I battled sleep issues for years. Here’s the 5-step routine that finally helped me get to sleep (and stay asleep).
Are you a member of the 3am Club like I am?
I really wish it involved dancing and drinking cocktails.
But this club is about staring at the ceiling and scrolling through regrets, injustices, and miscellaneous worries while everyone else in the world is fast asleep.
Completely. Wide. Awake.
Plenty of people wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, flip their pillow to the cool side, or grab a glass of water. Then return to sleep.
Not me. At 3am, the cycle was always the same: I awoke with an anxious thought, something that had clearly been percolating in my subconscious.
I felt warm and shot through with adrenaline. I was completely. wide. awake.
And I stayed that way for a solid 3-4 hours, until I finally got sleepy again–just as the world was waking up and I had to start my day.
Then things got worse. Those 3am wake-ups increased in frequency and shifted even earlier to 2am and even 1am.
The risks of sleep deprivation
If you suffer from sleep issues too, you know what happens after prolonged sleep deprivation.
You feel like a raw nerve, poised to overreact with tears, irritation, or anger (or all three) at the slightest offense or inconvenience. You’re fuzzy-headed. And you’re hungry for all things carby and sugary.
What’s worse, over time, chronic sleep deprivation is also bad for our physical health. It can increase the risk for heart disease and diabetes and weaken the immune system.
Where I sought help
I sought help from a lot of people in my quest to solve my sleep issues.
My gynecologist said it was probably peri-menopause (which can last up to 8 years!).
My primary care doctor prescribed medication to help me sleep, but it made me feel like the room was spinning.
My therapist gave me strategies for handling the nighttime anxiety and changing my mental narrative.
Then I consulted a nurse practitioner at a local psychiatry practice. She spent an hour asking me about my sleep issues, the anxiety, and about how all of it was affecting my life.
I felt so seen that I cried in the middle of the tele-health session. I felt like someone finally acknowledged how hard it all was. “Our priority is making sure you sleep,” she said.
My healthy sleep environment
I’d already decided on some nonnegotiables for my sleep environment:
- Lower temperature at night: The National Sleep Foundation recommends 65 degrees.
- No TV in the bedroom: And ideally, no shows with intense or disturbing images before bedtime.
- Nourishing, filling dinner: Eating a very light dinner means I may wake up at 3am with what feels like low blood sugar.
- Consistent bedtimes and wake-ups: I may catch an additional hour or so on the weekends, but otherwise stay on schedule.
- Large, comfortable bed: We upgraded to a king-sized bed and added an extra blanket to my side. Both of those made a big difference. (The splurge sheets we got are in my Holiday Gift Guide, along with a more budget-friendly set we also like.)
- Limits on naps: If I have a bad night of sleep, I avoid napping (or keep it to a quick 5-10-minute power nap) the next day and try to reset the following night.
My new 5-step sleep routine
Through a combination of medication and tweaks to my habits, I created a new nighttime routine that (at least for many months now!) reliably helps me sleep through the night. This routine is obviously not for everyone, but I wanted to share it, in case a piece of it might help you too. (And this is the exact order I follow it every night.)
1. Meditation: I’ve long said “I want to learn how to meditate” but never did anything about it. In 2020, I got a free subscription to the Calm app through my credit card and started incorporating a brief minute meditation at bedtime, the only time of the day that’s quiet and free of interruptions.
There are plenty of apps, but I like that Calm has so many choices, including lengthy bedtime meditations you can fall asleep to and middle-of-the-night sessions to get you back to sleep. They also have sessions around topics like mindset, work, headaches and migraines, and grieving.
I do a simple 10-minute meditation to close some tabs in my brain, sort of a mini-cleanse from the day that serves to quiet and relax me.
2. Ban on conversation: After my meditation, I’m strict about staying in a zen zone. “Don’t activate my brain!” is what I half-jokingly tell my husband if he says much more than “Good night” at this point.
Because if we start talking about the kids, tomorrow’s plan, or the leaky faucet, my brain will go into overdrive with logistics, worries, and to-do lists.
3. Medication for anxiety: I’ve been a worrier most of my life, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized my chronic worrying was actually anxiety–and that it was getting worse as I got older. I decided it wasn’t something I could control on my own.
Though trial and error working with the nurse practitioner, I found a medication that both eased my anxiety during the day and helped me sleep at night, without side effects that other medicines gave me.
4. Melatonin: After several months on my medication, my 3am wake-ups resumed. So I added melatonin to my regimen. I learned that our natural levels of melatonin decline as we age, which may help explain why so many older people struggle with sleep. My nurse practitioner okay-ed adding it nightly.
Because my problem wasn’t falling asleep but staying asleep, a friend recommended a 6-hour slow-release melatonin, and it’s been incredibly effective at getting me past that middle-of-the-night wake-up window. Now if I rouse at 3am to take a sip of water, I can actually get back to sleep, which is a small miracle.
This is the product I use (this isn’t sponsored, just sharing in case it will help you too): Life Extension 6-Hour Timed Release Melatonin
5. Quiet Reading on my Kindle: I was a hard-core library book girl for years, but now I couldn’t live without my Kindle. It’s like a dim reading light and book in one, and I don’t need to fiddle with a clip-on bulb when my husband is ready for lights-out but I’m not.
I read on my Kindle until I can’t keep my eyes open, then set it down, roll over, and sleep. Which, finally, feels like a dream.
I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.