How did you sleep last night? Insomnia rates have soared during successive lockdowns: anyone would think facing a constant existential threat isn’t the ideal preparation for a refreshing eight hours. Suggested remedies abound – behavioural, pharmaceutical, nonsensical and bleeding obvious – and I have tried most of them.
Insomnia can be a competitive sport and I am not podium material; I’m a common or garden poor sleeper, rarely getting more than five hours a night (luxury, I hear the real insomniacs hissing in red-eyed fury), often less and sometimes, thankfully rarely, none. That is not exceptional. It’s not the stuff of insomnia memoirs, which do exist, but I refuse to read any in case they give my brain and body ideas. But it is wearing. On nights when sleep just isn’t happening, I’m filled with despair at the realisation that I will not get even a short break from being in my own head.
I have never consulted a doctor about insomnia: I don’t know why, other than it doesn’t seem the kind of thing a harassed GP would be able to do much about. My region isn’t covered by the NHS CBT-based app, Sleepio either, of which I hear good things. In desperate times, I use the Valium I was prescribed for migraines – effective, but not a long-term solution. So I turn mostly to DIY insomnia remedies – and as someone who has given them all a whirl, here is my wholly subjective opinion on what to try and what not to waste your many waking hours on.
Sprays and roll-ons
The insomniac is essentially a primitive, credulous creature; one whose cognitive functions are probably operating at about 3% of optimum capacity. This is how I, an otherwise rational person, have ended up using a Balance Me Beauty Sleep Hyaluronic Mist and a Balance Me Beauty Sleep CBD Concentrate rollerball nightly: each “worked” once (yes, time for me to retake correlation/causation 101), so I can never stop, despite them not appearing to have made any appreciable difference to my sleep since. These potions smell delightful, but the use of the word “beauty” is hilariously wrongheaded: I look like a sentient bowl of porridge because I never sleep. I also heard great things about Elemis’s pretentiously named Quiet Mind Temple Balm but was disappointed: it just smells and feels like expensive tiger balm to me. My unquiet mind does not recommend.
In my experience, a pillow spray is the weakest insomnia Hail Mary out there. Conceivably, if the stuff were 99% Calvados and I soaked my pillow with it then sucked it, it might work. As it is, while my This Works: Deep Sleep Pillow Spray with its “superblend of lavender, camomile and vetivert” is pleasant, I am sorry to say This Does Not Work: On Me.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique
Plenty of research suggests breathing exercises are effective for relaxation. This one is simple: breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then breathe out for eight. For me, however, any attempt to focus on breathing leaves me unable to breathe normally at all. Can I trust my lungs, which are just eerie flesh crumpets, to send me to sleep? Wouldn’t it be horribly easy just to stop breathing? You can imagine how relaxing yoga classes are for me.
I love the idea of a weighted blanket, a sort of heavy fabric hug, albeit one with scarcely researched relaxation and sleep benefits. I acquired a 14kg one secondhand, but was sad to discover (not) sleeping under it feels like being implacably crushed to death by boiling lava. It took all my strength to drag it into a cupboard, so it won’t be coming out again any time soon.
The wonder compound CBD is in everything now: crisps, lipstick, toothpaste (all of these actually exist). CBD puts me in mind of a family anecdote in which [redacted relative] gave my mother [redacted controlled substance] one Christmas morning. “It hasn’t done anything!” she complained, some time that evening. “Of course it has, you haven’t cried once,” replied [redacted relative]. This informs my relationship with CBD: I don’t think it’s doing anything to aid my sleep, but perhaps I’d be even worse without it.
The hormone melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the brain to prepare the body for sleep. The mysteries of international regulation mean you can buy a truckload of it in the US in your local Whole Foods (along with a $28 watermelon or some “deliciously dippable kale shapes”), but here it is prescription only, so I am forced to procure it from a friend in the US who sends it to me in exchange for Marigold bouillon powder, which, puzzlingly, is unavailable in US Whole Foods branches. The melatonin itself – chewable and mildly peppermint flavoured – has not rocked my sleep world noticeably. If you wish to take something similarly underwhelming, you can get 5-HTP at health food shops here in the UK. It’s an amino acid that indirectly stimulates your production of melatonin, through a mechanism too complex for my insomnia brain to understand.
Counting backwards from 1000 in 7s
Sure, 2am maths is definitely the best maths. No.
Over the counter pharmacy remedies
I swear if anyone else tells me how “powerful” Night Nurse is, I’ll be making a blood sacrifice to Morpheus. It’s not that I don’t believe them – susceptibility levels do vary enormously. My stepfather gets stoned and delirious if he takes any over-the-counter pain relief. But for me, Night Nurse, Nytol and similar are basically useless. Many of these over-the-counter remedies are antihistamine-based. For me, any antihistamine strong enough to make a difference to my sleep leaves me a dry-mouthed walking corpse the next day, incapable of coherent thought and forced to sit down to shower (much like my stepfather after a baby aspirin, actually).
The US army technique
This “hack” is all over the internet, along with the claim that it works for 96% of people within two minutes after six weeks. Impressive numbers. The basics: you tense then relax your face, make your body go limp, try to think of nothing, then visualise a canoe in a calm lake, or lying in a black velvet hammock. If these visualisations don’t work, you’re supposed to say “don’t think don’t think don’t think” to yourself until your mind empties, then voilà, sleep. I get very angry when I think about it because I spent several long, farcical wasted nights muttering “black velvet hammock, black velvet hammock, black velvet hammock” to myself for hours, like some kind of deranged 1980s magician because I got confused and am bad at following instructions. Obviously, I have never made it to six weeks so cannot vouch for the technique properly, but I have developed a visceral aversion to hammocks.
I only tried the daft TikTok tip to drink lettuce-infused water before bed because it seemed completely ridiculous. I wish I could surprise you with the revelation that it gave me my best night in a decade – lettuce seed oil is traditionally used as a sleep aid, so it’s not utterly outlandish – but I drank an unpleasant lukewarm cup of lettuce juice last week then slept very poorly: I don’t think there’s a viral TikTok in that.
The concept behind “cognitive shuffling” is that focusing on a series of random, unconnected words replicates the visual images and “micro-dreams” that immediately precede sleep. I tried it twice recently, but thought you were simply supposed to think about unrelated innocuous nouns (sausage, paperclip, lamp-post, say). My exhausted brain was defeated by around the eighth noun: success.
But reading more carefully, I now see you are supposed to choose a letter, think of a noun starting with that letter, then visualise the noun before moving on to the next one. Are you kidding me? I don’t come to bed to follow a complex and exacting set of instructions. I come to bed to heat to the temperature of the Earth’s core and wipe underboob sweat on my pillow, feel murderous at the sound of my husband’s peaceful breathing, then contemplate the time I overheard my neighbours discussing how filthy my house was in 2009 for three hours, as is right and proper. Conclusion: sometimes the remedy is worse than the cure.
So, what’s left? I suppose I could still try a cooling mattress topper, white noise machine or dog’s earwax, which was apparently the Beauty Sleep Hyaluronic Mist of the 16th century. For now, my most restful nights are the ones when I convince myself that it doesn’t really matter. The best medicine, I fear, may be acceptance.