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I can remember exactly two great sleeps in my adult life. The first was after I got my wisdom teeth removed, and I passed out as my dad was walking me from the car to the house. The second was when I traveled to northern Finland, after four connecting flights and a 10-hour layover in Helsinki. As for the other 8,000 or so nights? Not so good.
I’ve been a chronically bad sleeper for as long as I can remember. I experienced night terrors in elementary school, and the insomnia stuck around long after the nightmares themselves subsided. At my absolute best, I average about six hours of restless sleep per night; at my worst, I’ll stay up for 36 hours at a time for no apparent rhyme or reason.
I have tried just about every sleep remedy under the sun: I cut out caffeine. I bought white noise machines and essential oil diffusers. I did body scan meditations. I took Tylenol PM, Nyquil, Benadryl, magnesium, and melatonin—all to absolutely zero effect.
Luckily, things have improved slightly over the past couple of years. I still have bouts of insomnia every once in a while, but I usually manage to get at least a few hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. I chalk it up to three things: natural sleep aids that actually work, an extremely comfortable bed, and non-electronic distractions that help me relax once the sun goes down. (Oh, and lots of therapy.)
Below, I’m sharing some of the things that have helped me achieve relatively normal sleep recently. I’m by no means an expert, but I hope some of my past experiences can guide fellow insomnia sufferers to a bit of relief.
Natural Sleep Aids
I took prescription sleeping pills for a while in my 20s, and while they did an admittedly great job of knocking me out, I would spend the following day groggy and nodding off at my desk—and trying to wean off them was a miserable process. I try to stick to natural solutions these days.
My greatest sleep breakthrough was trying CBD for the first time back in November. I had always assumed CBD would fall into the “things that work for everyone else except for me” category, but I was desperate and decided to give it a try. I ordered the PM Chews from FAB CBD after reading some positive reviews, and they have been life-changing. I take one gummy when I’m ready for bed, and I start to feel sleepy within about 20 minutes—a gentle kind of sleepy that I assume normal people feel after being awake for 18 hours.
Having that reassurance that I probably will be able to fall asleep has given my nighttime routine a lot more meaning. I have found many things that help me relax, like sipping a cup of Sleepytime Extra tea from Celestial Seasonings. (I also like this K-Cup sampler from Twinings, because sometimes I’m too lazy for boiling and steeping.)
I installed an Aromatherapy Showerhead from Moen, which has a space for INLY capsules that infuse the water with essential oils like lavender and tea tree. I’ll then wash my face with the Calming Camomile Cleanser from St. Ives, and top it off with a few spritzes of Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel. It’s like a lovely little spa treatment every evening.
I never cared much about investing in high-quality bedding and pillows in the past, thinking there wasn’t much point since my sleep sucks anyway. But I made it my personal mission this past year to turn my bed into the loveliest, most comfortable space in my apartment. It’s not like I bought a satin pillowcase and my insomnia disappeared, but I now have a much nicer place to wait for sleep to arrive.
I ditched my super lumpy spring mattress at the end of 2020 and got a Green Tea Memory Foam Mattress from Zinus, then added a 3-Inch Memory Foam Mattress Topper from EDILLY. That combination is a fraction of what I would have paid for a big-name memory foam mattress, but the result is equally comfortable.
Then I turned my attention to pillows. I bought a PharMeDoc Pregnancy Pillow after seeing one on my pregnant friend’s bed and getting extremely jealous, and the u-shaped structure is like a giant squishy hug. I also invested in a Down Pillow and Mulberry Silk Pillowcase from Brooklinen, the latter of which is so good that I bought another for my sister’s birthday a month later.
I used to lie in bed for over an hour waiting to fall asleep, which was not only panic-inducing but also very bad sleep hygiene. The American Sleep Association recommends you not stay in bed awake for more than 5-10 minutes, meaning you should get up and move to another location if sleep doesn’t come right away. (The idea is that your mind should associate your bed with sleep, not sleeplessness.)
Since I still deal with sleepless nights every once in a while, I keep an arsenal of calming distractions to turn to outside of my bedroom. A lot of people use ASMR or guided meditations to relax, but I’m weird and find both of those extremely stressful. Instead, I like to listen to the sleep stories on the Calm app. They help me get outside of my own anxious head, and let’s face it—who wouldn’t want to hear the dulcet tones of Idris Elba at 2am?
If I get through an entire sleep story without nodding off, I turn to some non-electronic hobbies. Jigsaw puzzles are always nice—I love the ones from The Found and Buffalo Games, but literally any brand will do. I’m also obsessed with the Lord of the Rings-inspired cross stitch patterns from Country Magic Stitch. I bought the “Visit Mordor” pattern, and it gave me something to work on for about four month’s worth of restless nights.
Of course, there are countless other options to fill up the nighttime hours, from crossword puzzles to adult coloring books. I encourage you to find what works best for you, and don’t give up! It took me years to establish good nighttime habits, and I imagine my journey is far from over. But I consider even one hour of uninterrupted sleep well worth the effort.