Rewind five years ago and I was a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Mid-40s, peri-menopausal - I barely slept a wink.
At any point of the night, I could flick open my eyes and be alert. If I did drop off, I would jerk awake, gasping for breath.
By day, I’d torture myself by reading all about the damage I was going to my mind and body – working as a health writer, I knew that heart problems, dementia and cancer have all been linked to disrupted sleep.
My insomnia was severely impacting my life. I swerved social events. Snapped at my kids. My husband would gently snore the night away, while I seethed silently.
Tell someone you can’t sleep and they always have suggestions: camomile tea, or lavender oil? Going to bed earlier? Cultivate a routine - known as sleep hygiene. The truth is, those who suffer from insomnia know more about these remedies than anyone else.
Sleeping pills, both over the counter and prescribed, didn’t dent my insomnia. Valerian-based herbal supplements left me feeling like I was being buried alive. Even zopiclone, a benzodiazepine-related sleeping pill blotted out my brain as I dropped off. The sleep felt artificial and unrefreshing.
Now, I have celebrated the big 50, I am pleased to report, my sleep issues have subsided.
In my search for the holy grail to cure insomnia, I tried lots of different strategies.
Let me share my journey – it may help with yours …
I tried hypnotherapy
I wondered whether there was some kind of psychological block that was preventing me from dropping off, so, six years ago, I decided to look into hypnosis, David Samson came highly recommended – even the editor of Vogue had waxed lyrical about how he had helped her with fear of flying. Over the course of six sessions, while I relaxed in a comfy chair in his Harley Street room, I found myself going back in time to the traumas that had affected my sleep. I learned that a lot of my issues stemmed from two seminal episodes in my life: one was losing my father as a teenager. He’d gone in for a heart op and died on the table, never waking up from his anaesthetic. Before that, I lost my beloved nanny when I was six. She went to bed complaining of indigestion – and died of a heart attack in her sleep. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had retained the belief that letting myself fall asleep was a potentially dangerous thing to do. David used neuro-linguistic programming techniques to help dislodge this belief. After completing the series of hypnotherapy sessions, I had my first good night’s sleep in years.
So, was that it? Case closed? Hypnotherapy was the silver bullet? Not exactly. As I was pretty desperate, alongside the hypnotherapy, I’d also tried cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in the form of Sleepio, a digital CBT program, I accessed this on my laptop from home. The programme, using a cartoon character called Prof learns about you, your challenges, and your goals and offers advice based on that. It’s not free, but it was useful. The advice is bespoke to your particular issues. For me, the big takeaway was sleep restriction. When you have insomnia, you spend a lot of time almost hating your bed – and of course your slumbering bed-mates – yes husband, I am looking at you! Sleepio taught me to not toss and turn, but just get up and do something else. Some people might like to iron or read, I watched rubbish TV. It’s certainly very empowering not to ‘force’ yourself to sleep.
The Mirena Coil
As I was entering the period of life known as the in the perimenopause, when FSH levels start to rise, I started to experience very heavy periods (menorrhagia). Heavy periods are uncomfortable, leech iron causing anaemia, and put pressure on the bladder – not to mention having to get up for the frequent changes of sanitary protection during the night. Mirena, which is used generally as a contraceptive, is a T-shaped plastic frame that's inserted into the uterus, where it releases a type of the hormone progestin, which inhibits periods, allowing most women to have no periods or very light bleeding. Progestin is a synthetic form of progesterone, which is considered to be a 'calming, soothing' hormone which supports sleep. It took a few weeks for the Mirena to settle – but I soon noticed the quality of sleep I enjoyed was better. However – this appears to be an individual response. If you google Mirena, you will find many women complaining that this device adversely affected their sleep. The reaction to HRT is individual. It is best to see a gynaecologist to discover what form of HRT suits you.
The time of a woman’s life when her ovaries stop releasing an egg (ovum) on a monthly cycle, and her periods ceaseFull medical glossary
Made over my bathroom
This might sound strange – but hear me out.
I have an en-suite in my bedroom with a shower. The main bathroom had a bath, no shower. The trouble was, as the kids got older, the shower became the preferred choice for everyone. The en-suite had no window, and I noticed some mould had started to form. Moulds produce allergens (substances that can cause an allergic reaction), which I figured may be exacerbating the blocked nose and suffocating sensation. So, we earmarked some money to put a standing shower in the main bathroom. The en-suite is rarely used now. I also dusted like a Ninja and kept the bedroom as free of clutter as possible. This has coincided with me breathing easy and sleeping better.
Faced up to histamine
Learning about histamine was a game-changer. One day after a terrible night’s sleep, I visited my doctor. We talked through what had happened. I’d grabbed a microwave meal – a Thai noodle dish – and had retired to bed, but that night I had found myself waking up choking, trying to breath. Speaking to the GP about it, he explained that histamine could be playing a part. Foods contain different levels of histamine and a healthy diet contains moderate levels of histamine. However, there are some foods high in histamine that can trigger inflammatory reactions and other negative symptoms. And when food is left for long periods, such as microwave products, produce more histamine. Histamine plays a part in full-on anaphylaxis (the severe allergic reaction that includes potentially life-threatening effects such as your airways closing), but histamine-intolerance, although not fatal, can seriously undermine your health. It can cause a raft of problems, headaches, dizziness, and also affects your nasal passageways and airways, causing sneezing and congestion and that sensation of your throat closing up. The list of histamine-rich foods is long – and includes favourites like red wine, cheese and chocolate. I’m afraid I haven’t completely given up these, but when I do indulge, I pop a Diamine oxidase (DAO) supplement, an enzyme which breaks down excess histamine in your body and is used to treat symptoms of histamine intolerance.
Broke the rules
You don’t have to go too far to find out about sleep hygiene – the routines that experts say enable us get a goodnight's sleep. And it’s well worth finding out about them – avoiding caffeine, keeping your bedroom as dark as possible for sleep, trying to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day and having a wind-down routine, including switching off electronic devices. If you haven’t come across these rules, I certainly advise that you check them out – some of the tips have worked for me, for example, black-out blinds. However, avoid being too rigid. Sleep expert Guy Meadows believes it's the fear of not sleeping that becomes the real obstacle; that you can try too hard to get to sleep. So, I don’t beat myself up that I don’t stick to the letter of the sleep hygiene rules. For example, my sleep routine includes using electronics – albeit using night-time mode. I play scrabble on my I-pad until I drop off. It's my version of counting sheep.
It usually works. And if it doesn’t? No sweat. There’s always tomorrow night.
Lucy Hunter is a health journalist and contributor to Total Health