Can't Sleep? Calm Down and Cool Down

Think about your car. If you revved it until it was overheated and spewing steam, what would you do? Turn it off and cool it down. We can't sleep because we're amped and hot.
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Insomniacs are all alike, but every insomniac suffers in his or her own way. Oh, the war stories no one wants to hear! Yawn. My sympathies are with you, though. I understand what it's like to feel like roadkill morning after tired morning.

As I believe anyone with insomnia should do, I ruled out restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea with an overnight sleep study. Next came the cruel and unusual punishment of the sleep hygiene protocol. The bedroom was limited exclusively to sex and sleep. But then if you wake up and can't get back to sleep, you're supposed to get up and go into another cold, uncomfortable room in the middle of the night to wait for sleepiness ... torture.

When this "proven method" failed, my mind drifted to one key detail: none of the sleep doctors I worked with suffered from insomnia. I thought, 'Hm, if you're going to war, who do you want to lead you into battle -- someone who studied warfare in school or someone whose spent a lot of years on the battlefield?' I got out my three single-spaced pages of everything I tried from reasonable-sounding solutions like taking natural tranquilizers to out-there measures such as hyperbaric treatments and getting a prescription for on oxygen tank. I pondered and connected the dots.

Think about your car. If you revved it until it was overheated and spewing steam, what would you do? Turn it off and cool it down. It was so obvious. We can't sleep because we're amped and hot. So I developed an approach that addresses a constellation of factors and behaviors that calm and cool the entire integrated system of the mind, body and spirit. This approach worked for me.


Fear of not sleeping and anger at not sleeping are the heated emotions associated with insomnia. These hot emotions create vigilance in your amygdala, which is the primitive part of your brain that's programmed to protect you from danger. Your amygdala is not just going to say "Okay!" if you try to dismiss anger and fear. You have to take a back-door approach to calm this overzealous sentry:

  • Eat a balanced diet of real food to supply your body with the amino acid L-tryptophan, which converts to serotonin and then to the sleepy hormone melatonin.
  • Eat enough complex carbs to facilitate the transmission of L-tryptophan into the brain.
  • Stop dieting. Starvation keeps your amygdala sensing danger (it's a famine!).
  • Allow yourself two hours of wind down before bedtime.
  • Have sex to flood your brain with calming neurotransmitters
  • Read a non-agitating real book, not an e-book. Current research, including a study done at the University of Basel in Switzerland, clearly demonstrates that melatonin is light sensitive. When the light composed of blue wavelengths emitted from TVs, energy-efficient light bulbs, and electric gadgets hits the retina, it suppresses the production of melatonin.
  • If barking dogs, TV, traffic or neighbors fighting are disturbing you, buy a white noise machine to mask noise.
  • Stake out your own bedroom if your partner snores.
  • Don't allow TV-watching while you're trying to sleep. Harvard Psychiatrist, Srini Pillay advised me, "Even if you're asleep, your amygdala is definitely going to register that fear input -- especially gunshots and screaming."
  • Avoid hot activities like arguments, bill-paying and discussions about taxes and family problems until morning.
  • If fear and anger are firmly entrenched, you need bigger heat-seeking guns to calm your amygdala. Buddhist Metta (loving-kindness) meditation was developed by the Buddha as an antidote to fear. My Buddhist teacher Chris Germer, author of The Mindful Path to Self Compassion, told me, "The primary difference between Metta and other types of meditation is that it specifically targets the system of the brain that self-soothes." Sit with your eyes closed for 20 to 30 minutes a day and repeat four phrases: May I be safe; May I be happy: May I be healthy, May I live my life with ease.
  • Ericksonian hypnotherapy also calms the amygdala by facilitating deep relaxation. Hypnotherapist Carolyn Grothe, explained it like this: "The brain shifts from an active, rational-thinking beta wave, to a soothing alpha wave. In the state of hypnosis the amygdala is soothed and quieted." You can download her sleep CD Meditation and Relaxation for Sleep on Amazon.


Adrenal fatigue, the unhappy companion to insomnia, results from over-revving your engine and pushing past exhaustion. Some ways to cool down your adrenals are:

  • Stop drinking caffeine, period.
  • Cut way down on alcohol and sugar, especially after dinner.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Take fewer drugs.
  • Drink half of your body weight in ounces of water every day. According to neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, dehydration -- the drying out of blood vessels -- is a major factor in strokes in elderly. Getting up to use the bathroom is preferable.
  • Don't exercise past 2 p.m.
  • A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh demonstrated that extra brain activity keeps the brain too hot to sleep. The body's circadian clock, which regulates sleep and wakefulness, begins lowering body temperature in the evening. Melatonin works in part by lowering brain temperature. Cool your bedroom to at least 68º -- the temperature that corresponds with your lowest body temp during sleep. Go so far as to sleep with an ice pack on your head.
  • Certain hormones are necessary to transition from the nervous system's daytime (hot) sympathetic to the parasympathetic (cool) sleep mode. Melatonin: The brain's ability to make melatonin decreases with age. Taking ½ to 1 milligram of melatonin could be an easy fix if that's your problem. Female Sex Hormones: Many women simply need a small dose of bioidentical estrogen replacement to get back to normal sleep patterns.
When you've done all you can, cut yourself some slack. There are lots of reasons people get woken up. Don't get caught back up in fear and anger. Let it go if you don't sleep well one night. It's not a portent of your future. Stay cool. It's just one night.
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