A tiny green pill. I had every reason for this crutch. I told myself that most would have reached for far worse than a sleeping pill after losing a spouse and left to raise four kids alone. At the end of an exhausting day, I just wanted to fall asleep without having to entertain my anxiety, fear, and the endless chatter in my head. After sleeping next to the same person since age 19, it was the only way I could face going to bed alone. And that is how my bad habit started.
The tiny green pill was a “non-addictive” sleeping aid prescribed by my doctor. While I wasn’t physically addicted to the Sonata, I certainly was mentally addicted because the thought of ever having to go to sleep without it was anxiety-inducing. I kept telling myself that I would quit taking it when things got easier, or when my business became successful, or when my teenage kids that were adding to my anxiety went off to college. Once I got through one hurdle, then another one would stand in the way of freedom from the tiny green pill.
Last year, after reading an article about the link between sleeping aids and dementia and Alzheimer’s, I decided it was time to get serious and end my 8-year relationship with the tiny green pill. I found it ironic that homeopathic remedies were my solution for most health issues; yet here I was, taking a pill to go to sleep every night. This nighttime ritual wasn’t aligned with my values surrounding health and wellness and I knew it was time to stop making excuses. With the global sleep aid market estimated at over $75 Billion, I am sharing my experience because I realize that I am not alone in my struggles with sleep.
Before I go into what worked for me in kicking my sleeping pill habit, I want to address the importance of sleep and why it is essential to your health, wellness, and the aging process. Getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night is probably the single most important thing you can do to live a long and healthy life. Sleep is also one of the best tools we have for anti-aging. Many sleep studies have been conducted about sleep and the link between the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life span. All organs within the body are optimized by sleep and negatively impacted when we don’t get enough.
Within the brain, sleep aids in a diversity of functions, including our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices. Sleep also affects our psychological health; recalibrating our emotional brain circuits and allowing us to navigate life’s obstacles. When you are tired, your capacity for dealing with any challenge is greatly limited and your emotional capacity can be non-existent. Adequate sleep helps protect your heart by lowering blood pressure and keeping the heart in good condition. Unhealthy sleep, unhealthy heart.
Lack of sleep causes an increase in a hormone that makes you feel hungry and a decrease in a companion hormone that signals food satisfaction, leading to weight gain. Sleep also restocks our immune system, prevents infections, and fends off illness. Adequate sleep recharges the body’s metabolic state and helps maintain a healthy microbiome. Get the picture?? Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body and help slow down the aging process. The sad truth is many of us don’t get enough quality sleep; negatively impacting the health and wellness of a large population of people.
The Sleep Makeover
Sleep, diet, and exercise are the pillars of good health. I used to think that sleep was the lessor of the three, but I have come to realize that it is the foundation on which the other two sit. If you take away sleep, careful eating or physical exercise become less than effective.
Realizing the importance of sleep and the need to quit my reliance on a sleeping pill, I first looked at my daytime and nighttime habits and recognized that I had some that didn’t promote quality sleep. Looking back, I realize I made bad choices that affect sleep knowing that I could afford to make them…the sleeping pill would make me fall asleep regardless. With some new rituals and habits, getting off the sleeping pill was surprisingly easy, and I am sleeping better than ever. Needless to say, I take this business of sleep very seriously; just ask my family and loved ones that have to put up with it every night lol.
Don’t Just Lie There
When assessing certain habits that affected my ability to sleep, an obvious one had to do with my desire to lay in bed when it wasn’t bedtime. Let’s face it, after a long day, a tough day, a rainy day, or whatever kind of day that calls you to lay in your bed before bedtime, this laying around can negatively impact your sleep at night. I realized that too often I would lay in my bed after dinner and doze off with my clothes and lights on and then wake up fully refreshed at midnight. Not exactly the kind of habit that promotes a good night of sleep. Now, I stay out of bed until I am completely ready to turn the lights off and go to sleep. Although many people enjoy watching TV or reading in bed, it’s best to reserve your bed for nothing other than sleep or sex! This one might seem overly obvious or simple but is something that can make a big difference in creating better sleep habits.
