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Problem/Solution: Wide Awake and Worrying

Exhausted after a hectic day but cannot get to sleep. Sound familiar? It’s estimated that 30 million Americans suffer from clinical insomnia that can be caused by health issues, including sleep apnea. Many more, however suffer from incessant mental chatter that keeps them awake when they want to be sleeping. Why are you wide awake and worrying? And what can you do?

The Problem: An Anxious Brain

Some people find that even if their bodies are tired, their minds won’t rest. Health concerns, money worries, fears real and imaginary, past hurts, current judgments, catastrophic what-ifs, and imaginary conversations create a tangle of noise and chaos in the mind. It can keep you from getting to sleep or shakes you suddenly awake at 3 a.m. Some people are naturally more worried than others, but some women find that anxiety — and the related insomnia — during perimenopause is new.

Solution #1: Meditation, Mindfulness, and Mantras 

Meditation: If you’re looking for natural ways to sleep without taking insomnia meds, the National Sleep Foundation recommends meditation.

To start, lie in bed on your back or a comfortable position (though on your back is best), arms relaxed at your sides and legs slightly apart. Close your eyes and focus your mind on your breathing — slowly inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Doing this for a few minutes will start to give you a sense of feeling more relaxed. Then, imagine your mattress is a soft cloud; consciously relax your shoulders, back, arms, and legs into the cloud. The worries may try to butt in; acknowledge them and then let the chatter pass through your mind without validating it. Return your focus to your breathing.

It may take a few nights of trying to meditate yourself to sleep before the next thing you know you’re awake and the last thing you remember was starting to meditate.

Mindfulness: Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and author of several bestsellers, including Mindfulness for Beginners, is considered the godfather of mindfulness in the context of health, and he’s excited at the medical science backing mindfulness for improved sleep. Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness meditation as the art of “non-doing and really cultivating just being,” which he believes and studies are showing can transform our biology in ways that “tilt our system in the direction of health and well-being.” You can sit in mindfulness meditation any time of day, of course, but it’s particularly meaningful at night for helping you sleep.

Again, lie comfortably as relaxed as you can in bed, close your eyes, focus on your breathing for a few minutes, then turn your attention to your five senses: tune into a sound in the room, a night-bird’s call, a branch tapping a window, the hum of your fridge in the distance. Notice a smell and focus your mind on that, or notice how your bed sheets feel on your skin. Focus your mind on the sensations and just breathe. Being mindful and practicing mindfulness will hopefully, after a few tries, relax you into sleep.

Mantras: Adding a mantra to your meditation may help you relax even more. You can make up your own mantra relevant to your life or how you want to be and feel — and anything goes. Try: I am happy, healthy, and whole. Or: Be here now. Or even: I am getting sleepy.

Tip: There are many apps for meditation and mindfulness. We have some recommendations.

Solution #2: Herbs and Supplements

Prescription sleep medications often have a slew of side effects. Many women are replacing them with supplements and herbs, including (in states where they’re legal) CBD and medical marijuana. You might try the following commonly used sleep-promoting supplements, which help people in varying degrees (in alphabetical order):

Ginkgo biloba: Taking 250 milligrams within an hour of going to bed can help reduce stress and promote relaxation and sleep.

Lavender: Studies have shown that lavender aromatherapy, such as smelling lavender oil for about 30 minutes before you sleep, improves sleep quality. Try dotting lavender essential oil on your pillow or having a lavender oil defuser on your nightstand. 

Magnesium: Research shows that magnesium helps regulate melatonin production and increases the level of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a calming brain messenger.

Melatonin: Melatonin levels naturally rise in the evening to tell our brain it’s time to sleep, but when you’re not sleeping you might want to try supplementing to see what happens.

Passion flower tea: Passion flower is native to Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America; the North American species has been linked to improving sleep.

Tryptophan: You know this one from your Thanksgiving nap. A low dose of 1 gram daily of this essential amino acid purportedly helps you fall asleep faster and improves sleep quality.

Valerian root: This is one of the more common natural sleep aids. It is also commonly taken to help fight for depression and anxiety, and to relieve menopause symptoms.

Solution #3: Noise

Noise isn’t typically conducive for a good night’s sleep, but there are certain types of noises that can help you fall asleep.

White noise: Science defines this type of noise as a soothing sound across all hearable frequencies that remains consistent, which can help block out other noises like snoring, traffic, or barking.  

Pink noise: On the broadband of sounds, pink noise is like white noise with the bass turned up. Studies show it not only helps promote sleep but also helps boost memory.

Ambient sounds: Typically from nature, like waves on a beach, rain on a roof, birds chirping, or a fire crackling. You can ask Alexa to play these sounds or find them for free on InsightTimer.

Tip: Put a noise machine or your phone, if you are using a noise app, on the floor — not on your nightstand — because the noises are best heard from a distance.

Photo: Marcos Calvo

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