Sleepless in Seattle
For 35 years of my life, I slept great. I would fall asleep instantly, sleep deeply, then wake up fully refreshed 7–8 hours later. When I purchased a Fitbit I commented to my wife about how it would track my sleep and her amused response was, “I can tell you how you sleep. You fall asleep instantly. You sleep all night. Then you wake up well rested 7 hours later oblivious to anything that happened during the night”. A few days after sharing this comment with a friend, my sleep would change dramatically in ways that impacted my happiness, my mood, my ability to focus, and changed my personality in ways that significantly concerned those around me.
I’ve certainly heard stories of people who have trouble sleeping. I remember one time in college there was this guy who couldn’t fall asleep and he was an emotional wreck after a few weeks. He started taking medication to force his body into unconsciousness but he was still a mess for another month or so until his body fixed itself and he started sleeping normally again. Supposedly there are 40 million people who suffer from sleep disorders and another 20 million who occasionally struggle with sleep disorders (reference: the interwebs). To me this was an interesting statistic, until I became one of those statistics.
Starting around February 2017, something broke. Instead of sleeping soundly, I started waking up after 3–4 hours and was never able to get back to sleep. Initially I wasn’t terribly concerned and assumed it would go away with time. I tried to clean up my sleep hygiene, stopped drinking any alcohol (although I didn’t drink much to start with), got away from computer screens before bedtime, etc. However, no matter what I tried, I continued to max out at around 3 to 4 hours of sleep every night. I would spend hours wishing for sleep that wouldn’t return, getting more and more tired.
Many who know me realize that I play competitive bridge and that it has become my primary interest and hobby. Three times a year, there is a large national bridge championship held in varying locations around the US. In March, they were held in Kansas City and I was super excited to be going. Unlike my (first since 2009) NABC the previous summer, I had partners lined up in advance to play with and was excited about the possibility of doing well. Unfortunately, the KC NABC also coincided with my lowest point mentally from the lack of sleep. At the time when I most wanted to be at my best, I was mentally at the worst I had ever been in my life. I made silly mistakes, missed obvious inferences, and in general played bridge well below the level of what I was normally capable of. While KC was not a complete disaster, it was still not nearly the success that I and those playing with me were hoping for, at least not when I played with them.
Around the start of the Kansas City NABC and then over the next few weeks, I turned to my sister for help. In addition to coming from a family with a history of sleep issues, she is also a doctor and licensed psychologist who assists Navy personnel with a variety of issues including insomnia. With her help, I was able to find some tactics that seemed to improve things. I began stimulus control therapy which essentially meant that I got out of bed when I woke up, did something boring until I thought I was able to sleep again, then would go back to bed. While I was not getting back to “good” sleep, I was occasionally getting more sleep. Instead of 3, 3.5, 3.5, 4, 3, 4, 3.5 hours of sleep I was now frequently getting another 1 or 1.5 hours of sleep so like 4 + 1, 4, 3.5 + 1.5, 4, 4 + 1.5, 3.5, 3.5 + 1.5, etc. It was inconsistent, but I was at least getting enough now that I didn’t feel like basket case.
Most friends who knew I had sleep issues assumed it was solved since I stopped talking about it as much. Life went on, and with stories from my parents about how they had trouble sleeping, how my grandmother stopped sleeping more than 4 hours a night after a certain age, etc I started to accept that this might be the new normal. I tried to follow the sleep control therapy guidelines, but if I didn’t fall back asleep after doing boring things once I would frequently just zone out and try to rest and not worry about it. Even if I didn’t fall asleep, at least I didn’t feel like a zombie the next day. Note: this is not what you are supposed to do, but doing it “right” and getting back up a 2nd time never seemed to work so I stopped trying.
However, one thing that I was completely unaware of was that even though I felt “okay”, I was continuing to get worse. Through April and especially May, my wife noticed a variety of physical, mental, and personality changes that concerned her. My driving was more aggressive and generally “worse”. I remained annoyed at other people for silly things long past when it made sense. I couldn’t focus and would regularly lose track of things or not really register what she or other people said. I was harsher, less kind, less happy, and in general not nearly as nice to be around. In one heart to heart moment, she felt like the husband she loved was getting replaced by someone else, someone a lot more cold and less happy.
