You can't sleep. So you lie awake, toss and turn, close your eyes, trying to force yourself into unconsciousness. Force yourself to admit it's not working. Sigh. Turn on your side. Sit up. Punch the pillow. Lie back down. Close your eyes again. Insomnia is maddening, debilitating and very, very common, affecting 30 to 40 per cent of adults. Left unchecked, sleep deficit can cause irritability, depression and a weakened immune system. Malfunctioning motor skills can also have serious consequences - a quarter of a million car accidents a year in North America are attributed to sleepy drivers
In 2000, a study by British academics Jim Horne and Yvonne Harrison blamed sleeplessness and long shifts for the "human errors" that caused nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, as well as the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Still wondering if you really need all that shut-eye? We've all heard it said that eight hours makes us healthy, fully functioning members of society. But before Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb, people caught an average of 10 hours a night of zee's. Still, we've all got one freaky friend who seems to work just fine on five. Let's just say everyone's got their own optimum sleep quotient.
If you can't crash, it's terribly important to rule out any serious medical conditions, including apnea, a blocking of the airways during sleep that can kill you. Many sufferers aren't even aware they have it, because they don't remember waking up time and time again in the night. Illness ruled out, you still need to get to sleep. You can pop all kinds of pills, but even people who have no trouble with, say, taking an aspirin get creeped out by soporific drugs.
Camomile , catnip , passion flower , skullcap , Siberian ginseng and lemon balm are gentle and useful for short-term problems. Valerian can be habit-forming, though not the way pharma products are, and some swear by lavender-scented pillows .
Other natural, non-medicinal solutions involve calming the mind, breath and body , a more challenging, but in the long term more lasting solution.
What the experts say "Use physical movements and breathing to change your state of consciousness. I use tiny movements alternated with periods of quiet rest. These movements evoke synchronized brain waves that mimic early stages of sleep. Insomnia is not just a bedtime problem and requires a 24-hour-a-day solution. Sit somewhere quietly. Make no effort to breathe deeply - just natural, easy breathing. Place your hands in your lap, palms down, bring your hands together and hold one thumb, sort of like holding the handlebar of a bicycle. Then inhale and gently and gradually squeeze your thumb. Exhale and gently and gradually relax the grip on your thumb. Repeat that maybe six or eight times. Do this for five minutes two or three times a day."
MICHAEL KRUGMAN , guild-certified Feldenkrais practitioner, founder of the Sounder Sleep System, author of The Insomnia Solution, Albuquerque, New Mexico
"I always advise people to deal with the issues of the day early in the evening. Often when a person goes to sleep, it's the first time they've had to think about what's gone on, and they start to worry or obsess. Have a shower and imagine that you're under a waterfall and all the cares of the day are leaving your body and going down the drain. If you've gone through not sleeping over and over, you've built up an expectation that you're not going to sleep. So it's really important to say to yourself, "I expect to sleep. Sleeping is easy." Don't watch the news just before going to bed, because the mind gets agitated. Listen to soothing music. As you close your eyes, imagine a peaceful place, maybe a beach or a forest. It trains the mind to wind down. It's good to think of a place you've been to where you've felt relaxed, because it can bring back those feelings."
BARB KESHEN , certified hypnotherapist, Toronto
"People start worrying about why they haven't been able to sleep, and the more they think about it, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are some things that improve what we call 'sleep hygiene.' Because sleep is controlled by an internal clock in the brain, have a regular and appropriate bedtime and wake-up time . Many people spend a lot of time tossing and turning in bed. Try going to bed later and getting up earlier so that more of the available time might be spent sleeping. The worst that happens is that you will get progressively more tired, and then you can channel this. Exercise close to bedtime may be helpful, but don't make it too vigorous. During the night, instead of staying in bed and getting uptight, you may need to get up and find something to pass the time. Train yourself to go to bed when you're sleepy and when sleep is imminent."
JEFFREY LIPSITZ , MD, medical director, Sleep Disorders Centre of Metro Toronto
"The underlying issues are those related to trust and control. The mind is in a chronic state of vigilance, and restlessness may result from feeling that some activity is incomplete, some unspoken words still need to be uttered or some emotion still needs to be expressed. There is doubt that the next day will bring relief from the tension. The body can become stiff and defensive and doesn't respond to ordinary triggers to disengage from the day's battlefield. Garnet brings order to chaos and helps to regenerate energy. It can be held in the hand or placed on the belly button or on top of the pubic bone. Jade is physically and mentally relaxing. Lepidolite is the anti-stress crystal. It helps to dissolve accumulated tension and to further acceptance of change. Kunzite has a high lithium content and helps a whirling, neurotic, obsessive mind to calm down. Wearing the crystal at the heart chakra throughout the day provides the most help."
KAREN RYAN , crystal energy healer, Toronto
"Number one, there should be no beam above the bed. In terms of physics, energies congregate around sharp [edges] and can reflect back, which can cause insomnia. Number two, there should be no mirrors at the head or foot of the bed. Mirrors absorb microwave energies and create shadows that can seem ghostly. Number three, no sharp corners pointing at the bed. Number four, the head of the bed should have solid support, a solid headboard. Last but not least, the bed should not be in a huge empty room, which can create a lot of negative energy."
PAUL NG , feng shui consultant, Richmond Hill