,

      Audio books, especially when the subject is tame and the reader’s voice isn’t dramatic, can be just the right thing for people who have trouble falling asleep. Thanks for writing in!

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