How this writer kicked Ambien and made over her sleep habits for good.
By Alison Feller
March 20, 2017
I love sleep. I love being horizontal, and I love when the evening reaches an acceptable time to be able to say: “I’m calling it a night.” That wasn’t always the case, though.
I used to be the kind of young adult who could function fine off five hours a night. I met my now-husband when I was training for my first marathon, and despite logging double-digit miles in the morning, I’d spend the rest of the day on my feet, exploring New York City hand-in-hand with my new boo, followed by dinner and drinks and late nights, uh, getting to know each other better. Then, at 5 a.m. the next day, I’d pop out of bed for my next training run. And I was fine. It was a youthful miracle.
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Now, at the young-at-heart age of 31, those days are a very distant memory. I may still log a handful of miles in the morning, but now afternoon naps are a must, and dinner and drinks have turned into a glass of wine on the couch in pajamas while waiting for the delivery sushi to arrive.
Normally I sleep great, too. But over the past few months, my precious sleep started to really suck, TBH. First I got sick. I have Crohn’s disease, and a rough flare kept me up all night for months. I would start each day completely exhausted, on account of both the disease-induced fatigue and the fact that I was up and in the bathroom 10 times throughout the night when I should’ve been snoozing.
On one particularly desperate day, I called my doctor, begging for a strong sleep-aid prescription. He hooked me up with Ambien, and I got the best sleep I’d had in months.
I knew not to take the medicine every night, and I was well aware of the possibility of getting addicted. But then the election happened, and then the inauguration, and I found my stress and anxiety levels at a high I’d never experienced. I can handle work stress and Crohn’s-, said he never recommends stopping cold turkey. “It should always be a taper schedule with your doctor,” he told me.
So I know. I know. I’m no M.D. or Ph.D., but I went rogue and still quit cold turkey. I knew if I let myself taper—if I still gave myself a night or so per week with my delicious sleepytime drugs—I’d never want to fully let it go.
So to Dr. Breus, I must say: I’m sorry! His other advice, though, I did follow. I gave myself 30 days to take action and do the best dozing I could do, all with the help of Breus. Here’s what worked, what didn’t, and what was just fun to try.
When my husband and I got married a year and a half ago, I dreaded doing the whole registry thing, but I was super psyched at the prospect of getting new sheets and blankets. I am willing to spend $100+ on a pair of leggings, but for some reason I have a hard time shelling out that same amount of money on sheets I’ll sleep on every night of my life.
When we registered for sheets, my process was: “Go to Bed Bath & Beyond, feel which ones seem softest, pick highest thread count because that sounds fancy, activate scanner.” And those sheets are fine. (Thank you to my mom’s neighborhood friend and my college roommate from junior year for checking those off the registry.) But they just weren’t working out for me, despite my very scientific selection process.
And that’s not a huge shock, according to Breus. “Anything over a 350 thread count is only going to last longer, not give you much more,” he says. “Some people are sheet snobs and love their 800 to 1,000 thread count sheets, but you can really only get 500 real threads into a square inch, otherwise you’re just weaving two 300 to 500 count sheets together. They’ll be more durable, but this won’t have an effect on your sleep.” Instead, he recommended finding moisture-wicking sheets that help regulate body temperate.
My husband suggested Bedgear sheets, and they were an immediate hit. They’re light and silky and something about them just feels right. We also invested in a new blanket to go between the top sheet and the coverlet. In other words, we spent money on bedding and it paid off, because getting into bed feels really good now.
I’ve never found pillows I like. But Breus says that in order to find the perfect pillow, you need to first figure out how you sleep. I generally fall asleep on my back and wake up on my stomach. “Sleeping on your stomach is the worst, least comfortable sleeping position,” Breus says, so I’m already doing something wrong. Perfect. Zero points for Ali.
Breus suggested a firm pillow, which would be ideal for back sleeping, and might help prevent me from turning onto my stomach mid-snooze. I ordered a bunch of (non-cheap) pillows online, because I was too lazy to go test them out in stores but not too lazy to read 3,298 Amazon reviews about each one. My favorite ended up being a hybrid pillow by Sealy, with memory foam on one side and a softer option on the other side. Pillow technology is so advanced.
