How to Cure Insomnia at Home

Instead of counting sheep, try these remedies

By: Cathy Alter

Related >> Why You Should Try a Sleep Lab

I should be able to do this. Fall asleep. You close your eyes, wait a few minutes, and pretty soon you’re on Dancing With the Stars doing the rumba with The Situation.
But for the past few weeks, I’ve been spending most of my sleeping hours wide awake staring at the ceiling, at the clock, at my sleeping husband, Karl, who has been known to doze off while brushing his teeth. The culprit is stress—including the worry of not being able to fall asleep. Ah, the Catch-22 of insomnia.
As I’m starting to resemble an extra from Dawn of the Dead—no amount of under-eye concealer can cover the damage—I decide to put some sleep remedies to the test.

WHIR AND WHOOSH
The remedy: SleepTracks.
The claim: Yan Muckle, creator of this downloadable audio program available at sleeptracks.com, says his system will “condition your brain for sound, optimal sleep.”
Putting it to the test: The brainwaves that Muckle claims put you to sleep sound like the aural equivalent of a strobe light. I listen to a track entitled “Fall Asleep” (other tracks are called “Whole Night” and “Insomnia Buster”), which is a solid 50 minutes of pulsating whirs and whooshes. It’s like standing in an airplane hangar with all the propellers going at once. Muckle says that the program helps people achieve a faster, deeper sleep—but maybe these people are flat-lining. I make it through only ten minutes the second night before I feel like smothering myself with a pillow.
Rating: One sheep, but only because reading the lengthy Fast Start Guide could put anyone to sleep.

CRY YOURSELF TO SLEEP
The remedy: The onion cure.
The claim: If you chop a red onion, put the pieces in a jar, and sniff the contents right before bedtime, you’ll fall asleep within 15 minutes. This “recipe” for a good night’s sleep is all over the Internet.
Putting it to the test: “It’s called the cry-yourself-to-sleep method,” my husband says as I take a deep whiff from the jar. I much prefer the scent of lavender to that of onion, but I do fall asleep within ten minutes. The remedy continues to work for the next three nights, until my husband, tired of going to bed with what he calls “a tossed salad,” uses the contents of my jar in a big batch of spaghetti sauce. A meal that keeps me awake with a case of heartburn.
Rating: Four sheep.

FIX THE SLEEP/WAKE CYCLE
The remedy: The sun.
The claim: According to Dr. David Neubauer, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center, sunlight reinforces the body’s sleep/wake cycle, and exposure to just 30 minutes of bright light during the day can help with sleep onset at night.
Putting it to the test: I already begin most mornings with an hour’s walk along the Capital Crescent Trail in Georgetown. In an effort to augment my sun exposure for a week, I decide to stand on my front stoop, close my eyes, and point my face in the direction of the sun for half an hour. I also establish a regular bedtime of 11:30 pm, which is equally important in regulating my sleep/wake cycle. Yet the clock keeps ticking and I don’t fall asleep any faster.
Rating: One sheep.

COUNT DOWN
The remedy: Math.
The claim: “Simple arithmetic will distract you from the ‘OMG, I’m tense and I can’t sleep!’ thoughts,” my shrink tells me. He suggests I try counting backward from 100 by threes. “Busying the brain with numbers,” he says, “creates a physiological response that bypasses those nagging feelings.”
Putting it to the test: He tells me to begin with some slow breathing and progressive muscle relaxation—basically contracting and releasing body parts, starting with the face and working down to the toes. Other than prompting Karl to complain that I’m shaking the bed with all my clenching, the exercise is pretty relaxing. By the time I begin my backward counting, it’s like there’s an anesthesiologist’s mask over my mouth. I don’t remember anything past 79.
Rating: Five sheep.

TURN OFF MENTAL NOISE
The remedy: Yoga.
The claim: “The reason people can’t sleep is that they’re engaged in too much mental noise,” says DC yoga instructor Pary Williamson. “Yoga clears away this inner dialogue because you’re focusing on your poses, not replaying stressful or stimulating events.”
Putting it to the test: I’ve always been suspicious of yogis, with their have-mat-will-travel enthusiasm. Plus, I’m not flexible. So Williamson agrees to come to my home one evening for a private session. She lights some lavender incense and sets her iPod to a mix of water and bell sounds, then we get down with some moon postures (as opposed to sun salutations). After an hour of stretching and tinkling bells, she puts me in a corpse pose—lying flat on my back, eyes closed—and gives me a shoulder rub. Williamson says there’s no need to turn in right after the session because yoga doesn’t “wear off.” A few hours later, I easily drift off.
Rating: Five sheep.

This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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