Why Exercise is My Best Sleeping Pill

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Sleeping through central nerve pain is challenging. I remember taking a large handful of pills to get to sleep each night. I would initially sleep, but then wake at 2 or 3 a.m., unable to go back to sleep. I would then watch middle-of-the-night TV for a few hours before trying to sleep again. I rarely felt rested or healthy.

My providers kept telling me exercise was a key component to managing my pain and sleeping through the night, but from my perspective, exercising made my pain worse and how would it help my sleep?

After my spinal injury I had worked super hard to get into the best shape possible. I went from not being able to function, to out of the wheelchair, and on to walking—albeit with a limp. With the help of physical and occupational therapists, I gained ground and strength. But after developing the burning nerve pain caused by a fluid filled cyst in the center of my spinal cord, I no longer wanted to move. I thought moving made my pain worse. I spent many hours in bed and lying in the recliner. I now know this caused my muscles to weaken and made my pain worse. Highly medicated, I didn’t feel like moving. I felt sleepy, foggy and unmotivated.

I made a decision to turn things around. I was told by my physical therapist I might experience more pain for the first 6 months of returning to an active lifestyle. This helped set my expectations. I started slow and steady. I had my PT put together safe exercises and added cardio to the mix. I was able to do 90 seconds on the elliptical when I started. Yes—you read that right—90 seconds.

I didn’t notice immediate results—except I did hurt more. My muscles were sore, and it did increase my nerve pain. But I was willing to accept this as I pushed on toward the goal of better strength, a clearer mind and better sleep. With consistent exercise, I noticed I was sleeping better. I decided to talk to my doctor about weaning off the sleeping pills and continued to increase my strength training and cardio. Feeling stronger and sleeping better, I was able to eliminate the sleeping pills.

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Mayo Clinic documents that exercising 30 minutes 3-4 days per week may reduce depression. Dr. John J. Ratey has dedicated an entire book to the scientific and evidence-based impact of exercise on the brain (SPARK—The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain). The book’s cover summarizes how impressed he is with the benefits of exercise:  “Supercharge your mental circuits to beat stress, sharpen your thinking, lift your mood, boost your memory, and much more.”  His conclusion is that inactivity is shriveling our brains and allowing stress to become toxic—both of which can be reversed with regular exercise. Anything that helps us deal with stress will also help us sleep at night, thus improving our resilience. Our bodies are made to move.

Each morning, I wake up hurting. I have a difficult time walking and everything is stiff. Because I know exercise has been shown repeatedly to be an effective treatment for chronic pain, I get my workout clothes on and get moving each morning.

What has been your experience with exercise? I would love to dialog!




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