I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. This article is not intended to dispense medical advice, but to share my experiences on what has worked for me, personally.
Any medical information is provided as a narrative only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-physician relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.
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Let’s Talk About Sleep
I knew my first article was going to be about sleep, from the moment my partner and I first discussed this article. I have a genetic syndrome called, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. There are several types of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. I have type 3, which is also known as Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. From here on out, I will refer to my condition as EDS.
EDS has several secondary illnesses, one of which is an autonomic nervous system disorder called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia. The autonomic nervous system controls things in the body that are supposed to be automatic, like breathing, heart rate, digestion, body temperature, organ function and many others. I am in several online support groups for EDS and today I took a survey regarding sleep. It seems that many people are plagued with sleeping issues. I do believe it is possible to sleep train yourself. I believe this because I have been able to sleep train myself.
I have always had problems regarding sleep. As a child, I could not sleep and was plagued with nightmares. I was abused as a toddler and the abuse I sustained caused both physical and emotional damage, which caused some sleep issues throughout my life.
As I mentioned, I have EDS which can present chronic joint pain. As a child, I spent many nights awake with what we call “painsomnia” because of my pain. As a teen in high school, I was unable to wake and function at the time I was required to be in school and began abusing stolen prescription medication in order to wake and function for school. I took the time to figure out how long it took for the amphetamines to take effect and once I knew, I would set my alarm for 2 hours before I needed to get up, wake up and take the pills, and go back to sleep until I needed to be awake. By using those pills in that way, I was able to make it to school by 7:03 am when the final bell rang and still work nights in a restaurant.
Once I graduated high school, my sleep issues continued. I took prescription pills to fall asleep at night and prescription and illegal stimulants to wake. I was completely dependent on medications at that time. When I was about 18, I suffered a back injury and was prescribed muscle relaxers and painkillers. I was in a ton of pain and I was taking the medications as prescribed, but not only was I NOT getting any better, I noticed the muscle relaxers were making me feel worse. I knew then, if I didn’t stop taking the medications and get up off my mother’s couch, I would never recover from the injury. I had to just push through the pain. Shortly after getting off all the meds, I started having problems staying awake. I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Narcolepsy and was, ironically, prescribed the very same medication I was taking in high school. At that time, I still had not been diagnosed with EDS. I actually was not diagnosed with EDS until about 3 years ago. As it turned out, my narcolepsy was caused by a reaction to certain foods I was eating. Once I realized why I was passing out all over the place, I was able to get off the amphetamines again.
It has taken me significant time and energy working on myself to discover how to properly sleep train myself. I tried many different techniques and followed many different people and doctor’s advice. I am pleased to say, I do not depend on any pharmaceutical medications to sleep or to wake. It was important to me to learn how to sleep, so I could pass my knowledge on to my children. Now I can share my sleep secrets here with you.
Here are 14 tips to help you get a good night’s sleep.
I read in several different places, humans require a cooler temperature to sleep well. Most of what I have read says below 70 degrees, however, as I mentioned, I have an autonomic nervous system disorder which affects my ability to regulate my body temperature. When I get cold, it is very easy for me to become hypothermic. My preference for a “colder” nighttime/sleep temperature is 73. My optimal “daytime” temperature is about 78. So basically, the best “sleep” temperature should be about 5 degrees cooler than your optimal “daytime” temperature.
I am a very, very light sleeper. Anything can wake me up – from a tree branch tapping on the outside of the house, to the sound of the house settling. The last two places I lived were less than 1/4 mile from the railroad tracks. In order to get a good night sleep, I need some kind of white noise to drown out all those other sounds. In my last home, I had a window ac unit, so I was able to control the room temperature AND I had a good white noise source. Previously, I had a cheap fan and before that, an air filter. At this time, I have an air filter.
There is no reason to spend money on something to make noise to drown out background sounds. There are several free apps available for iPhones and Android phones that have a myriad of “white noise” sounds. While I was traveling with my kids, we used brown noise and pink noise on a free white noise app. My older daughter was using youtube, which also has many “white noise” recordings you can play on your laptop or desktop computer, if you do not have an Android or iPhone.
