I’ve noticed something extraordinary of several great men throughout history. If you think you’ve got insomnia, you should first read about these fascinating historical accounts of extremely good nappers. These individuals, entwined in some of the most important historical events and the most enterprising affairs, maintained such a serene and calm state of mind in their endeavours so as not to even disrupt their sleep.
Alexander the Great, on the fateful day that was to be the furious Battle of Guagamela with Darius, fell into such a deep and lengthy slumber in the morning, that Parmenio was forced to enter his chamber, linger by his bedside, and shout his name several times to compel him to go to fight.
The Roman Emperor Ortho planned to kill himself on the night of April 15, 69 after settling his domestic affairs, partitioning his money among his servants, and making sure all his acquaintances had retired in safety. He sharpened the edge of a sword he’d chosen for his suicide, and, pondering the thought once more, instead drifted off to sleep. He slept so profoundly and so thoroughly that the attendants of his chamber heard him snore. He offed himself the next morning on April 16, 69, after a deep and restful slumber.
Cato of Utica, before deciding to kill himself because he was unwilling to live in a world led by Caesar, was waiting for the return of a messenger he had sent to bring him news of whether Cato’s senator friends had safely sailed away from the port of Utica. Caesar was hastening towards Utica, eager to take Cato alive. Cato knew this full well in advance, yet he fell asleep so soundly that the people in the next room heard him snore. He continued sleeping until the same messenger woke him up to inform him that a tempestuous storm had kept his friends in port, preventing them from sailing out to sea. He dispatched a second messenger, and guess what he did next? He went back to sleep. He slept and slept until the return of the second messenger brought news that the ship had finally sailed. And then he killed himself.
During another time of his life, the night before Cato was to confront Metellus in the public square, Cato yet again slept like a baby. Metellus was accompanied by the favour of the people and of Caesar, along with a band of slaves and gladiators. Cato was accompanied by no one and nothing, except for his own courage. That night Cato’s friends, wife, and sisters wept and worried — some passing the entire night without sleep, eating, or drinking. There was much fret over the perilous predicament Cato had gotten himself into. Cato comforted his friends and family, supped in his usual manner, went to bed, and much to their surprise — slept profoundly and restfully into the morning. The knowledge I’ve garnered of the greatness of this man’s courage practiced through the entirety of his life enables me to judge with absolute certainty that his indifference had derived from a soul so much elevated above such “stressful events”, that he did not deign to let them worry him any more than any ordinary incident. I believe that stress and anxiety were not in Cato’s vocabulary.
Just as Augustus was to begin the fight against Sextus Pompeius in Sicily during a naval engagement, he was so soundly asleep that his friends had to wake him up in order for Augustus to give his squadrons the signal for battle.
Gaius Marius was also a good napper. On the day that he was to have his final and epic battle against Sulla, he marshalled his army, gave the orders, and gave the battle signal to fight. Immediately afterwards, he laid down under the shade of a tree to go to sleep, and fell into such a deep slumber so quickly that he witnessed absolutely none of the combat and could hardly be awakened by the clamour of his troops.
So… do the usual causes of insomnia hold any merit? They probably do, if you’re a light sleeper and often find yourself waking up to the slightest of disturbances. But even Gaius Marius didn’t mind the noisy neighbours right across the battlefield. Insomnia can also be caused by genetics. In any case, here are the five most common causes of insomnia, the unbearably debilitating sleep disorder that affects 1 in 3 adults (chronic insomnia affects 1 in 10 adults)…
1. Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol
Caffeine and nicotine are the most widely consumed stimulants in the world and the most common causes of insomnia. Drinking coffee, soda, or caffeinated teas before bedtime can prevent you from falling asleep and staying asleep. Smoking tobacco, which contains nicotine, can also keep you awake at night. Some people consume alcohol before sleep, or drink red wine approximately one hour before bedtime because of the melatonin it contains. But, while alcohol will help you initially fall asleep, alcohol will impair the quality of your sleep due to its tyramine content. Tyramine causes a stimulant called norepinephrine to be released by your body, and keeps you up at night.
2. Spicy food
Eating lots of spicy food will induce heartburn, which is disastrous for sleep, and causes acute insomnia. I love spicy food, because ingestion of spicy food causes the release of endorphins, also known as feel-good hormones. Eating spicy food bestows a sensation similar to that experienced during orgasm and romantic encounters. But if you eat spicy food anywhere near bedtime, you won’t get a single moment of shuteye. Falling asleep will be utterly impossible. Breakfast and lunchtime are great opportunities to partake in the wondrous natural high of spicy food, but definitely not dinner.
3. Stress and anxiety
Problems at work, school, or interpersonal relationships is the third most common cause of insomnia, because you’re experiencing increased levels of cortisol. Events or people in your life that cause you to worry will force your brain to over-analyze your thoughts and replay negative worst-case scenarios in your head over and over and over again. You may be stressed out if your boss is a jerk, you have an overwhelming daily workload, or your spouse is cheating on you. Try listening to relaxing music, practicing yoga, and setting aside some time for meditation. These things will help you deal with stress and unwind at night. I personally meditate for 15 minutes every night before bed, and it helps immensely with quiescing my mind and washing away the stresses of the day. Also, I seriously cannot think of any problem that cannot be solved by just putting it in a rocket and flying it into the sun.
4. Noisy neighbours
Another common cause of insomnia is having noisy neighbours — whether it’s just a barking dog one house down, a loud house party across the street, or an apartment tenant whose television volume is switched to maximum right above your bedroom 24 hours a day/7 days a week (if that’s the case, may the Lord be with you). Noisy neighbours are easily dealt with by listening to broadband white noise through a pair of stereo over-the-ear headphones, as detailed in this article. Talking to your noisy neighbour, complaining to your landlord about your neighbour, or calling the police on your neighbour may not be as time-saving as simply combining quality headphones with white noise.
Genetic insomnia is a very common cause of insomnia. At least one-third of the population is afflicted with genetic insomnia, and doctors are just recently beginning to understand its mechanisms. My dad has intense genetic insomnia, and my genetic insomnia sometimes acts up. Here’s how I treat my insomnia without prescription sleeping pills, by the way. Professor van Someren, head of sleep research at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, explains that genetic insomniacs have genes which are designed to maintain a state of mental alertness, and they are immune to the sensation of warmth and relaxation which lulls the average individual to sleep within 15 minutes. There are more than six different types of insomnia genes, and I identify with at least one of them — especially the gene that causes a person to wake up at the slightest auditory disturbance. I circumvent this by listening to white noise when I sleep (through stereo speakers at home, and stereo headphones when traveling). Other genes identified by the UK’s Medical Research Council include Afh (after hours), which prevents people from falling asleep; Edo (early doors), which causes people to fall asleep at tea time but wake up at night; and Sci (short circuit), which prevents people from staying asleep for extended durations.
Consider yourself extremely lucky if you’re able to fall asleep and stay asleep even under the influence of stress or stimulants, or even in the vicinity of noisy neighbours and tenants. You might have the “really really really really really really really really good napper” gene.