Even before I go to bed at night, I am already looking forward to my morning latte. Anyone else with me here? I love the smell, the taste and the whole morning ritual of making my latte or going to my favorite coffee shop for one. Although most people have an affinity for caffeine, it is important to recognize that caffeine is the most widely used (and abused) stimulant in the world. Levels of caffeine typically peak 30 minutes after you consume it, but few realize that half of the caffeine consumed lingers in your system for up to 10 hours. Most people don’t realize how long it takes to overcome a single dose of caffeine and fail to recognize that a bad night of sleep could be the result of a latte they drank ten hours earlier. People also consume more caffeine without realizing that many foods, drinks, and supplements contain it that unknowingly sabotage their sleep. While I am unlikely to give up my morning latte ritual, I have become vigilant in limiting my intake to one a day. If you want quality sleep, it is important to read the labels on the foods, drinks and supplements you are consuming, limit your caffeine to the morning and put a time stamp on it. I never consume caffeine after 11 am and this has made a huge difference in getting to sleep at night.
Under the Influence
Alcohol is in a class of drugs called sedatives. Since we tend to think of alcohol as something we do to liven up and have fun, most do not realize that alcohol sedates part of the brain. As the night goes on and with continued consumption, alcohol starts to sedate other parts of the brain, leading to a feeling of sluggishness. While people might think that this sluggish and relaxed feeling will help them sleep, alcohol negatively impacts your sleep in two ways. First, alcohol fragments your sleep, littering the night with brief awakenings. Alcohol-infused sleep is therefore not continuous and as a result, not restorative. Second, alcohol will often suppress REM sleep, especially during the first half of the night when your body is trying to metabolize the alcohol. Without going into great detail about REM and the different stages of sleep, depriving yourself of the REM stage is very disruptive to your brain and your emotional and psychological state. I don’t have an Aura ring or anything that tracks my sleep, but I have many friends that do, and they unanimously report that when they consume alcohol, their sleep scores are very low; noting more wakeful periods and less REM when they drink. I think most would agree that drinking isn’t good for you, but it is often viewed as a way to socialize, unwind and have fun and people’s relationship with alcohol is a personal and often times complicated one. I personally have noticed that my tolerance for alcohol seems to slip with each passing year and my solution has been to limit consumption to occasional social drinking. Knowing that it is going to affect my sleep, I proceed with moderation and make room for not having a typical energy level the next day and plan accordingly.
In order to fall asleep and maintain sleep into the night, your core body temperature needs to decrease by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. For this reason, you will always find it easier to fall asleep in a room that is too cold than too hot. There is a whole scientific explanation for this that Dr. Matthew Walker presents in his book, “Why We Sleep” that I found very interesting. There are some people in my house that want to argue about my thermostat setting of 64 degrees at bedtime, so it’s good to have a little science to back my craziness. Keeping the temperature low at night has been a major upgrade in my quest for a solid 8 hours. Try it and see what you think.
Shut It Down
Artificial light in the evening halts the body’s natural evening surge in melatonin; a hormone the brain produces in response to darkness that makes you feel sleepy. Even a small bedside lamp, ambient-level home lighting or a digital bedside clock can have a significant melatonin-suppressing influence within the brain. In addition to artificial light, the light from TVs, computers, iPhones, and IPads all have very real impacts on melatonin release and one’s ability to time the onset of sleep. A study found that using an IPad for reading before bedtime suppressed melatonin release by over 50 percent at night when compared to individuals that read a printed book. The study showed that nighttime IPad reading delayed the rise of melatonin by up to three hours, relative to the natural melatonin rise in the same people when reading a printed book. In the study, individuals reading on the IPad lost significant amounts of REM sleep, they felt less rested and sleepier throughout the day and suffered a ninety-minute lag in their rising melatonin levels for several days after – almost like a digital hangover effect. Even more than the blue light itself, the research suggests that the harmful impact of evening smartphone and laptop use affects our natural sleep rhythms, the quality of our sleep and how alert we feel during the day.
My bedtime ritual includes no phones, computers or TV at least an hour before bedtime. I make my room as dark as possible, put my phone in the bathroom and use the Hatch Alarm clock. Unlike traditional digital clocks, the Hatch is a low-light alarm clock that does not emit any blue light or bright glow in the room. Making the room as dark as possible is key in getting the best sleep of your life!