3.Clothing or lack thereof
It is important to be comfortable when sleeping. Before I had kids, I slept nude. I had very comfortable sheets and enjoyed being completely in the buff. I am sure I have read studies stating, sleeping nude is the “healthiest” and “best” but it is not always appropriate or attainable. If you have small children and want to encourage modesty, walking around and sleeping nude is not the best example to set. I’m not talking about shaming anyone and I personally have no problems with nudity. I just don’t want my 7 year old to climb into bed with me and snuggle up on top of me, while I am completely naked. I currently do not sleep nude. Maybe one day, I will begin this practice again, but at this time, it is not for me and my family. We sleep in comfortable clothes. I make sure I am warm enough, but also not overheated. I wear comfortable, soft clothes with either no tags, or I cut the tags out. My children and I are hypersensitive to certain synthetics, as well as whatever those tags are made out of. It is very hard to sleep when you’re getting hives from tags on the back of your neck or on your low back. I make sure none of us wear anything with velcro, buttons, snaps, or zippers and are made out of some kind of fabric that has some give to it. We mostly wear jersey to sleep in and/or sweatpants. If any part of your clothing is making you feel it while you are trying to fall asleep, change your clothes. We also use either all natural laundry soap, hypoallergenic laundry soap or make our own laundry soap. If no clothes are comfortable, take a look at your detergent.
I have to keep my room pitch black. When I say “pitch black” I mean I cannot have any lights of any kind. I have taped over many indicator lights on phone chargers and other electronics with black electric tape. I cannot have a glowing alarm clock staring me down all night. I cannot tolerate any kind of artificial light in my room when I am trying to fall asleep or sleeping. If someone texts me in the middle of the night and my phone glows, it will wake me up. Which is why I keep the sound off and face down.
I keep my blinds closed, but I do not use blackout curtains. If I used blackout curtains, I would sleep all day. Your body needs to sense the darkness of night and the brightness of the sun. With my blinds shut, I can still see the blue light of the moon and city light pollution, but it doesn’t affect me in a negative way. Ya know, like the glow of an indicator light on anything charging or those hideous alarm clocks. If you need to use one of those alarm clocks to wake up in the morning, put a washcloth over the glowing light. Not only does the light prevent you from falling asleep and staying asleep, having a constant reminder of what time it is, how late it is, and how desperately you need to fall asleep only further inhibits your ability to fall asleep. Our bodies are actually pretty in tune with the planet, and when you teach yourself to set your internal clock, it makes it really easy to sleep and wake at the appropriate time. Now, if you work a night shift, none of this would apply to you. You will need to trick your body by using very bright lights in the hours you need to be up and blackout curtains during the light hours you need to sleep. Basically, in order to set your internal clock, you need to sleep in total darkness and wake in very bright light. In my past two homes, I have allowed the rising sun to slowly wake me by allowing a little light to pass through my blinds. I do not get up at sunrise, however, I do begin to wake with the sun and will be bright eyed and bushy-tailed when I need to get up.
Breathing is very important to me. My autonomic nervous system disorder affects my breathing and heart rate. It is up to me to control these things, on my own, through breathing techniques I have either learned or taught myself over the years. Some people will suggest counting sheep to help fall asleep. I count breaths. I’m not suggesting counting every time you breathe. I count in on the inhale and out on the exhale. It is a way to slow my breathing and my heart rate, making it easier for my body to relax into “sleep mode.”
I start with four. I breathe in through my nose to the count of four, hold for four counts and breathe out through my nose to the count of four. If I don’t fall asleep within a few four count breaths, I move to five. I breathe in through my nose on a count of five, hold for 4, and breathe out through my nose on the count of five. If a few five count breaths don’t make me fall asleep, I continue to add a count, but always hold for only 4. This breathing technique is meant to mimic the natural sleeping breathing. Only people with sleep apnea hold their breath for longer than a four count.
