How I cured My Insomnia
What is insomnia?
The definitions that I can find for insomnia include; habitually being unable to sleep, unable to fall asleep or being unable to stay asleep and quite possibly both(1).
Interestingly, the categorisation of insomnia has been further divided into Primary and Secondary. Primary being defined as a person being unable to sleep and yet has no other obvious health issues. Secondary is described as a person that cannot sleep because of some external or other influences for example medication or an illness like depression.
There are also two manifestations of insomnia. Acute, where the person has short term quick onset which tends not to be prolonged in terms of many nights, for example because the environment was particularly noisy thus preventing sleep. Chronic, where the sufferer has had long term sleep problems.(2)
The results of sleep deprivation due to insomnia, whether chronic or acute, are difficult to live with. Many insomniacs complain of fatigue, exhaustion, never feeling refreshed and irritability.
My Onset of Poor Sleep Patterns
As a young girl, like most children, I slept very well. In fact, I slept really well until well into my third decade. The first development that affected my sleep was my children, this was acute sleep deprivation, but once the babies had turned about 3 months old I was able to sleep well again.
During my forties however, sleeping problems began to creep into most nights. They started with a loud heart beat. It wasn't rapid and didn't make me feel anxious, but it was loud and I could hear it. The sound seemed magnified in my head somehow. It was pretty distracting, preventing me from dropping off to sleep quickly. I would lie awake listening to it wondering what was going on. When I finally drifted off to sleep the loud heart beat was forgotten until the next episode.
After several months of this I decided to do some research to find if this was a common phenomena or if I was unique. I discovered it was much more common that I anticipated, so, at least I was normal! Except it didn't feel normal to me and I was, over the months and years, having more and more problems with my sleep and this started to spill over int o my daily life, I was becoming a little less tolerant and increasingly irritable. Sleep was no longer refreshing.
During very early my fifties, I had to have a course of chemotherapy. I was given a concoction of life saving drugs which had the inadvertent effect of creating complete insomnia, I was awake all night. I hardly slept. My nights turned in to daytime, I was up and about pottering around the house or on my computer in the small wee hours of the night. I was exhausted during the day and yet could hardly even cat nap during the day. I felt completely 'wired'.
On top of this, the dreaded menopause started prematurely as a result of the chemotherapy, my sleep was well and truly kaiboshed now!
My doctor was very sympathetic and prescribed 'zopiclone' which did the trick for one or two nights, although I begged him for more, he very wisely advised against continued use.
So this was my insomniatic lot in life, and for several months to come, I suspect it might still be if I hadn't worked out what to do and to fix it.
Do you have sleep problems?
What caused my sleep problems?
I have a very alternate and controversial hypothesis about what caused my sleep problems.
I now believe I was 'pumping' adrenalin.
What if my loud heat beat was actually adenalin? Even though it wasn't beating faster, could adenalin cause a heat to beat louder? I am not sure, but this is one idea I have. Could it be that a chemical contained in the chemotherapy drugs, or in the medications designed to counteract some of the adverse effects, was also able to stimulate the adrenals? I have not done the research, but something compounded my inability to sleep during this treatment.
One final and very off the wall idea I have is that I was pumping adrenalin day and night to keep warm. I had a low body temperature, cycling around 35.8C during the daytime and 35C at night. Was I using adrenalin to keep warm instead of its usual reactive purpose of fight or flight?
My Adrenalin Theory
Adrenalin is normally produced in response to something, maybe hunting for food or responding to danger(3). It is thought that there is a reserve of adrenalin which is used up during short term responses. It is also thought that sleep replenishes adrenalin.
Adrenalin is also produced when the body is cold, it is produced in attempt by the brain to warm the body. In this instance, in trying to keep warm, there is around a twenty minute window beyond which the adrenals become exhausted. The adrenals will still continue to out put in a vain attempt to keep the body warm.
I can now observe pumping adrenalin to keep warm, if I go out in the cold for more than 20 minutes, my heart beat becomes louder, just as it used to at night. I can now use this as an indicator to signal to me to get warm. If I use up my adrenalin supplies I also observe that I feel exhausted and need to cat nap, which generally restores me enough to get through the rest of the day.
This is simply my hypothesis based on observation.
How I fixed my Insomnia
This is the controversial bit.
The major change was resetting my body temperature. I operated by cycling around 35.8C during the daytime, sometimes going as high as 36.3C sometimes lower. I spent a couple of weeks re-training my brain to 'like' to operate by cycling at a new higher temperature of 37C. This temperature I now call my normal daytime operating set point
The other important temperature for me was my sleeping temperature. When I checked my basal or waking temperatures sometimes they could be very low even as low as 35C. This was partly due to me keeping a fan on by my bedside to cool me down in an effort to cope with the hot flushes.
I had to reset my daytime operating temperature and pay close attention to my sleeping temperatures in order to operate optimally.
The very first night, after spending a whole day at 37C, incredibly, I slept all the way through the night without waking. My hot flushes didn't wake me up. No loud heart beat, just a full night of blissful sleep.
The lifestyle change I have also made is to keep warmer, wear many more clothes and apply heat if I get cold. Now that I have reset my operating temperature, I feel the cold more easily and my receptors signal that I am cold. I tend not to rely solely on my receptors and how I feel, and often check my temperature with a thermometer. If it is low, I always pull it back to 37C and try to spend as much of the day as possible at this operating temperature.
How can body temperature be significant?
I think body temperature is crucial for optimal operation.
I often use an analogy of a chemistry experiment. An experiment, involving known substances and known heat should have a specific outcome.. Within that experiment once the variables are established, and temperature is no exception, the results can be duplicated. If the temperature or the substance is changed then there will be a different outcome.
I imagine the body to be similar, the body is full of chemical reactions going on all the time, could it be the case that if the temperature varies from a correct set point the body will operate differently? It is my observation that once I reset my low body temperature my immune system seemed to be able to start fixing many little cumulative ailments that I had collected over the years. Maybe my immune system is now working with my adrenals to enable sleep?
The one problem my immune system has not fixed is my hot flushes, and although I now sleep extraordinarily well, I am still plagued by the odd hot flush which does awaken me occasionally during the night. The hot flushes are a continued project for me!
My Sleeping Now
If I didn't have menopausal hot flushes I would now sleep all night, indeed on a few nights per week I am beginning to achieve this as my menopausal years are increasingly behind me..
However, there are conditions I have to maintain. I have to make sure my set point is normal cycling around 37C for the majority of the day. I also cannot drink coffee at any other time of the day other than than first thing in the morning. Caffeine helps me kick start my adrenals when I wake up, but drinking more through the day can lead to desensitiation.
If I do become cold for more that twenty minutes, and if it feasible, I have a cat nap to replenish my adrenals which helps maintain my temperature for the rest of the day.
It is four years since I reset my temperature and I stopped 'pumping adrenalin'. I have been sleeping well for all this time, without that telltale loud heart beat. I drop off at around 10.00pm and sleep right through until about 7.00am the next morning, when I usually awake feeling refreshed.