A Working Man’s Cure For Insomnia

From time to time I experience insomnia.  After a while, you get used to it.  You wake up at 1:30 a.m., fully alert, and after trying unsuccessfully to fall back asleep you yield to the inevitable, get up, and do something until you feel like you can fall back asleep again.  I think insomnia occurs when something important is happening, and my subconscious brain just won’t stop fretting about it even while my conscious brain is asleep.

img_9638But, for me, at least, there is a cure for insomnia:  physical labor, preferably outside.

The last few days I’ve been fighting the dandelion wars out in the yard.  This involves bending over and, frequently, getting down on hands and knees to find the roots of the dastardly dandelions, then using a gardening tool as a lever to try to pop them out.  Often that’s a struggle, as you dig around in the hard ground trying to find the root — because if you don’t find the root those dandelions are just going to crop up once more and you’ll have to do the whole exercise over again.  Fill a bucket with the dandelion roots, flowers, leaves and other remains, walk down to deposit them in our compost pile, and then start over again in another part of the yard.  Do that for a few hours on a bright, sunny day and you’ll discover muscles in your back and legs and hands that you’ve forgotten you had.  Do that for a few days and hands that haven’t known callouses for decades might actually begin to develop a few, and hamstrings will be crying out for relief.

And at night, when darkness falls, you’ll find that you’re so exhausted that sleep comes easily and the nocturnal bouts with insomnia simply don’t happen.  It’s as if the physical fatigue overwhelms any effort by the subconscious mind to force you awake, so you sleep well — other than a leg cramp or two.

It’s just one of the many benefits of physical work — and obviously weeding doesn’t even hold a candle to the degree of effort needed to work on a construction crew or a farm.  People who do that for a living must sleep like rocks.

Popular Nightmares

Dreams, and nightmares, are among the most private things we experience in life.  No matter how close your relationship might be with your spouse, your family members, or your friends, no one can actually share the dream with you.  And if you’ve ever tried to describe a disturbing nightmare to someone, you realize you can’t really capture the way you experience it — if you can even recall the rapidly vanishing fragments of the nightmare at all.  At best, you’re providing a pale reflection of an intense experience.

why-do-we-have-nightmaresStill, wouldn’t you like to know whether other people have the same kind of nightmares that from time to time haunt your dreams?

One company did a survey of 2,000 respondents to find out about their nightmares and see which nightmare scenarios were the most common.  The survey found some interesting results — including that the commonness of certain nightmares varies between men and women.  Women, for example, are far more likely to have a nightmare about a loved one dying or their house burning down, whereas men are much more likely to have a dream about killing someone.  (Curiously, women are slightly more likely than men to have a nightmare about going bald.)  The survey also showed that the frequency of certain dreams may be tied to the respondents’ specific circumstances.  Married couples are much more likely to have nightmares about abandonment by a partner or a partner’s infidelity than single people.

The top 10 most frequent nightmare scenarios, as determined by the survey, are:

  1. Falling
  2. Being chased
  3. Death
  4. Feeling lost
  5. Feeling trapped
  6. Being attacked
  7. Missing an important event
  8. Waking up late
  9. Sex
  10. Loved one dying

Farther down the list are other common scenarios, like being unprepared for an exam or being naked in a public place, and some weirdly specific nightmares, like your teeth falling out, being covered by bugs, or having car trouble.

Reading the list may cause you to realize that many of us have the same kinds of dreams, but also that there are other bad dreams that you luckily don’t have.  I’ve never had a nightmare about killing someone, fortunately.  And a word of caution — if you’re like me, looking at the list might cause you to remember a nightmare that you had otherwise forgotten.

Now, I can only hope that seeing some of the common nightmare scenarios other people have won’t cause my subconscious brain to add those to the nightly dream mix.

What A Difference A Night Makes

Recently I’ve been having some irregular sleep patterns.  I’ll go to bed and fall asleep promptly, but then wake up only a few hours later, with heart pumping and mind racing. When that happens, it’s hard to fall back into the REM cycle quickly, and I’ll inevitably toss and turn for as much as an hour, fretting all the while that I’m losing out on sleep that I need and will never make up.

But last night I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, slept through the night without any nocturnal wakefulness, and arose feeling refreshed.  When I went down to make the morning coffee the birds were chirping, I unloaded the dishwasher with a happy feeling, and the coffee tasted richer and better than ever.

