I’ve never been a good sleeper. As a child I’d stay up late reading, powering through everything from The Arabian Nights to Matilda by lamp light. And because my bedroom was at the opposite end of the house to the master, I mostly got away with it. When I became a teenager I swapped the books for Optus’ 20-minute free calls (remember those?), and spent many a night with my Nokia 3221 glued to my head or besting my PB at Snake in the dark. At that time my biggest responsibility in life was getting to school on time so falling short of the recommended 8 hours didn’t affect me much. Then I grew up, got a busy and demanding job, and developed an adrenal problem. It was officially time to stop and rest.
Since then I’ve done a lot in the interest of getting quality sleep. I’ve tried an exhaustive list of both natural and medical remedies including; calming meditation, yin yoga, deep breathing, eating sleep-inducing foods (like tryptophan-rich turkey), journaling before bed, reading before bed, banning social media and devices from 6PM, ASMR (LOL), taking magnesium supplements, melatonin and homeopathic melatonin and cycling courses of Phenergan (an anti-histamine that makes you drowsy.) Spoiler: Nothing worked long term.
Next, I became a parent. The exhaustion was real, and for the first time in the longest, I could lay down and be in the land of Nod within minutes. After over a decade of fighting against what I perceived to be my body’s stubborn will to stay alert, it was actually a relief to know it could still properly power down. (Am I the only person in history to find comfort in being so tired from a new bub’s wake cycle that I could – and did – fall asleep in the shower? Maybe.) But, as baby grew and started sleeping longer, my old mate insomnia returned. Only now it was worse because I couldn’t sleep in to make up for the hours I’d lost the night before. An urgent fix was needed. Cue hours of frantic Google searching. But then I found what turned out to be my answer – engaging my parasympathetic nervous system.
Sometimes called the “rest and digest” system, the parasympathetic nervous system is effectively the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system aka the “fight or flight” system. (I’m sure you’ve heard of that one.) When you feel anxious or stressed, your body does a whole bunch of things to prevent you sleeping – your breath quickens, your heart beats faster and your muscles tense. You can probably figure out from this simple explanation that to get quality z’s you really need to be engaging the parasympathetic system. Happily, there are lots of ways to do this, some of which I had already tried in fact. But because everybody is different, and no remedy one-size-fits-all, I had to find what worked best for me.
Long story short, these days that looks like fortnightly infrared sauna sessions, weekly Epsom salt baths and topical magnesium application every day. (Magnesium is believed to relax the nervous system letting your parasympathetic nervous system switch on and do its thing.) My routine is not particularly ground-breaking, but if you’re still reading this, there’s a good chance you’re stuck where slumber is concerned. And if you are, I hope my experience helps encourage you to find the individual things that deeply relax you knowing there is science behind this approach.
If you are concerned about your health, wellbeing or sleep, your first port of call should be your GP, who will advise a correct treatment plan.