Ok, so the joke of the title is that none of these are sure-fire anythings. Take this like the old tonic adverts: "Dr. Amazo's Amazing Amazon Almagated Tonic, the mysteries of South America scientifically engineered to generate better health for you!" I write this because I suffer from insomnia, fairly chronic insomnia, and I have friends who suffer from it from time to time as well. I have taken, this past few weeks/months to studying various impacts on it, and here are some tips (I have no idea how many there will be when I am done writing) that will help. Note Tip #2, though. It is a very important one.
(1) Know the different lengths of insomnia. Is your current batch of insomnia something that cropped up in the past couple of days (even over the past couple of weeks) or something you suffer from regularly? If the latter, then sit down and figure out what the triggers are. I recently found out, upon recollection, that my insomnia is worse in the summer time. This can be related to either sunlight exposure, heat exposure, or to the longer days and later setting sun throwing off my clock. I am not sure which, but I find that I am sleepier on the nights where the outside is hidden to me, implying that it is due to my body being confused by the late-setting sun. When I let my assumptions to dominate the status of the outside, I assume it is darker than it is and I get sleepier sooner. If your current batch of insomnia is much more acute, then it probably lies in a much more recent cause, most likely anxiety over a life change or some physical change in routine. It might just take a week or two to work through said anxiety/change; but utter honesty about its impact on you is likely to stop things from being repressed. As we repress what is really bothering us, our mind transforms it into a more general state of worry and fear. Focus on the specific trouble, and it will help to stop generalizing the despair.
(2) Insomnia-specific cures should never be used regularly. Most ingested cures for insomnia (pills, herbs, etc) are good for a night, or two. After the second night, you really should not be taking them any more. Their efficacy drops, their side-effects increase, and your body starts trying to overcome them, since chances are (see #1) whatever is keeping you awake is an external or repressed thing, anyhow. Taking pills to sleep night after night is kind of like pouring peroxide on a wound but leaving the rotted splinter in. Pour peroxide once to clear the wound, and then get the splinter out. The former is just going to cause a deeper, more annoying infection. Think of it in practical terms. If you are anxious over losing a job, taking insomnia meds is forcing your body to shut down, but the anxiety is still there. This leads to nightmares and worse tension. If you are losing sleep because of a body clock issue, taking sleeping medicines causes part of your body to shut down while internal processes are trying to functions, and this causes lots of issues. Over time, the side-effects get much worse, too. Many herbal (and herb-like) cures will cause jitteriness, stomach issues, nightmares, fever dreams, and a weird sense of restlessness in the limbs. Taken one night, and then dropped for a couple of nights, the sleep might be good. Two or three nights in a row, and the sluggishness will carry on through the day ruining your ability to inact #4. Mixing up drugs (one herb one day, one herb the next) is good for nothing, because it seems to do the same thing.
(3) Know how your body digests things (aka watch the caffeine and sugar, especially). Do not eat anything past, say, 6pm-7pm. Let's call it sunset. Watch your carb intake. Starches seem to help relax the body, but sugars and alcohols can add to the jitters unless done in very small amounts. Probably only eat anything if the hunger is keeping you awake. If you can sleep around the need for snacks, you will sleep a lot better on an empty stomach. If you are dieting, or are trying to come off an addiction, small amounts of whatever it is you are cutting out can help. Proteins, fats, and spices after sunset, especially as a late night meal, are a sign to your body that you are trying to keep functioning. A shot or two of alcohol is ok, but give your body too much to digest, then you are going to be up for a while. Science is showing that drinking too much ends up robbing of us sleep because as we break it down, we get the same as a sugar high. Either drink yourself to sleep or probably avoid it outside of the "classy" way: single shot mixed with some water or light tonic. Caffeine is not the devil, but pay attention to how your body digests it and reacts to it. Most people take a couple of hours, as many as 3-5 to really purge it from their systems. If you are sensitive, then a Coke or cup of coffee in the afternoon might still be with you at 10pm-11pm. Try stopping caffeine (and sugar) intake earlier and earlier in the day. What's more, the first couple of days you adjust your pattern, you'll get a bonus sleepiness that can be used to get rest.
(4) Enjoy more whole activities. Refined hobbies are just as bad for you as refined foods. As something of a technophile, let me just start by saying the Internet is the devil. The. Devil. Not because of your usually heard claims, but because it completely robs us of an attention span. We get used to scanning news articles in a matter of a minute, of watching 2-3 minute long clips on youtube, popping over to Facebook or Twitter or our e-mail to glance at new updates. Drew Curtis (from Fark) says that logs from Fark.com show that more and more people skip reading the news and just read the headlines. The news articles themselves, presumably, are too long. People read sites like BoingBoing and other blogs to get summations of longer articles or events, and check these sites a couple of times a day, if not more. Cut out all these secondary, refined sources. Well, not cut them out, but limit them. They deprive us an attention span, create a sense of urgency in everything we do (oh no, I missed someone's comment to my comment!), force us to feel like we have to multi-task (which we do poorly, so we spend countless seconds switching back and forth, more time lost in the interim limbo between activity than in the activity, because every time we do one, we feel we should at least check on the others), and deprive us the more solid, meaningful dialogue that has historically made up human interaction and learning. Comments are fast, anonymous, and try to be snarky, attention-grabbing, acerbic, witty, and a whole other host of things that probably mean they are without real merit or real humanity. You never see a human being in an internet comment, you just see some shard.