Wake up of an asleep girl stopping alarm clockThere’s no doubt that sleep is therapeutic on multiple fronts.  The National Institutes of Health reports that, physically, the changes in breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure that occur during a good night’s sleep help to promote cardiovascular health, and while you sleep hormones are released that repair cells and control your body’s use of energy.  And although the physical aspects of sleep are significant, the mental aspects are even more important.  Getting your 7 or 8 hours of sound sleep enhances mood, alertness, intellectual functioning, and reflexes, while chronic sleep deprivation can lead to depression and anxiety disorders.

Knowing all of this, why doesn’t the human brain always do what is necessary to allow everyone to get their share of shuteye?  Unfortunately, things don’t don’t work that way, stresses and concerns at work and at home can interfere with the sleep cycle, and then the lack of sleep and the irritability it produces can have a compounding effect on those stresses and concerns.

That’s one of the reasons why getting a solid night of slumber time after a few night’s of anxious restlessness feels so good.  You may not be making up for lost sleep, but it’s comforting to know that your mind and body are back to their normal cycles — at least, until the next round of stresses and concerns hit.

Scented Sleep

When I got to the hotel at the Denver airport late last night, I found a little container of lavender balm next to the bed. It promised to help me “sleep well,” which sounded good to me.

I’ve never used lavender balm before, so I read the instructions. They read: “Wind down naturally with our Sleep Well Aromatherapy Balm, infused with essential oils of lavender and chamomile to ease tension and soothe the senses. Roll onto temples or wrists before bedtime to foster sound sleep.” Because I was keenly interested in fostering sound sleep, I did both. My temples and wrists have never smelled so good!

And you know what? I did sleep pretty well, until I had to get up at 3:30 a.m. Mountain time to catch an early morning flight. Was my sound sleep the result of the balm, or just exhaustion at the end of a long day? Who knows? But because sound sleep in a hotel is a rarity for me, I’m taking no chances. The lavender balm is officially part of my travel kit from now on.

Caffeine Cut-Off

Over the past year or so I’ve noticed that my sleep patterns had become much more erratic.  Whereas I once slept soundly and peacefully from bedtime until morning, I began waking up during the night and — most disturbingly — finding myself unable to fall back asleep readily, even though I still felt physically tired and sleep-ready.  At the first instant of wakefulness, my mind seemed to immediately shift into overdrive and begin churning through pending issues rather than remaining in a sleep-receptive mode.

cofffecupI attributed this to age, and a heavy workload, and lots of travel that was affecting my circadian rhythms, and other extraneous factors.  But then I started wondering whether there were things I was doing that might be influencing my sleep patterns, too, and whether I could in fact take steps to avoid the unsatisfying crappy sleep nights.  I’d known for some time that too much coffee consumption during the day left me feeling jittery, and that the price of having a rich cup of coffee after dinner was staying up much later than normal.  Extrapolating from that evidence, I decided to practice a little self-science, and experiment with my caffeine intake to see whether establishing an earlier coffee cut-off would help me to get a more restful night’s sleep.

It wasn’t easy, because I’ve long enjoyed a cup of coffee after lunch and another one around 3 p.m., to keep me sharp during the afternoon.  Old habits die hard — but sometimes you’ve got to drive a stake through them, anyway.  So I started to consciously stop drinking coffee at about 2 p.m., and start drinking water at that point instead.   I missed the mid-afternoon steaming cup of joe, but that simple change had an immediate, positive impact on the soundness of my sleep, and particularly on my ability to fall back asleep, which was the problem that was bothering me the most.  Now I’ve backed off the deadline even farther, to 1 p.m., just to be on the safe side.

I definitely like my coffee, and I can’t imagine doing without my morning intake, but if the choice is between coffee and good sleep, coffee’s going to lose 10 times out of 10.

Sleepless, But On Guard

Everyone knows that, as you get older, your sleep patterns change and, for the most part, get worse.  A lot worse.