Since white noise contains all frequencies with equal intensity, it can mask sounds that stimulate your brain. That is why white noise is often recommended for sleeping difficulties and sleep disorders like insomnia. Studies on sleep and the benefits of white noise have shown that adults in the study fell asleep 38 percent faster with white noise. I am very sensitive to noise and easily awakened by abrupt or even slightly disruptive sounds, so incorporating white noise into my sleep routine has been a big help now that I am not drugging myself into a deep slumber. The Hatch alarm clock I have in my room has many meditation and sound features, including white noise and I use it every night to go to sleep.
Stretch & Roll
When I shut it down an hour before bedtime, one thing I do in that last hour is spend 15 minutes stretching and foam rolling. This has made a HUGE difference in settling into the best sleep of my life. Stretching and foam rolling improves blood flow and relieves muscle tension – both of which aid in muscle recovery and sleep quality. The more you can get your body to relax before bedtime, the more likely you are to experience continuous and restorative sleep. When I am lazy and skip this process, I always regret it and am reminded why this is such an important step in my nighttime ritual.
Numerous studies have shown that exercise improves sleep quality, and that physical activity can be as effective as prescription sleep meds. Working out has always been part of my daily routine, but I include it here as a reminder of its significance in helping you get the best sleep possible. Physical activity helps relieve stress and anxiety and helps to tire you out; both leading to better sleep. Avoid working out within an hour of bedtime to avoid a slowdown in melatonin release, which can cause a longer onset of sleep.
Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule helps you get the right amount of sleep every night. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day can make it easier to fall asleep quickly at night and help you wake up on time and feeling refreshed in the morning. I try to stick to a regular schedule of going to sleep by 10 pm and getting up at 6 am as much as possible. When I don’t, I notice that I have a harder time meeting my goals and being productive.
I saved this one for last because adding meditation to my routine has made a profound impact on my life. Honestly, my experience with meditation warrants an entirely separate blog post and I will go into greater detail on this topic down the road. What prompted my dependence on sleeping pills stemmed from my inability to cope with my stress and hardship. I am not much of a drinker or partier, mostly because I enjoy feeling good more than I enjoy escaping. Even though my circumstances were difficult, I knew that reaching for those wouldn’t change my circumstances. Every six months, when I’d have to present my case to my doctor for another refill, I would tell him that I don’t have any vices, that I take good care of myself, and that I just want to be able to fall asleep without thinking about all my shit. I didn’t think that was too much to ask considering what I had been dealt, and God bless him, he understood and would promptly write another 6 months of refills.
Then one day, after reading “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, I got really scared about the long-term repercussions of sleeping pill use. Around the same time, I also read a book by Dr. Joe Dispenza called “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself” which uses meditation to overcome a myriad of circumstances, beliefs and other things that hold us back from our full potential. I never felt that Meditation was possible for me because of my overactive mind, anxiety, and life challenges and I came up with a lot of excuses for avoiding it. Until I tried Dr. Joe Dispenza’s meditations and let me tell you, they are something else!! For the past 6 months, Dr. Joe has been in my ear every morning and every night, and what has transpired deserves a separate blog post. But I can tell you that almost immediately, my anxiety disappeared, my mind became more quiet, and sleeping became incredibly easy. Two days after starting my meditation, I went cold turkey off the Sonata and never looked back. Dr. Joe has many guided meditations that you can download. I started with the morning/evening meditation and then added the Generating Abundance for the morning and the restorative sleep meditation for the evening and I switch between those four. I promise to go deeper into my experience here, but a lot more came out of adding this to my daily routine than I ever imagined.
In the past month, almost 10 million people in America will have swallowed some kind of sleeping aid. Most prevalent is the use and abuse of prescription sleeping pills and Xanax. Sleeping pills and sedatives do not provide natural sleep, can damage health, and increase the risk of life-threatening diseases. In diving deep into the topic of sleep, “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker was a wake-up call for me to stop making excuses and put an end to my daily reliance on Sonata. One statistic that really stood out to me from the book was a study showing a 4.6 times increase in death among people using sleeping pills. Even occasional users limiting their sleeping pill intake to 18 times a year had a 3.6 increase in death. I think about all the times I drank alcohol and still swallowed a sleeping pill at bedtime. I feel fortunate to be here to talk about it. While I feel a bit vulnerable speaking about such a personal matter, I do so in hopes that it sheds light on the subject and want people to know that I am here as a resource if you need some support.