I used hypnobirth breathing for the birth of my second daughter, which uses 20 count breaths. You don’t actually breathe in on a slow 20 second count breath. You count quicker, but the goal is to be able to still slow down your breathing and focus on the breath, not the discomfort of labor. If you get up to 20 counts, go back to 4 and start over. If I have any problems falling asleep, I usually fall asleep by the third or fourth breath.
6.You snooze you lose
Do not allow a snooze on your alarm. When your alarm goes off, get your ass out of bed and begin your morning routine. Do not go to the bathroom and then back to bed. Once you’re up, stay up.
Your bed is for sleeping and sex only (if applicable). It is best to not have a TV in the room where you sleep. Do not work on your computer, phone or tablet while in bed. Do not play video games in your bed. Your bed has to be a place where you relax only. You have to teach your brain, that is where you sleep. Your brain should only associate the bed with sleep (or sex, if applicable). If you work from home, do not work from your bed. If you work from home, make another comfortable spot to work in.
It is best to get up out of bed as soon as your alarm goes off and make the bed, so you won’t be encouraged to get back in it. If you have to get up at 8am, set your alarm for 8am, not 7:30 and hit the snooze. For a long time, I would set my alarm for 1 hour before I needed to get up, with a 15 minute snooze. I would hit my snooze button 4 times. That last hour of sleep was not restful. I was cheating myself out of a whole hour of restful sleep. After an hour of snoozing, I would get out of bed groggy and cranky. Once I made the decision to ditch the snooze, I no longer woke up groggy and cranky, but well rested and refreshed. Do not use the snooze.
On the subject of alarms, it is important to have the right alarm for the right person. My autonomic nervous system disorder has me on a constant edge of “fight or flight.” If my alarm is too alarming, like an actual bell ringing or anything too loud or startling, I wake in a full panic with a racing heart, beating against my sternum. No one wants to wake up in a panic. By the same token, I tried to use the sound of ocean waves to wake me, and the sound was too soothing and lulled me back into a deep sleep.
I use alarms on my cell phone. When I had an iPhone I used the harps that I had set to get progressively louder. On my android phone, I use the sounds with bells and nature, but they are not the scary “WAKE UP BECAUSE THE WORLD IS ENDING” bells, but nice calm Tibetan like bells. If you are a hard sleeper, you need to experiment on the correct alerts you need to wake you in a good mood. If you depend on those horrible glowing digital clock alarm clocks to wake you up, just cover the light so you can get some sleep.
8.Sleep and wake time
I have learned through trial and error, in order to properly sleep train myself, I need to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends and “days off.” It was necessary to set my internal clock, by going to bed and waking up every single day at around the same time. Once I get my internal clock set to wake at the same time, I don’t even need to use an alarm. I seem to do ok, as long as I stick within an hour of the chosen sleep and wake times. So on the weekends, or on “days off,” I allow myself to sleep in about an hour. I also let myself stay up late on those days, but no more than an hour or I have to start the process all over again.
If I mess up my sleep schedule by staying up too late or sleeping too late, it takes me a week to two weeks to get back to the point of not needing an alarm. If I have to be somewhere by a specific time, I always use an alarm, regardless of whether or not I actually need it. Having an alarm when you don’t actually need it is just a safety net.
Caffeine is a stimulant. Stimulants help keep you awake. It is asinine to say caffeine doesn’t affect you. I limit myself to the equivalent of two cups of coffee a day. I do not eat or drink anything containing caffeine after 3 pm, otherwise there is no way I could possibly fall asleep. I actually tried to switch to green tea, however, cutting the caffeine so significantly greatly affected my heart condition. Having a cup or two of coffee in the morning seems to be the best way I can regulate my heart rate for the day. I follow the philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Since the coffee seems to be providing me with positive health results, I will continue to have my two cups every morning. I do not have any caffeinated drinks, including cola sodas, iced tea or coffee after 3 pm. That’s my magic hour. If you’re having problems sleeping and you enjoy caffeinated beverages, do yourself a favor and try to avoid having them in the afternoon.