Rather than scan status updates on Facebook/Twitter, write longer e-mails (or blogs/notes/etc) to friends and try and encourage them to do the same. On Facebook, drag Notes to the top slot so you first see them, and then only click status updates if you are curious. Don't ever click on the news feed that also shows apps and quizzes and stuff. Instead of reading shorter and shorter news bites, read longer ones through papers and (and I mean this) peer-reviewed journals. Rather than watch an half-hour tv-show with commercial breaks, watch movies without them, or watch the TV show on DVD and refuse to hit the pause button or walk away. Force your mind to focus on something, some single thing, for more than 2 minutes at a go. In fact, force your mind and body to focus on something for at least 15 minutes, 30 minutes, maybe over an hour. Refuse to hit the pause button. Refuse to look away. Refuse to get something to eat. Hold it, and stay focused on a single act. When you eat, eat. Sit there at a table and eat food and pay attention to it.
As a librarian and bibliophile, I do have to take a moment to point out that reading is awesome, as are audiobooks, for helping one to go to sleep. With two caveats: putting the book down at the end of every chapter is just as bad as scanning status updates for meaningful conversation, pausing an audiobook or trying to do something else while the audiobook is playing is not going to help that much. Secondly, if you are exhausted and jittery, you will probably get frustrated trying to do these things. Try something a little poppish/pulpish at first and go for as long as you can, and just try and increase the amount you read/listen each time you sit down. In either case, do it where you can do it without interruption. There is also some debate about whether reading in bed is detrimental to sleep. I find that it is not, but others might disagree. For one thing, if you do read in bed, then sit up in a position where you are not constantly nodding off and just staring at the page. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this ends up being the same attention problems as before. Unless you are really sleepy (and as insomniac, probably not) then you will just lay there in bed with the lights off as soon as you put the book down. Read, as it were, to exhaustion.
(4a) You are not missing anything. Just FYI, you are not missing anything. Ever. If you are totally honest about the sort of feedback and communication loop you get from the refined social interaction, you will be forced to admit that all of you friends are boring. Especially me. It will all be there in the morning. Unless it's not, and then thank God this rat race is over.
(4b) Wary the bright screens. My wife told me that some researchers believe that the brightness of the computer screen might confuse our mental clock. Try dimming more lights, dimming the monitor, and such, and see if that helps. I am not sure how effective that could be, but it sounds reasonable. I think.
(5) Exercise is awesome, but note #3. This is getting overly long, so #5 is simple: exercise. Not to the point of pain, necessarily, just get oxygen flowing and muscles used. Not only will that relax the muscles, and help to purge the system so that we can relax more, but it offers multiple pyschological benefits (better self image being the big one). We evolved from humans that actually valued physical labor, though not a lot of it, per se. I would not be surprised that we still derive a worth feedback from actually doing things hands-on. Keep in mind, though, it's like eating. Frantic sit-ups late at night is just as liable to keep us awake as put us to sleep. Our body needs time to shut off. Exercises work best during the day, or in the morning, and frantic, worrisome exercises can cause frustration, pain, and a sense of urgency that does not need to be there.
(6) Orgasms can be fun, and useful, but watch the guilt. Pretty much enough said. Our bodies like to go to sleep after we have had sex (some theorize it is a nesting instinct building, others that our pleasure centers overwhelm most higher thoughts). Plain and simple. Except, well, the sex (and I will include masturbation in there for the single crowd or the long married and not scoring crowd) does have to be guilt-free and panic-free. If you are the kind that wonders why you are so vile as to have to masturbate, or in a relationship where the sex does not feel right or leads to fights or something, it's not going ot help. Anyhow, night-time nookie can at least be good for a nap, not get you through the night.
(7) Who said insomnia is all bad? I will end this with a simple question: is the insomnia bad, or are you worried that you should be sleeping more? If you are only missing sleep for a few days and it has not been going on long enough to negatively impact your life, that might not be bad at all. Use the time to read, to get things done, to spend time with yourself, to go for walks (light, relaxing ones), and so forth. Watch movies that your significant other does not care about. Turn off the electronics and listen to a mostly quiet town. I have learned to enjoy my insomnia overall. It's going to come hell or high water, so to speak. I might as well make use of it.
(7a) Oh, one more thing...get out of bed if you can't sleep. Almost forgot to mention that if you are suffering from insomnia, being in bed and wishing you were asleep will kill you. Get on out of bed. If you are sitting there, thinking about an itch or something, get up and take care of it. Your mind will race too much without some sort of feedback loop. Get and get some low level stimulus going.
Si Vales, Valeo
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Written by Doug Bolden
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