I’m one of those lucky people, blessed with the ability to fall asleep just about anywhere, anytime, even during a bus or train commute (yeah, sleeping on the Red Line in Chicago was probably not quite as safe as on the Boulder–Denver commuter bus).
My husband says that it only adds insult to injury that I can also wake up without an alarm, whether it’s exactly in time to get up for my daily 4am-ish workout, to keep my power nap to 10 minutes, or to get off at my stop.
I was odd about sleep as a child—while others begged and pleaded to stay up, I couldn’t wait to get in bed, and I always slept well, at least after I overcame my terror of nightmares and thunderstorms.
Of course, that only lasted until we had our own kids: when that happens, there’s the absolute need to crawl in bed as early as possible because you just know someone is going to be waking up soon, and you can be awakened by the smallest rustle from across the house even without a baby monitor!
But children do eventually sleep through the night—even my two terrible sleepers reached an age when a cannon by their bed wouldn’t wake them up—and I was able to get back to my 7–8 hours a night, thanks to a husband who took “the late shift” so I could do “the early shift,” which is definitely not his best time of day.
It was therefore strange—and more than a little scary—when in my late forties, I started waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep for hours. What the heck?
“This isn’t me,” I thought.
Well, apparently it was me—the new me—for a few years. And it wasn’t until I started learning how common this was in women my age that I started to connect the dots.
In Integrative Nutrition®, when we don’t feel well, we are encouraged to experiment with our diet and lifestyle choices—to figure out the cause of our discomfort and address that rather than mask the symptoms with medications or other aggressive interventions.
When our sleep goes wonky in mid-life, there can be a number of factors in play—physiological, yes, and—perhaps more importantly—emotional and spiritual.
It’s interesting to track our triggers, just as I talked about last week in My own personal summer. For me, the physical triggers for hot flashes and for insomnia are more or less identical, and again it comes down to a conscious choice: if I’m tempted to have coffee later than noon, dessert or wine with dinner, I have to decide how much sleep I need to get to be fully functioning the next day—sometimes that glass of wine is worth not sleeping well, coffee and dessert usually lose out!
There’s a lot you can do about your “sleep hygiene”—search that up online or go directly to Sleep.org (haha—be sure you do it at least 30 minutes before bedtime). And sometimes that just isn’t enough.
In my reading, I’ve come across a few concepts from traditional/alternative systems of medicine that really made sense to me.
- In Ayurveda, insomnia is said to be due to an imbalance in our doshas, normally too much vata, or fire element. (Um, yeah, that’s a nice euphemism for a hot flash: [Madly fans self with whatever’s close to hand] Oh, sorry, don’t mind my vata.)
- In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the hours of the day and night are associated with specific organ systems, so a certain window can help identify the area of imbalance. Waking up between 1–3? It’s likely an imbalance in the liver. Between 3–5? It’s probably an imbalance in the lungs. What makes this even more interesting is that each organ system is also associated with an emotion.
- Dr. Christiane Northrup teaches that perimenopause is our body’s Hail Mary: if we haven’t been paying attention to the monthly “excuse-me-you-need-to-take-care-of-yourself” taps on the shoulder that PMS can give us, perimenopause is the 2×4 that hits us upside the head—one final attempt to get our attention and get us to address what’s out of alignment in our lives.
How exactly is that last one related to insomnia?
When you think about what you do in a day, can you honestly say that you have the time to sit and think about your values and priorities and make every decision based on whether or not a specific choice will bring you into alignment with those principles?
Uh huh, that’s what I thought.
What if your insomnia is actually a gift in disguise?
I came to think about it as the equivalent to being sick during vacation: we tend to keep ourselves together, to keep pushing through, to ignore when we don’t feel 100%. Then we go on vacation and WHAM! It’s like our bodies know that we can rest now. Forget that you had made awesome vacation plans, you’re going to rest, and you’re going to do it now.
As a working wife and/or mother, you probably crave “me time.” Waking up in the middle of the night can be that gift of time: it’s happening for you, not to you!
It’s your mind letting you know that there are things you need to sort out, and if you’re not doing it during the day, you definitely have time to do it at night.
When you’re supposed to be asleep.
And gee, if you could fall asleep now, you’d still get 6 hours.
And in between checking the clock, your mind goes into monkey mode, hopping from tree to tree, topic to topic in a frenzy.
Now maybe you could still get 5.
Darn it, why did I agree to drive the carpool this week—I knew I wouldn’t have time.
And then there’s this problem at school—how am I going to handle that?
And what about that major deadline at work?
2 hours? Screw it, you might as well get up.
If you are suffering from mid-life insomnia—usually featuring relative ease in falling asleep but waking up in the middle of the night unable to fall back asleep—and are feeling desperate about it, have tried improving you sleep hygiene without any noticeable effect, and are looking for a natural remedy, bear with me and try a new strategy, not just for one night but for at a least week. What’s it going to hurt: you’re awake anyway, right?
Before you try this, though, make an agreement with yourself that it’s an exercise: no grades are being given out, and no judgment passed. There is no “did it right/wrong,” just practice.
- Stop looking at the clock. Seriously, remove that temptation—turn it around or cover it up!
- Practice a simple breathing exercise: two of my favorites are Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breath and Mark Divine’s version of “box breathing.” I’ve found that doing these exercises before bed can put your body on notice that it’s time to sleep, so sometimes that’s enough in the middle of the night, too. You may actually just drift back to sleep…and you might not.
- If you have done the breathing and are still awake, try to let your train of thought be just that—a train slowly moving by, or better yet a meandering river or a gentle wind. Thoughts come up like leaves floating downstream or clouds moving across the sky, and they move on: try not to latch onto any one of them.
- Get curious: what areas of your life do most of the thoughts pertain to? Relationships, career, spirituality, home environment…? Make a mental note of those areas.
- Ask yourself what feels out of alignment in those areas: Do you find yourself working 60-hour weeks when you’ve always wanted to work part-time? Are you spending time with someone who is an energy vampire when what you really need is someone who builds you up?
- Wonder (aloud or to yourself) what can be done to sort this out. Don’t actually start listing things, just ask the question.
- That’s it. Still awake? Start back at #1.
So what? What does that all do?
Honestly, it might not do anything. Or it might do a lot!
As much as we all hate to admit it, our mothers were right more than they were wrong. One of my mom’s Russian sayings is that morning is wiser than evening—something that distresses us at night can seem very different by morning light.
You might be surprised how often solutions to seemingly impossible-to-solve problems can pop up after you (finally) get back to sleep if you use the above practice.
Drop a comment below and let me know: how did your sleep change at mid-life? And if you have some resources you’ve found to lessen the effects of poor sleep, please share them!