While I was attempting to come to terms with not sleeping enough, she was starting to panic at the changes it was causing. While I had done a decent amount of research on sleep issues, it became a lot more pressing and we both started spending a lot of time reading and trying to find solutions. She would find concoction after concoction that would knock her senseless and would make no difference for me. I went to the doctor and had a slew of blood tests done just to rule things out and also got a referral for a sleep study. I also got a small amount of Ambien “for emergencies”, which will knock me out for about 3 hours. So when I wake up at 2 AM, I can pop an Ambien and it’ll knock me unconscious.
As part of this research, we found a few things that looked to be promising. The first was Gluten. I had known that gluten intolerance was a possible contributor for a while, but going gluten free is a lot of work. I didn’t have Celiac’s and didn’t feel noticeably worse when eating pasta (and I LOVE pasta), so I hadn’t really tried to go gluten free. However, a bunch of people in my family tree either have Celiac’s or NCGI (Non Celiac Gluten Intolerance). NCGI basically means that gluten damages the small intestine, but not enough to show up on a biopsy. The damage to the small intestine can get in the way of production of serotonin which is one of the big 3 neurochemicals in mental health. It affects mood, appetite, and also helps regulate sleep. In a broad attempt to try solve this issue and get back to normal sleep, we added a gluten free diet to the arsenal and started it once we both returned from different trips about 8 days ago.
The most other promising thing my wife found was a lot of research/corroboration/etc on PEMF sleep devices. Basically, these are devices that emit electronic waves that shift your body and mind into a deeper sleep. Rather than reprinting a lot of info, here’s a link to a good article on the subject: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/2016/02/how-to-use-pemf-for-sleep/ . While this wasn’t an instant miracle, it definitely seemed to make a difference. The first night I slept 2.5 hours, woke up and activated the device, and almost immediately fell asleep for 2.5 more hours. This was the first time I had fallen asleep quickly after waking up in 4 months! The next night it didn’t do much but there were other things going on.
After returning home to a quieter environment, I had a burst of successes that were way beyond anything I had experienced in months! The first night I slept 7 hours straight, then 6 hours straight, then 6 hours straight, then 4 hours, awake for a bit followed by 1.5 hours, then 6 hours. In addition, 6 hours of sleep was frequently resulting in my feeling great and fully refreshed the next day. While I had assumed the device would put me to sleep when I woke up, it also seemed to put me into a deeper sleep that I wasn’t waking up from. Around night 5 or so, when I woke up I was transitioning from a dream which was also the first time I remember dreaming since February. The same thing happened the next night!
Around the 5th night in a row (and the first one where I was dreaming), my wife and I started noticing huge improvements. A natural glow of happiness I hadn’t noticed had been missing was back. Things that I had spent weeks or months being annoyed at others about now seemed silly and trivial. I was a lot more focused, affectionate, and “present”. Mentally, I felt more able to focus when playing bridge. I’m still making mistakes of course, but less of the ridiculously obvious errors that were so frustrating. A friend had commented that I was overly sensitive to criticism a few weeks prior and in retrospect I agree. I WAS being overly sensitive and now with my “mental health” returning to normal, it was a lot easier to see and acknowledge that fact.
I’m not sure that I’ve completely solved the issue. I’m still not sleeping like I used to where I would fall asleep instantly and get a whole night’s sleep. I need a machine radiating waves into my brain to get a decent’s night sleep. Hopefully that will go away with time and I’ll be able to do this on my own. I’ll also continue other experiments like not wearing the Fitbit, avoiding Gluten, and leaving Bluetooth off as much as possible. However, after roughly 4 months of insomnia I finally feel like “me” again. I wake up feeling happy, I have random moments of joy periodically throughout the day, and I just feel good again for the first time in months.
While this article is long and probably pretty boring, it seemed like a story worth sharing. I was completely oblivious to the personality changes going on until my wife pointed them out and then realized how significant they were once I returned to a more normal state. Lack of sleep making you less able to think effectively seems obvious, but a lack of sleep changing who you are and how you act was unexpected. Also, since so many people have issues sleeping, maybe some of the observations about Gluten, EMF (although I didn’t really go into this), and the PEMF machine might help someone else.
Most of all, I’m just glad to be back. I like this version of me a lot better, and I hope I stay this way! :)