Why Am I Having Trouble Sleeping? – Help During the Unsure Times of COVID-19
Does this sound familiar? Lying in the bed, thinking, “Why am I awake AGAIN?!” and also, “Why can’t I fall back asleep?!” Or how about: “Why am I lying in bed, NOT sleeping again even though it is time to go to sleep?” Or the ever-fun: “Why am I awake, it isn’t time to wake up! I COULD sleep in, why can’t my body go back to sleep? It is too early to get out of bed!”
Ever since the COVID-19 situation exploded mid-March for most of our patients in North America, the vast majority of them have been saying at least one of the laments above to me, if not several. As a former night owl/insomniac, it has taken me years of hard work and gut healing to get my sleep hygiene to where it was 3 weeks ago, where I would usually fall asleep faithfully around 9:30 and wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (I would LOVE to have a tail, but that is a whole other blog for another audience…) around 5am naturally, fully rested and ready to start my day. I have a confession: the past two weeks my sleep has been the WORST it has been for years. I am simply not getting that biological message of feeling sleepy the way I used to and now it is very difficult for me to go to sleep before 11:30pm. Almost every night I am waking up at least once, if not twice and sometimes it can take me over an hour to fall back asleep, where before I would crash pretty fast, within minutes. Add that to me waking up around 5:30am ANYWAY and having a really difficult time falling back asleep even though we don’t need to rush the kids off to school or my husband off to work (I am fortunate enough to be working remote already).
So, I really understand where you are coming from when you say you need help with your sleep right now! The good news is (yes, I have tons of good news actually, that is what this article is all about!), there is a lot we can do to help our sleep. I am going to walk you through these options the way I go through them in a health coaching call with our patients, by reverse engineering what goes on earlier in the day, starting with the previous morning (You are getting a free session! Why? Because you deserve it!). Yes, we go back THAT far! One refrain to keep in mind with all the suggestions I am going to give is this: we now have a new baseline for what goes on in our day-to-day life, some of it might be drastically different from what you were doing before. In my mind, any change that you make to help your health, no matter how little it might seem to you, is a big win and a step in the direction of helping your physical and mental health.
Morning: I know it is tempting to sleep in if you can, as waking up to an alarm clock can be going against our natural circadian rhythm. However, there is a middle ground. If you are trying to help your sleep, waking up when the sun comes up is a big win. That sunlight helps our bodies feel calm and less stressed and can help our immune system, our metabolism and help lower our levels of anxiety. Exposing your face to the sun in the morning for 15 minutes can really help boost all of these potential benefits. Oftentimes the sun is out first thing in the morning where I live and then it hides for the rest of the day behind the clouds, so going for my morning walk first thing has really helped. And yes, it is difficult to drag myself out of bed to do this, I am not going to lie! Having a shower before I go helps wake me up, particularly if I do 20-30 seconds of cold water on the back of my neck (and yes, I change it back to hot after!) to help stimulate my vagus nerve. If you want to support your immune system and de-stress your feelings of anxiety, which in turn can help you sleep better, doing vagus nerve exercises for the longest nerve in your body can strengthen the communication between your brain and your body. There are many other exercises you can do if having a cold shower sounds like absolute torture to you. Vigorous gargling, deep breathing and meditating are just some other examples that can also help your vagus nerve. Now, onto breakfast: I am a big supporter of eating only when you are hungry and not when you are not. However, regardless of what you do in the morning with eating breakfast or whether you delay it until lunch, this applies to whenever you decide to break your fast: make sure you start your day with a high-quality protein instead of just carbs. For example, when I have my whole grain gluten free toast, I make sure I also have my turkey sausages along side it. Or when I make vegan blueberry waffles, I add pumpkin seed protein powder and flours that are higher in protein content (amaranth for example). That way my body is set up for a day where my blood sugars aren’t going to go on a rollercoaster, which is what they would do if I started my day with a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice. Blood sugar issues = stress for our bodies and that means poorer sleep later on. Right now, our bodies don’t need extra stress, if we can avoid it. If I feel like that extra piece of toast with marmalade (yes, I can’t believe I like the stuff now, I have become my father!), which I have lately, I try to make sure I add an extra sausage to balance out the hit of sugar that I am craving to help me cope with what is going on in the world right now. It is the little things, baby steps, that can help us. The protein can help us feel full for longer too, which can help us resist sugar cravings that can really become pesky and difficult potentially to reign in once they start. It is very possible though!
