Last week my friend Siiri and I were chatting on the phone while she commuted home at the end of her work day and I drove Dana to her evening ballet class. We chatted about our typical stuff–a lighthearted retelling of the day’s triumphs and frustrations. Nothing was unusual about the conversation until she started talking about how her day took a downturn when she indulged in office snacks coated in sugar and carbs. I sighed an empathetic sigh, knowing too well the effect food has on our bodies and minds. And while I don’t struggle with sugar cravings like Siiri does, I felt a connection to her situation like I hadn’t before.
I listened further, her words matching my own unspoken feelings of frustration and longing. There was a familiarity in how hard it was for her to fight against the messages her body was sending her. I had been waking several times a night over the past few weeks, confused and angrily reaching for sleep aids I didn’t want to take, restlessly moving from the bed to the couch–searching for just the right quiet environment to settle myself into sleep. Nagging questions and fear about why this was happening to me again only intensified the tossing and turning. I would wake up exhausted and defeated–having no plan to make it better, only hope for a better night to come. The sense of peace and gratitude that I work so hard to maintain had slipped through my fingers. And then it struck me. I was so inspired by my revelation that I rudely interrupted her thoughtful monologue and announced, “Sleep is my sugar!”
I covered her confused silence with the explanation that a good night’s sleep for me is currently as desired as the chocolate in her bottom desk drawer. The question I asked her is, “Why is it so hard to do the things we know our bodies need?” She immediately understood my struggle, and not having an answer, we laughed at finding the unexpected common ground of our unique situations–wanting so desperately the things we can’t have.
It got me thinking about all of the support in the Paleo community for those addicted to sugar. Programs like the 21 Day Sugar Detox and the Whole 30 provide a structured format to teach us to listen to the right messages in our bodies. Using a group dynamic as support to walk away from sugary temptations in the office, the pantry, and every street corner, they are powerful programs that change the way people think. While I haven’t personally completed one of these programs yet, the idea seems to be to get people to connect with what their individual body needs, not just what it wants.
In all honesty, I feel a twinge of loneliness and isolation in my struggles with sleep. While these sugar addiction programs seem to be a dime a dozen, those of us with insomnia related adrenal issues must learn to decode the messages of our own bodies with only our own thoughts in the middle of the night.
Until the recent conversation with Siiri served as an epiphany of sorts.The more I thought about it, the more I realized that stress in the form of cortisol is equally as addictive as sugar. Just as Siiri blames her sugar addictions on too many early years of junk food and packaged sweets, so is the bulk of stress and anxiety I’ve been carrying my entire life. I was an anxious child that grew into a tightly wound Type A personality. I can’t undo that.
Since my adrenal collapse in 2008, I’ve learned that the body does have limits and will break. I need to continue to work hard and reading and understanding the messages that formed unhealthy habits and behaviors. My body could have responded to the stress of the last five years with a different set of symptoms, but my genetics have unfolded to reveal insomnia as an indicator that the body needs a change. I cringe thinking of the familiar struggles my mom had with sleep and stress while raising my sister and I.
So how do I change the course of my genetics? How do I minimize my struggle with stress? Mark Sisson talks about all of this in his recent book, The Primal Connection. He stresses that we must understand what we need to thrive as human beings. Things like face to face interaction, laughter, sunlight, relaxation, and outdoor sensory experiences are essential to human existence. We live in a world that works against our basic human needs. It makes sense that the nights I take a hot bath, relax with a book instead of TV, and generally slow down in the night hours are nights when sleep comes easier.
It’s so clear now that just like Siiri can expect to feel poorly after eating an office treat, I can expect to sleep poorly if I jump in bed at the end of a stressful day and expect a restful sleep.
Chad and I began a Whole 30 this month to remove treats like corn chips, tortillas, cheese and wine from our diets. I know that this will help both of us in a different ways. He’ll clean up his diet and feel better and sleep better as a result. And while we will be eating many of the same cleaner foods, my experience will look and feel very different. Instead of looking at thoughts and behaviors that lead to poor food choices, I will look at what thoughts and behaviors lead to poor sleep.
I’ll focus on managing my internal cortisol roller coaster–smoothing out the ups and prioritizing the downs. Mark’s book has a wealth of information that I’ve already put to use. We’ve cut back on media for the kids, pushed more outside activity and gotten back to simple things like reading books and listening to music as entertainment. (Stay tuned for another post on how this has helped Charlotte).
It’s as simple as understanding the needs of our bodies and using the appropriate tools to help ourselves succeed. I’m writing this post to encourage myself to fill my days with positive thoughts and behaviors that will lead to good sleep–exercise, nature, light, and gratitude for experiences and friendships that always lead me back to the right path.