The arc of sleep goes from the totally out like a light sleep of the very young to the 12-hour power-sleeping capabilities of college students, but it’s all downhill from there.  By the time you’re in your 40s, 50s, and 60s, the realities of shrinking bladder capacity and ever-present concerns about developments in your career and family life combine to make sleep a fitful exercise, with lots of tossing and turning mixed in.  There’s not much REM sleep to be had.

neanderthalerScientists think there is an evolutionary reason for this unfortunate trend — one that goes back to caveman days.  They say older folks sleep less soundly because their role in the tribe was to be alert for potential predators, attacks from warring clans, and other lurking disasters.  In caveman days, the blue-haired set would go to bed earlier than the rest of the tribe.  Then, with their lighter sleep habits, they would be roused by the sounds that a nocturnal animal would make upon entering the cave and could give the alert, so that the more youthful members of the tribe could help to fight the predator.  And the sleepless oldsters would also be first up in the morning, to get that all-important fire going and be ready to deal with any unwanted intrusions by bears or wolves or sabertoothed tigers.

It’s nice to know that there’s an exciting explanation for experiencing poorer, less satisfying sleep as you get older, and that in the dawn of humanity a codger my age would be quickly roused to alertness in order to grapple with cave bears and save the tribe.  I’d still trade it for a solid seven hours of sound sleep.

On The Edge Of Slumber

I woke up at 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom.  (Hey, I’m a guy in his late 50s.  It happens.)  When I came back to bed I knew the next few moments would be the acid test — either I would promptly drift back into blissful sleep, or I’d start thinking about something and deal with an unwanted period of tossing and turning.

fotolia_42638075_full-moon2Unfortunately, it was the latter.  For me, the wakefulness always seems to start with a single concrete thought — whether it be about work, or a family issue, or something else — that acts to drive away the possibility of sleep.  Just as I feel as if I am on the edge of slumber, another point will arise, and suddenly I’m getting up because I remember something and need to leave myself a reminder for when I will get up for good.

The experts will tell you that sleep occurs when the conscious mind goes dormant and the unconscious mind takes over.  But how do you encourage that hard-working conscious mind that you needed to help you stumble to the bathroom in the dark to let go, already?

This morning, I really felt the battle between the two parts of the brain, with the conscious mind and its structured ideas trying to remain in control and the subconscious mind always lurking beneath, ready to pounce as soon as the conscious mind lets its guard down.  It’s an interesting, if frustrating, phenomenon, and when it happens I try to slow my breathing, gradually clear my mind of everything, and let those dreamlike notions that are cavorting out on the periphery to come on down to center stage.  Sometimes, if the conscious mind is really persistent, I’ll try to think of some obviously surreal situation that is like a dream.  If it works, as it did this time, the effect is instantaneous, and the next thing I know it’s 5:30 and time to begin the morning.

I’d prefer to sleep like a log every night, but I’m convinced that it’s just not possible for people with busy lives.  When those wakeful nights hit, you have to have a technique for dealing with it and letting you get back to the shuteye that we all need.

An Extra Hour

“Spring ahead, fall back.”  The shifting of hours and the changing of clocks in connection with Daylight Savings Time has been going on for as long as I can remember.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the “fall back” part of the process more and more.  What the heck!  It’s autumn, and it’s getting colder.  Why not stay snug in your warm bed for an extra hour?  And after staying out later than normal last night, getting home after midnight after enjoying the Buckeyes’ drubbing of Illinois at Ohio Stadium, the extra hour of shut-eye is even more welcome.  The fact that it’s a shivery 28 degrees outside just confirms the wisdom of this timekeeping sleight-of-hand.

So I’d like to thank the ever-creative Benjamin Franklin, who came up with the concept of Daylight Savings Time in 1784 as a method to save on candles.  I’d like to thank the New Zealanders, Brits, and Germans who helped to popularize the idea, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who implemented the idea in America as a war-time measure during World War II.  And I’d like to thank the United States Congress, which enacted the Uniform Time Act of 1966 to finally implement Daylight Savings Time as we now know it.

Ben Franklin was all of 78 years old when he came up with the idea for shifting clocks to save a candle or two.  You think the idea might have been motivated by the notion of getting an extra hour of sleep on a cold autumn morning?

Get Some Sleep!

It’s hard to imagine that we need scientific studies to encourage us to sleep, but the evidence is mounting that getting enough shut-eye at night has crucial, lasting benefits for human beings.

The latest study examines the role of sleep in improving memory and learning.  The study found that sleep promotes the creation of brain synapses — the connections between the brain’s neurons — that are essential to learning.  That study follows countless others that demonstrate the physical and mental benefits of sleep — a state that allows the brain to discard toxins formed by daily activity, helps us recharge and reduce the risk of many different diseases, and restores the body to the ancient circadian rhythms that human beings have followed since the dawn of the species.