During the Day: try to get in as much movement as possible. We were designed to move, however gently. Think about how you can start to incorporate even 5 minutes of stretches or a quick walk and you can work up to more intense exercise as you are ready. Bonus: if you are feeling anxious, getting outside and breathing in fresh air and moving can help lower that anxiety! Remember: when we were cave people running for our lives from a sabre tooth tiger, we had that movement to release and use up all those stress hormones. Right now, when we are sitting on the couch, stuffing our faces with the 10 millionth cookie or loaf of bread we have baked and then we see some new update come on the news about COVID-19 and feel that anxiety creep in, there is not the same release at all. Even jumping up and down quickly inside can help! As any parent will tell you, a nap can totally potentially mess with your sleep later. Be aware that this factor alone could be impacting your sleep later on. When I nap, I set an alarm with a nice sounding song (so it doesn’t jar me awake and add to my stress) and I make sure it isn’t for more than 20 minutes, otherwise I know for my body it can wreak havoc later with my sleep. Another factor that can cause sleep issues: caffeine. Are you having coffee or caffeinated tea more often lately? Later in the day? Some people can’t tolerate it past noon, usually we advise no later than 2pm if possible, depending on your body. Simply keeping yourself hydrated throughout the day can help a lot as well. Sometimes we wake up because we are dehydrated! One patient found it helpful to keep several water bottles next to him throughout the day to remind himself to drink and he would target to have the bottles empty by the end of the day.
Early Evening: try to stop eating 3 hours before you go to sleep. It takes time for our bodies to break down our food and if we go to sleep still digesting, our bodies are getting the message that it isn’t quite sleep time. Again, try to have a high-quality protein with your dinner to help you feel full for longer to help prevent the sugar cravings. If you are eating after 8pm at night that is a sign of several things, one of them being that you didn’t get the full nutrition that you needed throughout the day and another is that you are stressed and eating emotionally. Again, if you decide to not deprive yourself (which can lead to more stress sometimes!), try and pair your carb snacks with protein and high quality fat too if possible. And ENJOY what you are eating, eat it slowly to help enhance your digestion and try to let go of guilt, since that adds to your stress levels.
Evening: 2-3 hours before we go to bed, our family puts on blue blocker glasses, glasses that filter out blue light. We do this whether we are looking at screens or reading or playing a game, since we haven’t switched out all the bulbs in our house to lower light bulbs. The blue light can come from screens of any kind, even if there is an app installed to lower it (like Twilight, which I have on my phone). The blue light tells a small gland in our brains it is daytime (even with our eyes closed! So, if you have a yellow night light, or light peeking in through curtains, etc., this can be keeping a part of your brain awake!). Additionally, pay attention to what you are watching before you go to bed. Is it stimulating? Is it upsetting? Are you looking at the news? Leave a buffer of at least 30 minutes between when you stop watching to when you go to bed to let your adrenal glands calm down, particularly if you are feeling anxious. I would recommend not looking at the news at all after late afternoon if possible and certainly not first thing in the morning if you are struggling with extra anxiety right now. Pay attention to how you feel when you read or watch: is your heart racing? Remember: your brain can’t tell the difference between what you read or see or think and reality!! It feels things biologically as if you are there. When this happens, you can do the following calming down techniques I am going to outline below for the bedtime/going to sleep routines.
Bedtime: Our bodies learn it is time to go to bed several hours before we actually get into bed, not 5-10 minutes before we crawl under the covers. If you can, make sure that the lights are lower for several hours before and that you don’t have screens in your bedroom. We try to do quieter activities before we go to bed, like playing quieter games (NOT Monopoly!), read books to each other or beside each other, and/or meditate together, all while having calming music playing in the background for a while. The music is a cue for our bodies to let us know it is bedtime (like a lullaby for babies…we aren’t that different!) and calms down our stress response. We also like to diffuse essential oils that smell calming, like lavender, before bed. This is like the music, it tells our brains that it is time to calm down. Hearing a book being read to you actually tells your body it is time to sleep. Some people listen to “sleep stories”, I have them in my meditation app. Others listen to specific meditations before they go to sleep. You can test out different things and see what works for you. It can take time to set this routine up, to be fair to your body. Do whatever you can whenever you are ready. Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible and cool as well; we sleep the best around 16 degrees Celsius or 62 degrees Fahrenheit (it is higher for the elderly and babies and toddlers). Some people find it helpful to supplement with magnesium, a nutrient that is used up more when we are stressed. There are many different brands and forms, however one that helps a lot of our patients is the Natural Calm brand (magnesium citrate, which can cause loose bowels if you take too much). Magnesium bisglycinate is another form that doesn’t affect your bowels as much but can help with sleep. Alternatively, you can spray magnesium on your skin if your body is having trouble absorbing (magnesium can be difficult to get into our bodies); Ease is the brand that we use. Some of our patients use teas like camomile or Sleepy Time Tea or they drink some water with a bit of sea salt in it to help prevent them from waking up to urinate. I would recommend stopping drinking the tea or water at least an hour before you plan to go to bed!
