Strategies: Slow Down and Release the Insulin

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1994

Strategies: Slow Down and Release the Insulin
By Mark Jannot

Insomnia is the thinking man's disease: "Anything that causes you to reflect or act while you're in bed," says Wilse B. Webb, author of Sleep, the Gentle Tyrant, the definitive text on the subject, "will interfere with your sleep." Webb says that curing insomnia takes some work--you have to consciously move toward gaining unconsciousness. Here are some of his methods for wiping the slate clean.

Have a late-night bagel.
Your grandmother's home remedy for insomnia--the warm mug of milk--has a basis in reality: Milk is a rich source of the amino acid tryptophan, the main building block of seratonin, the neurotransmitter that carries the message to put us to sleep. Unfortunately, it isn't enough tryptophan to make a difference--and besides, milk also contains protein, which can jump-start your brain again. Instead, try noshing on a carbohydrate-rich bagel. Carbos stimulate the release of insulin, which opens the floodgates (relatively speaking) for tryptophan to be absorbed by the brain. About an hour later, you're gone.

Count sheep. Really. Or run through the multiplication tables. Or recite the alphabet. The idea is to turn your mind toward something so monotonous that you drift into sleep. "People ask me how I get to sleep," says Webb. "I count sheep."

Establish rituals. Getting kids to kneel by the side of the bed and recite "now I lay me down to sleep" is not just an act of devotion, but a signal that bedtime has arrived. The same trick can work for adults. "Warm herbal tea or a glass of wine is great as a ritual," says Webb. "Anything that says, 'Day is done, sleep has come.'"

Exhaust yourself. Particularly intense exercise early in the evening can help turn off your mind when it's time for bed. "Fatigue is like a sleeping pill," says Webb. "It doesn't give you the capacity to play mind games." Make sure to leave a couple of hours between exercise and bedtime; otherwise, you'll be too juiced up to turn yourself off.

Reset your clock. This should help anyone with circadian desynchronization--that is, a morning person or night person who's trying to set his internal clock in time with the rest of the world. To do it, you have to sit under your average 10,000-lux light source (approximately the brightness you'll experience outside on a light, cloudy day), since light is an effective tool for moving the hands of your biological clock. It takes about a half-hour of exposure each day, and the extra light will put those with even the oddest sleeping hours back on schedule. For more information, send $7 to the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms, Box 478, Wilsonville, OR 97070.

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