I’ve always tried to make sure that I get enough sleep.  In law school, on the day before our final exams when some of my classmates would stay up until all hours cramming, I  put my books aside and went to bed early so I could be fresh and ready for the big test tomorrow.  I always felt like my rested state gave me an advantage in terms of energy and mental focus, and I’ve tried to carry through that practice in my career, too.

Many of us — in our zeal to be SuperMom, or our focus on our jobs, or our desire to cram every conceivable bit of activity into the waking hours — have cut significantly into our sleep time.  Obviously, it’s a mistake.  If you want to help your kids do better in school or on the job, make sure they get a good night’s sleep.  And instead of staying up to watch a late night talk show or another Seinfeld rerun, why not hit the sack yourself?

Falling Nightmares

Normally I don’t remember my dreams. Since I’ve started using crutches, however, I’ve started to have vivid nightmares about falling.

If you accept the standard explanation of dreams — that they are a kind of post-day brain dump, when the conscious brain is out of it and the subconscious brain riffles through the images of the day just ended — my falling dreams shouldn’t come as a surprise. I know that I can’t put weight on my left foot, because it would painfully bend the steel pins in my toes and make them harder to extract. So, even something routine, like a short trip to the bathroom, becomes a cause for careful attention and concern about a slip and fall.

But there’s more to it. I scrabble up the stairs on hands and knees, dragging the crutches up the stairs with me, then use a chair at the top of the stairs to rise, balance, and get the crutches under my arms so I can move along. The transfer from chair to crutches is inherently unsteady, and I’m doing it balanced on one foot at the top of the stairs, wondering if a loss of balance will send me tumbling down the steps. The same process occurs when I go down the stairs, of course. And then there’s the silly worry about somehow falling out of bed and landing on my bad foot. I’ve never had that happen before, but now the possibility nags at me.

I don’t ever remember having falling dreams before, but they aren’t very pleasant. They’re not limited to the bed or stair scenarios; just about any falling context will do. I awaken with a lurch, arms flailing and grasping for a hold, heart pounding, hoping that the startling experience doesn’t itself cause me to tumble to the floor.

I hate these dreams. For years after I finished any form of schooling, I still had the occasional “failure to study for an exam that’s happening today” dream, and they never failed to get my pulse pounding. Now I wonder: long after these pins are removed and I’m walking normally again, will I continue to have these scary falling nightmares?

My Overnight Brain

This morning, when I awoke, the Billy Joel song Honesty was firmly lodged in my brain — so firmly lodged that it kept playing and playing until I put on the iPod headphones and focused my brain instead on Television’s Marquee Moon.

Why did I wake up to Billy Joel’s plaintive anthem to forthright relationships?  I don’t have the slightest idea.  It’s not one of my all-time favorite songs.  I wasn’t humming it when I went to bed last night.  My best guess is that I heard it at some point over the last week or so, and while I slept my brain was simply shuffling through its catalog of recent stimuli, trying to figure out what to remember and what to discard.  It was just my good fortune to awaken when it was The Piano Man’s turn on the recently heard playlist.

I know my brain works hard while I sleep.  When I wake up, there often is a song, thought, or image at the forefront of my mind.  It’s not unusual for my overnight brain to help me with work issues.  If I am wrestling with how to structure an argument, I may hit the sack with the issue in mind and wake up with a carefully considered approach, down to the point of specific phrases or fully formed sentences that I can jot down and use.  On other occasions, I’ll open my eyes and immediately be confronted by a list of reminders and to-do items.  It’s as if the slumber of my conscious self frees my inner brain to grind away undisturbed, like a conscientious employee who is constantly distracted by a talkative boss and becomes truly productive only when the boss blessedly returns to his office.

I like the fact that my brain continues to work while I sleep.  I wouldn’t necessarily choose Billy Joel as my wake-up music, but it’s a small price to pay.

The Dreaded 9 O’Clock Start

I’m a working man.  On weekdays, I get up before 5 a.m.  I’m out the door and off to work by  7 a.m., and I typically don’t get home until after 6:30 p.m.

