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  • Writer's pictureMartha Lewis

6 things to do (and 3 not to do) when you can't sleep

I wake up almost every night to pee and then go right back to sleep. But when I wasn’t sleeping well, I wouldn't be able to fall back asleep for hours.

Waking up in the night and not being able to fall back asleep is so frustrating! I remember lying in bed feeling so desperate because I was so frigging tired but I couldn’t sleep no matter what I did.

While I help my clients with underlying health imbalances that affect sleep, there are also some things you can try to fall back asleep more quickly.

1. Think of your happy, relaxing place.

I crawl back in bed and think of the beach and the waves crashing on the shore. I’m a mountain girl at heart (which is why Jackson Hole is my home) but the beach always relaxes me.

2. Repeat a sleep mantra.

I used to think “I love sleep” over and over again when I would go back to bed. I’ve had clients like thinking “I’m sleeping” to remind themselves that even though they felt like they were awake, they could be in the lighter stages of sleep and not realize it.

You want to find something that resonates with and is believable to you. The right mantra will release feel-good neurotransmitters in your body, helping you feel calm and relaxed.

Possible mantras:

  • I love sleep.

  • I’m sleeping.

  • I’m so comfortable.

  • I feel relaxed.

3. Do this breathing exercise.

In my favorite breathing exercise, you breathe out/exhale for longer than you breathe in/inhale. Making your exhale longer than your inhale relaxes your nervous system which slows down your heart rate and calms your mind. For me this looks like breathing in for a count of 5. Then exhaling for a count of 6. After a few rounds, I increase the exhale to 7 counts. Then 8.

4. Try l-theanine.

L-theanine is the precursor to GABA, our anti-anxiety hormone. While I usually don’t recommend trying supplements without knowing that you need them, I think this is worth a try for a week or so to see if it helps.

I recommend a liquid l-theanine supplement so you absorb it and it starts to work quickly.

(I suggest l-theanine instead of a GABA supplement because GABA shouldn’t cross the blood-brain barrier and so most supplements won’t get to the brain where you need it. By supplementing with l-theanine, your body can convert it to GABA in the brain.)

Some symptoms of GABA deficiency are:

  • Anxiety, worry, and fear

  • Muscle tension, especially in the shoulders, neck and jaw

  • Insomnia, early-morning awakenings, restlessness

  • Short temper, phobias, impulsiveness, disorganization

  • Reflux, IBS, diarrhea

  • Hypertension, tinnitus, chronic pain, migraines

  • Alcoholism/addictions, schizophrenia, depression, OCD

  • Allergies

  • Frequent urination

  • Flushing/blushing, sweating

  • Salt cravings

Warning: Do not take GABA support if taking anti-epileptics, benzodiazepines or other sleep meds or if you have had too much to drink.

5. Get out of bed.

You don’t want to just lie in bed when you can’t sleep. You want your brain to have a strong association between sleep and bed. You don't want your brain to think that bed equals lying awake worrying about why you can't sleep. When you get anxious and stressed, your body releases cortisol (the stress hormone) which will make it even harder to fall asleep.

When you think you’ve been awake for more than 20-30 minutes, get up out of your bed and leave your bedroom entirely. Go to a comfortable and lowly lit space. Do a calm, relaxing activity such as reading, stretching, a crossword puzzle, etc. until you feel sleepy again. Then go back to bed.

You may have to repeat this a few times the first week or so of trying it. But once your brain gets it that bed = sleep, you will be able to fall asleep faster instead of tossing and turning in bed for hours.

6. Accept that you’re awake.

In the moment, there’s nothing you can do about the fact that you’re awake. Getting anxious and upset is NOT going to help. I remember crying in the middle of the night multiple times out of sheer exhaustion and frustration so I know this is easier said than done.

But the truth is, you can’t change the fact that you aren’t sleeping. The only thing you can change is your experience of it. If you accept that it’s happening instead of resisting it, you won’t get upset and sabotage your sleep even more.

Now when I have a weird night every once in a while (because no one’s sleep is perfect all the time), I try all of these tips and if I have to, I get out of bed and read a book. I don’t worry about how I’m going to feel the next day (because I’m always fine) and I don't try to figure out what I did wrong that day that affected my sleep like I used to. Instead I tell myself that I’ll be fine tomorrow, that I’ll fall asleep soon and that I get to enjoy reading my book right now.

One night of poor sleep is no big deal. Knowing that keeps me from worrying about and sabotaging my sleep the next night.

While in my program we look for underlying health issues that affect sleep, we also help our clients change their relationship to sleep so that one night of bad sleep doesn’t spiral into months of bad sleep.

3 things you don’t want to do when you can’t sleep

1. DON’T try to get out your energy.

You don’t want to go for a walk or anything similar to exert yourself. Doing this tells your body that it’s time to be awake and increases cortisol which will keep you awake even longer. Instead, you want to do whatever you can to relax and calm your nervous system.

2. DON’T look at screens.

That means no TV, phone, tablet, etc. The blue light from screens will raise cortisol and tell your brain it’s daytime. Even if you wear blue light blocking glasses, watching TV and scrolling on Facebook will make you feel wired and can cause stress even though you’re tired. This is why I recommend keeping the lights dim and doing something relaxing that doesn't involve screens.

3. DON’T work!

Some of my clients tell me that when they can’t sleep they decide to get work done to be productive. Again, this tells your brain that it's time to be awake instead of asleep. It’s going to keep you from being able to fall back asleep quickly. And it can get your brain in the habit of waking up in order to get more done.

The truth is, you probably need more of a break from work than you need to do more work. I suggest setting strict boundaries around work time and off-work time so that you feel more relaxed overall which will help you sleep better.

If these tips don't help most of the time, then there are hidden health issues that are keeping you awake.

In the Complete Sleep Solution program, we use functional lab testing to find those physical imbalances.

And we make sure your mind doesn’t sabotage your sleep with stress and anxiety.

It’s the only natural body and mind program that gets to the root of why you can’t sleep.

If nothing else has worked, it’s time to get to the root of the problem. Book a free consultation to find out more and get started today so you can sleep better soon!

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