I mentioned earlier, certain foods were causing me to have narcolepsy symptoms. I was literally passing out from ingesting a specific food. It was so serious, I actually received a diagnosis of narcolepsy and was prescribed amphetamines. I truly believe food can affect your sleep. I know this one specific food can make me pass out sleepy. I also know if I eat something that upsets my stomach, it can keep me up all night with heartburn or stomach pain. Some foods can make you gassy. When you’re gassy, it can be hard to sleep. If you are having problems sleeping, especially after eating certain foods, it might be a good idea to pay attention to the foods that give you an upset stomach, or excessive gas, and try avoiding them before attempting to sleep. It’s also a really good idea to not eat within an hour of going to bed, no matter what you’re eating.
11.Mattress and bedding
A comfortable mattress is necessary to attain a good night’s sleep. I cannot sleep very well on a coil spring mattress. I can feel the springs, and the sound of them groaning under the weight of my body has woken me up. For several years, I found comfort in a memory foam mattress topper with a pillow top. I now have a firm memory foam mattress that I love. I also have a memory foam pillow. The mattress and pillow I use are probably too firm for most people, but they are heavenly for me. If you are having problems falling asleep or staying asleep, it might be a good idea to take a look at your mattress. Mattresses harbor dust mites, dead skin (what dust mites eat), and body oils. If you haven’t changed your mattress in a decade, or you have a used mattress from a family member and have no idea how old it is, it’s time to splurge on a new mattress. Take the time to go to several mattress stores and lay down on them in the position you usually sleep in. Most places have exchange policies that allow you to exchange your mattress within a predetermined time period, if the mattress doesn’t work for you. The right mattress can make all the difference in the world. If you do not have the finances available to splurge on a new mattress, those memory foam mattress covers are an affordable alternative for a short term fix. It’s also important to have the right pillow for the way you sleep. They actually have specific pillows for stomach sleepers, side sleepers, and back sleepers. There are so many pillows out there, from $3 to hundreds. Love yourself enough to find the right pillow for you. It’s also really important to have comfortable bedding. The reason why fancy hotel beds are so comfortable is because they use high thread count sheets. Make your bed the sanctuary of comfort. There are so many kinds of fabrics they make sheets out of nowadays. Once again, choosing the right sheet set is a personal choice. I can’t have any poly blend or other synthetic fiber. I love cotton sheets. One day I intend to purchase some bamboo and hemp, just to try them out.
I mentioned earlier, your bed is for sleeping and sex (if applicable) only. Your bed is not the place to sit up all night playing halo. Your bed is not the place to sit up all night watching old Dexter reruns. Your bed is not where you sit up all night on your phone or tablet, updating your Facebook status. Your bed is not where you stay up all night working on your English Lit paper or the proposal you promised your boss. Your bed is where you snuggle with your lover (if applicable) and go to sleep.
It took me a long time to teach my brain that bed was for sleeping. I had to condition myself to use my bed for sleep only. This is actually a really important tip. When your brain knows that bed is for sleeping and you lay down in bed, it makes it really easy to fall asleep. I have read countless articles saying the use of electronics before bed actually hinders your ability to fall into a restful sleep. I read something about the use of electronics or watching TV stimulating the brain. As I mentioned in the caffeine tip, stimulants keep you awake. If your brain is stimulated before bed, it makes it hard to fall asleep. Do yourself a favor, keep the TV and electronics out of your bedroom. Go ahead and use your phone for an alarm clock, but also use the “do not disturb” feature or turn off your sound altogether. Unless, of course, you happen to be a neurosurgeon on call, or some other important career requiring you to be contacted 24/7. If you need a few minutes to wind down before turning off the light and laying down, try reading a book. The strain on your eyes should increase your sleepiness and also, don’t be illiterate!