Why do college basketball game planners hate people like me?  Why do they put good games, like Ohio State’s match-up with Indiana tonight, on the schedule for 9 p.m. on a weeknight?  It’s Tuesday night, for crying out loud!

So, here’s what will happen.  I’ll watch the game.  I’ll stay up later than I normally do.  I’ll be charged up about the game for a prolonged period of time.  And when the game ends around 11 p.m. or so, I’ll be unable to get to sleep right away.  Either I’ll be upset at how the Buckeyes played and focused on their loss when I try to sleep, or I’ll be excited that Ohio State somehow pulled off an improbable road victory — on Indiana’s senior night, no less, when the Hoosiers are trying to win an outright Big Ten championship — that the adrenalin won’t let me rest.  Either way, I’m not going to get a good night’s sleep.  And don’t even raise the possibility of overtime!

C’mon, ESPN, and Big Ten.  Give a working man a break!

The Insomniac’s Lament

I had one of those nights again last night.  If you’ve every experienced insomnia, you know exactly what I mean.

IMG_3242My brain was racing and flitting from topic to topic, as if it were under the power of a bored husband handling the TV remote control and driving his wife to distraction as he moved forever from channel to channel without ever actually watching anything.  Bizarrely contorted depictions of work projects, bad knees, poop-eating dogs, art schools, collapsing sinkholes, novocaine injections, and Medicare cutoffs danced fitfully across the mental landscape to the soundtrack of The Flight of the Bumblebee.  I flipped back and forth on the bed like an over-cooked burger, looking dry-eyed at the clock and wishing I could just fall asleep.

But sometimes you can’t fall asleep, no matter how you try.  Whether it’s what you ate, or the unique combination of issues in your life at that particular hour on that particular day, or some other cause, blissful sleep simply will not come.  When that happens, I yield to the inevitable and shuffle downstairs rather than disturb Kish with my tossing and turning.  I plop down in front of the computer and scroll through the internet, moving quickly from the BBC to the Ozone to the Drudge Report to Facebook, from blogs to Twitter feeds to Facebook pages.  My grinding brain lacks the focus needed to read a book, but the little dips into the information world that the internet offers are perfectly suited to my mental state.

After a few hours, it’s time to feed and walk the dogs, and let the day begin.  Tonight I’ll try again.

The Importance Of Sleep

How important is it that we get a 40 winks at night?  A recent study of “astronauts” who were on a simulated mission to Mars gives us some guidance on that question.

Mars is far away, and a trip there would require astronauts to be cooped up aboard their spaceship for months, without natural day-night cycles.  The Mars500 project sought to test what the effect of such an extended time in space might be, so it selected astronauts using standard criteria, isolated them, and communicated with them solely through time lagged communications that approximated the delay in communications between Earth and a spaceship on its way to Mars.  During the 17-month simulation, tests of the astronauts were conducted — and the results now being published show how crucial sleep patterns and the daylight cycle really are.

One crew member went from a 24-hour day cycle to a 25-hour day cycle, which meant he was awake and asleep at odd hours in comparison to the rest of his crew mates — and therefore became isolated.  Other crew members began to sleep more and more, and yet another crew member became chronically sleep-deprived and struggled with performance tests as a result.  In short, if a real mission to Mars were underway, sleep issues — and their resulting mental health impact — would have been a significant problem for crew performance and cohesion.  Researchers will be looking at whether a lighting scheme that better approximates our normal daylight-night rhythms might help.

Anyone who has done much travel — or watched Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson in Lost in Translation — knows how tough the effects of jet lag can be.  Imagine if you had to deal with sleep deprivation for months, stuck with the same people in an unchanging environment, without ever seeing daylight.

Now, get some sleep!

Sleep-Deprived

photo-88I like to get a good night’s sleep.

If I can work in about 7 hours of sack time, I awake refreshed and ready to face the day.  If — as is the case this morning — unfortunate circumstances have prevented the usual amount of slumber, it changes me in ways well captured by this realistic sculpture.  My bulging eyes grow large and have the coarse, gritty consistency of sandpaper.   My tongue hangs out, my breath is fiery, and my mouth is pulled back in an unsightly, fang-filled rictus.  I feel so out of sorts, it wouldn’t surprise me to see that I’ve sprouted a deep red dorsal fin and scaly green skin covered with blue polka dots.

In short, when I don’t get enough sleep at night, I feel pretty monstrous.