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March 31, 2008

Did you hear the one about the dyslexic agnostic with insomnia? He lays awake at night wondering if there really is a dog.

According to Yoga Journal, 54 percent of adults in the United States suffer from insomnia at one time or another. Artists and writers seem particularly prone to this problem. People who spend their days creating art or spinning ideas into prose often have a great deal of trouble switching off at night. The other day, I came across an unusual approach to the issue while doing some research on what I thought was a completely unrelated bodily process - indigestion.

I don't think there's much of a future for me as a self-help columnist, but I can't help sharing my thoughts on this topic. While I have known for quite some time that eating too much of the wrong foods late at night, such as caffeine or sugar, can keep a person up for hours as the body attempts to process these substances, I always thought of indigestion as a purely physical problem. Some foods keep the stomach churning and the esophagus burning well into the night.

But what I didn't realize is how digestive afflictions can also be mental and emotional.

Even if a person maintains a healthy diet and his physical digestion is in good order, he can keep himself up all night with his brain chewing endlessly over the previous day's activities, cogitating about what lies ahead or attempting to make sense of how the world works. This is mental indigestion. The cogs whirr and it's impossible to push the off button and sleep.

Emotional indigestion works in a similar way. Feeling upset about a painful memory or excited about a professional opportunity or personal relationship can throw us into maelstrom at night. Our pulses race and adrenalin courses through our bodies when we should be winding down for seven or eight hours of rest.

Unfortunately, the article I read online linking insomnia with indigestion (which I stupidly didn't save and can't seem to find again) didn't go into how people suffering from sleepless nights might use this theory to help them get some rest. But I wonder if it might make sense to treat all three forms of indigestion - the physical, intellectual and emotional - in the same way?

Treating physical indigestion is relatively simple. I'm not talking about taking antacids to relieve the symptoms, but finding ways to prevent indigestion in the first place. These might include avoiding certain foods like wheat or dairy, eating more slowly, eating less and not eating for several hours before bed.

Perhaps the same thinking applies to emotional and intellectual indigestion. To avoid "chewing" thoughts and feelings over in the middle of the night, a person might try being less busy ("eating less,") taking more time over their activities throughout the day ("eating more slowly") and/or avoiding going to bed in an over-stimulated state by chilling out with a glass of wine and a trashy novel, having a bath or playing with the cat ("not eating for several hours before bed.")

Depending on the seriousness of the insomnia, he or she might even consider more radical lifestyle changes, which would translate in physical terms as "changing one's diet." This could include anything from getting a different day job to deciding to talk through a problem with someone rather than keeping it to oneself.

Of course, there are many artists and writers out there who actually manage to put their sleeplessness to good use. They get up in the middle of the night and get on with their work rather than lying there in the dark picking their noses and wandering, like the dyslexic agnostic insomniac of the aforementioned joke, if there really is a dog. Yet tiredness is debilitating. No one, least of all those among us who have to balance making art with keeping a roof over their heads and caring for a family, can survive on little sleep.


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