One of the greatest battles that I’ve faced throughout my journey with Lyme disease has been poor sleep. It stole years from my life as I spent over half a decade in the throes of severe sleep deprivation, and another half decade with just enough rest to get by, but not really function.
If you’ve ever battled sleeplessness, you know how torturous it can be to endure sleep deprivation for months or years on end. Most people can handle a night or two — or even several weeks of sleeplessness without feeling crazy — but let’s face it, when you are really sick, it’s not uncommon to suffer from a lack of quality rest, sometimes for years.
In my quest to find healing from sleeplessness, I read all kinds of books on sleep, but was often frustrated by the answers that I found in these books, because they seemed mostly targeted to an audience that was otherwise healthy. Some of the advice was helpful, but was nowhere near enough for a mind that was battling neurological disease.
Let’s face it — when you have Lyme disease, a hot bath or supplements before bed often aren’t enough. And if you’re like me, you may have discovered that the effects of most sleep medications are temporary and often cause you to feel worse in the long run, even if at first they may be helpful.
As I’ve probably mentioned before in other articles, I took sleep medications for years while undergoing treatment for Lyme disease. These medications helped me to stay sane while I pursued interventions for Lyme disease, but the weaning off process was probably even more difficult than the symptoms that I faced from Lyme disease and caused me just as many biochemical problems as the original mess of the illness.
I don’t want to discourage you if you need substantial support for sleep, but I want you to know that taking any kind of sleep medication long term can create dependency, and the possibility of difficult, protracted withdrawal symptoms once you decide to wean off of it.
I understand though, that at times, you just do what you gotta do, but I also want you to know that often, there is a better way! And as part of my recovery, I discovered many better solutions for sleep besides medication, which went beyond the typical natural modalities. Chances are, if you have struggled with sleep for months or years, as I did, you know about all of the common natural sleep options that are out there, yet not found them to be sufficient for restoring your sleep.
With that said, I’d like to suggest some tools that helped me to restore my sleep-wake cycle to near normal and which you may or may not have tried. I describe these (and other solutions) in greater detail in my ebook, Beyond a Glass of Milk and a Hot Bath: Advanced Sleep Solutions for People with Neurological Disease and Chronic Insomnia and which is targeted to those with neurological illnesses.
First, proper sleep hygiene is essential. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, make sure to get off of your computer, iPad, iPhone and other glowing gadgets at least two hours before bedtime. The electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and light from these devices stimulate the pineal gland and nervous system.
Similarly, unplug all of the appliances in your bedroom, or better yet, turn off the circuit breakers at night. Electromagnetic pollution is a major cause of sleep problems nowadays, unbeknownst to most people, and is one of those stealth toxins that nobody thinks is a problem for them until they get out of their high-EMF environment.
For years, I lived in a sea of electromagnetic pollution, and ultimately, I ended up having to move because it affected my sleep so much. When I finally found a home with lower electromagnetic fields, I began to sleep better. I also purchased some Graham-Stetzer filters, which mitigate electromagnetic pollution that gets transmitted through the wall wiring. I also purchased a sleep canopy, which is a metallic-lined mesh net that drapes over the bed and filters out high frequency EMFs that come from sources such as microwave towers, cell phones and wi-fi routers.
In addition, some outside-the-box tools that I have found to be incredibly helpful for restoring my sleep-wake cycle over the years include:
Neurofeedback and Light-Sound Devices
These are devices that modulate and ramp down your brain waves at bedtime. They range from the moderately effective and inexpensive to the highly effective but more expensive.
Lee Cowden, MD, recommends light-sound devices from ToolsforWellness. The device slowly ramps down your brain waves until you get into a delta wave pattern, which is conducive to sleep. Light-sound devices are less expensive than neurofeedback devices, which modulate your brain waves based on input from your brain.
Neurofeedback devices also modulate brain wave patterns, but rather than simply lowering your brain waves, they input frequencies to your brain that are based on feedback from your brain.
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I have used both types of devices, and found neurofeedback to be more effective for severe sleeplessness, but light-sound machines adequate for moderate sleep problems. In fact, the neurointegrator device from Clear Mind helped me to wean off of years of sleep medication use.
Neurofeedback devices can be quite pricey though, so you may want to try a sound-light machine first if finances are a factor for you.
Excessive levels of histamine and inflammation can be major causes of poor sleep, especially in people with neurological diseases like Lyme, as well as in other health conditions. Histamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in your body’s immune response and is produced when you have an allergic response to something. People with mold illness and Lyme disease often get overloaded with histamine as their bodies get stuck in a perpetual inflammatory, or allergy response. High histamine levels and inflammation in turn, cause sleep disturbances.
Histamine release is also implicated in mast cell activation disorder (often abbreviated MCAD), a condition in which the body overproduces mast cells, and which is common in those with Lyme disease and mold illness. Mast cells release histamine and cytokines, or chemicals that cause widespread issues throughout the body, including sleep. Excessive levels of histamine might be keeping you awake at night.
The anti-histamine medication ketotifen, in addition to quercetin and diamine oxidase, were helpful for treating my MCAD and enabling me to get deeper, more restorative sleep. You may find that these or other natural supplements or medications will help to lower your histamine levels and better enable you to sleep.
Quercetin, which may be one of the better-known natural remedies for supporting those with MCAD, is described in Lawrence Afrin, MDs book, Never Bet Against Occam. In it, Dr. Afrin says, “It (quercetin) seems to result in reduced production of inflammatory mediators (e.g., leukotrienes and histamine). It may also serve as an inhibitor of tyrosine kinases and other regulatory proteins of interest in activated mast cells.”
Curcumin, which has been well studied for its anti-inflammatory effects, may be one of the most powerful natural anti-inflammatory substances there is, and studies show that it decreases histamine, in addition to a variety of other inflammatory mediators such as cytokines.
Additional Solutions for Poor Sleep
Some additional solutions for restoring sleep include:
- Balancing the hormones
- Replenishing and restoring healthy neurotransmitter levels with amino acids
- Lowering high glutamate levels with natural remedies like curcumin, alpha-ketoglutaric acid (which lowers glutamate) and an anti-inflammatory diet
- Having a protein snack before bedtime (especially if you are prone to hypoglycemia)
These are just a few of the most important tools that I used on my journey back to restful sleep. You may find that using just one of these tools is sufficient for you, or, if you are like me, and your sleeplessness has been caused by multiple factors, you may need to do more than just one thing to heal and re-set your sleep patterns.
For instance, I found that I needed to “stack” remedies, one on top of the other, over a long period of time. I didn’t do 10 things at once, and my body didn’t snap back into getting a solid 7 or 8 hours of rest overnight. My brain had been badly damaged by Lyme and other factors, and it was a long trial-and-error process for me to find things that worked. But, each tool that I used brought me one step closer to the finish line, and I believe that if I can do it, you can, too.
My sleep is not perfect to this day, but if I do everything right (and except for when I travel), I can get a solid 7-8 hours of rest most nights, whereas I used to sleep 3-6 hours for years on end. (And I’m not one of those people who functions well on six hours of rest, never mind three!).
Finally, our sleep is profoundly affected by our emotions and any past history of trauma, so if you suspect that worry, fear, anger, or trauma are keeping you up at night, I encourage you to find ways to heal or manage those emotions so that they don’t disrupt your sleep.
In the meantime, be encouraged — there are tools out there that can help you to recover from sleeplessness! There were many times throughout my healing journey when I thought that I would never get my sleep back, and although the process was long and arduous, I finally did. And if I did, then I believe that chances are, you can, too.
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on February 15, 2017 and was updated on March 23, 2021.