It is important to read all the info that comes with the medications you are prescribed. Some medications can cause insomnia. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I have been prescribed pain medications. One of the pain medications I have been prescribed works really great. It’s a synthetic opioid and it reduces my pain without making me feel loopy. The only problem is, I cannot sleep after taking it. Because I love sleep, I really don’t take it. One of the not so awesome things about having EDS, is my body is hypersensitive to side effects medications can cause. I guess it depends on how you look at it. I think it’s pretty awesome that I cannot take pharmaceutical medications. My inability to take many medications, due to my hypersensitivity to side effects, forced me to deal with my physical issues through diet, exercise and natural alternatives to medications. If you have to take medications and your medications are causing you insomnia, go back to your doctor and discuss an alternative medication.
This one is kind of a “no brainer.” When you exercise, you burn calories and fatigue your muscles. It’s easier to fall asleep at night when you burn some extra calories throughout the day. When I say, exercise, I mean moving your body in some way shape or form. Park as far away from the store you are going to, and walk the length of the parking lot. Take the stairs. Go swimming in a pool or the nearest body of water. Do yoga. I have a yoga app on my phone. I can pick my sessions based on poses, body parts, or the time I want to spend doing a little yoga. Yoga is also excellent for teaching yourself how to slow down and focus on your breathing and your body.
Dancing is also an excellent way to burn some extra calories. Dancing also releases natural endorphins (as does any exercise), and those natural endorphins make you feel happy. You can dance anytime or anywhere. You can dance to music playing aloud or dance to the music in your head. You can sing AND dance for an extra benefit. Singing while you dance, forces you to control your breathing. You don’t have to be J-lo, you don’t have to have perfect pitch, or know all the latest moves to be able to sing and dance. Just do what makes you feel good. If you are not comfortable singing and dancing because of whatever insecurities you may have, don’t do it. It’s as simple as that.
You can always go the conventional route and join a gym. When I was a member of a gym, my workout was 12 minutes on a cardio machine. I preferred the stairs and the one that mimics cross-country skiing. Then I would pick a body part to focus on. If I was doing back and arms, I would do high reps with low weights because I wanted to tone, not build. Then I would end with 8 minutes on the cardio to “cool down.” It’s not necessary to join a gym, but if you like it, or want to try it, there is no shame in joining a gym.
You can also take a martial arts class. Martial arts will also teach proper body mechanics, breathing techniques, and discipline.
You might be thinking, “these things all cost money.” But really, there are ways to exercise without spending a dime. My yoga app is free. Sure there are paid upgrades, but I don’t find them necessary. Walking out your front door and taking a walk around the block is free. Using items you already have around your house as weights is free. Dancing around in the privacy of your own home is free. There are no excuses to NOT exercise, even if you are disabled or temporarily injured. I am in physical therapy for my neck and lower back. Guess what I have to do for physical therapy? I have to exercise specific body parts, to build the muscle tone in order to support my injury. If you are a paraplegic, there are exercises you can do for the limbs that still function. If you have limited mobility, there are exercises you can do in a seated position.
The more you exercise, the better you will sleep. Some people can work out just before bed and go right to sleep. I am not one of those people. I need to burn the bulk of my calories earlier in the day. I can’t sleep when my heart rate is too high and exercising raises your heart rate. If you have any heart condition, it is imperative that you discuss exercise with your doctor before changing anything in your daily routine. I find, for me, I need to be done with my exercise for the day before dinnertime, in order to give my heart plenty of time to slow back down into a restful state.
Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite, but if they do, take a shoe and beat them ‘til they’re black and blue.
Joia DaVida is a Jersey girl at heart, but after living in Southern Florida for over 20 years, packed up her two brilliant and beautiful daughters and road tripped across America to relocate in LA, California. Featured in the internationally acclaimed documentary Beautiful Births where she shared her birth stories, she hopes to transition into YouTube where she can share her DIY tips and tricks from up-cycling plastic bags into beautiful crocheted handbags to handmade jewelry, Joia hasn’t met a crafting project she couldn’t conquer.