While you’re upgrading your pillow, here’s another way to hack your health:
Having our sweet lab mix rescue pup, Ellie, in bed with us was NBD when she was two, three, four months old. Now she’s a year and a half and weighs 60 pounds. And while I love snuggling up with her every night (she’s the best cuddler), the fact that she likes to splay herself horizontally across the bed or directly on top of my legs is not conducive to good sleep (especially since I refuse to move at the risk of interrupting her cute little dreams).
I didn’t want to have to kick her out of bed, and Breus actually didn’t specifically advocate for it. I asked him if I should gently nudge her back to her own bed (which was probably more expensive than ours…), but he said it depends what purpose she serves being in bed with my husband and me. “Does she make you feel safer? Warmer? Then it might be worth it, but get a bigger bed,” he suggested. He also gently reminded me that Ellie’s dander can lead to allergies, which can be disruptive.
Since Brian and I don’t currently have room for a king-sized bed in our apartment, sizing up wasn’t an option. Instead, I decided to try a few nights sans Ellie—and, no surprise here, I slept so much better on those nights. My limbs were free to spread as they pleased, and I wasn’t worried about waking up my precious pup.
My husband works a lot—like we’re talking 18-hour days sometimes. So oftentimes sex is more of a “what you can, when you can” rather than a penciled-in activity like spin class. Breus says when you have sex can definitely affect your sleep. “Men tend to fall asleep after sex and women tend to become more alert,” he told me. “Try sex in the morning to start your day. It will surprise you at how much it can change your perspective.”
So I decided to experiment and have some fun with this one, all in the name of science. And a deadline.
As it turns out, I am not the type of woman for whom sex makes me “more alert.” Sex at night? I fell asleep right after with a smile on my face. Sleepy sex in the middle of the night? I did fine with that one, too. And sex in the morning? Well, it’s definitely a better wakeup call than a 5:30 a.m. alarm to go run intervals on the track.
But the verdict: All sex makes me sleepy, any time of day. (Second verdict: I hope my parents and mother-in-law aren’t reading this.)
At the beginning of this experiment, I wasn’t fully ready to sleep without assistance. I tried Benadryl, and that knocked me out, but also left me feeling drowsy in the morning, and I tried melatonin, which wasn’t effective at all. So it was all or nothing—and I was trying for nothing.
At some point in my lazy adult life, I stopped wearing cute matching pajamas to sleep and started nodding off in a pair of sweatpants and whatever tank top was lying around. But this is a bad habit! “There are two reasons to have designated clothes for sleeping,” says Breus. “First is smell and basic hygiene. Next is psychological. Just like people having a uniform to work in, to tell themselves where they need to be mentally—sleep clothes will do the same thing.”
So I marched myself over to Gap Body and snapped up a few cute pairs of matching tops and bottoms, designed with sleeping soundly in mind. Not only were they super soft, they were also cute and on sale. For the low price of $11.99 per piece, I would now look adorable as I crawled into my sometimes-crowded bed. And this one worked! I love my PJs, and appreciate having clothes that I only wear when it’s bedtime.
This is impossible. Without Ambien, my go-to method for falling asleep is playing Two Dots on my phone until I’m too sleepy to keep my eyes open. That would explain why I am on level 1025 of Two Dots…
Even though I still haven’t been able to fully go electronics-free in that final hour before bedtime, I do at least set my phone to Night Shift mode, so that glaring blue hue turns to a more subtle yellow.
This one was key. Forget the fancy sheets and the cute PJs and the dog-in-bed stuff. Limiting my media consumption was probably the biggest factor in sleeping better at night.
I never want to be uninformed, so it took a while to find the balance between always having the news on or scrolling Twitter and just going MIA and being out of touch with current events. So I give myself 15 minutes every morning to get caught up on the major headlines. I subscribe to The Skimm and, full disclosure, I read it while I’m going to the bathroom in the morning. Then I tune in to the first 15 minutes of the Today show before shutting it down for the day.
By the end of my trial month, I was off Ambien without even realizing I’d ditched it. Some nights I still miss knowing I’ll be asleep within five minutes of my head hitting the pillow, but I’m happy to be drug-free and sleeping soundly. I’ve even let the pup back into the bed—until I kick her out in the morning for humans-only time, that is.
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