Going to Sleep (and Going BACK to Sleep!): Make sure you are comfortable, with a good quality pillow and mattress. Sometimes it is the basics that might need tweaking! I know if I think about the things I am grateful for as I fall asleep or repeat the mantra “I am grateful” or “I am safe”, that calms down my body and helps me fall asleep easier. This technique and the following ones can help you fall back asleep as well. There are different breathing techniques we can use too to calm down the anxiety response that you or someone you love can do. One of them is the “box breathing”, where you can even draw a box in your mind while counting 4-4-4-4 (breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold). Another one, which is more difficult but great to help you focus even more is the 4-7-8 breathing technique (breathe in, hold, breathe out). Do these breathing techniques 3x and the go back to regular breathing. You can do them again in several minutes if you need to. Some people find it helpful to do progressive relaxation or body scan techniques where you start at either your feet or your head and either pay attention to each body part for a bit without trying to change it or squeeze the muscles in a particular section and then release. YouTube and meditation apps can walk you through the process. Simply paying attention to your breathing and trying to lengthen the timing of your breaths can help.
Extra Level Help: The way we talk to ourselves has a huge impact on our biology. For example, when I lie in bed and become frustrated that I am awake AGAIN when I know all these techniques (yet I was looking at my phone past 10pm without my blue blockers the night before, and here we are 3am!), that causes more anxiety and stress and keeps me awake longer. However, if I remind myself that these are very strange times and I am allowed to be stressed and I am allowed to be awake, my body and brain start to relax. Simply giving my body PERMISSION to just be has a huge impact! Not trying to force or resist and simply paying attention to my thoughts but not judging them helps quite a bit. Visualization can help a lot too. This can be done before you go to sleep and can be accompanied by mantras or you talking to yourself in a positive way. For example, you saying over and over, “You are going to sleep deeply tonight for a long time. You will have great dreams. You will wake up rested.” Or: “I am safe. I am strong. I am loved. I am at peace.” If you find yourself waking up with your heart racing, it is a sign of stress. It is your body doing the best it can with this situation. Talking kindly to your body, telling it that you are taking care of it and loving it and that it is safe can help. And doing all the tips I mentioned above can really help relieve that stress on the body earlier in the day so it doesn’t feel that stress in the middle of the night. It can take a bit of time to get off of the stress hormone/cortisol roller coaster ride, as higher cortisol levels earlier in the day can lead to waking up in the middle of the night or waking up earlier than you want the next night. You are doing the best you can! Additionally, if you are trying to support someone you love with their sleep issues, which many of us are, you can ask them which techniques they like and experiment. Simply saying you are there for them and there are no expectations helps a lot. You all might come up with some of your own that work best!
Final Message of LOVE: Most of us have never experienced anything like what is happening with the COVID-19 situation in our lifetimes. If your body is acting differently than normal, that is because things ARE different than normal! It is doing what it is supposed to be doing! Reminding yourself that things don’t last, things ALWAYS change and letting go of expectations can be highly supportive of your sleep and your health in general. If you need extra support, send me a message at email@example.com, I am here for you.
Author: Jessica Tucker
Jessica truly understands and empathizes how her patients feel, after experiencing a lifetime of digestive, emotional and immunity issues such as I.B.S., Crohn’s Disease, severe depression, vertigo, arthritis, eczema and migraines. All of these situations are now distant memories, as Jessica is now in the BEST health she has ever been in her life and has more energy and vitality than she ever thought possible, thanks to her journey at Living Proof.
She loves to help people realize their own potential and to feel good using simple and easy techniques, whether it is in the kitchen, practising meditation or making lives less stressful and more fun and enjoyable in everyday life. She fully believes the path to full physical and mental health is through a combination of knowledge of nutrition, digestion, healthy sleep habits, movement, detoxifying the home and personal care products and mindfulness/self-love.
Jessica can be found playing at the park with her family, dancing Lindy Hop with her friends, drawing cartoons, going to hot yoga or practising nature and portrait photography in her spare time. One of her favourite passions is to research the most current information in nutrition, biology, mindfulness and functional medicine coaching in order to help her patients get the lives that they have always wanted.
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About the Author: Jessica Tucker
Jessica Tucker, Holistic Nutritionist and Health Coach, is proud and honoured to be part of the Living Proof Team in Mississauga, Ontario.
Our Mission at The Living Proof Institute is to address the root cause of your health issues and restore your health and vitality. Through partnering and education, you will receive the tools and direction to live an extraordinary life.
“As always, I feel heard and understood. The compassion Jessica shows her patients is extraordinary and is a major component in me feeling like I can get better. I appreciate her sharing her personal story as it really resonates with me when people share about their own experiences. Another great factor was that she celebrated my wins, big and small, and I felt like my body is capable of healing. Which I haven’t always believed in the past.” MS