Are You Sleeping?


February 23, 2017

By Ana Yelen, Executive Director, Healing Warriors Program

A good night’s sleep is more elusive than we think. U. S. Department of Health and Human Services studies assert that sleep disorders affect between 50 – 70 million Americans, or about 20% of the population.

In the armed services, sleep issues are the de facto norm because of training, job schedules, and the need for a military force that is on-call and available at a moment’s notice. But the cost of long-term sleep deprivation is high and linked to depression, anxiety and worsening of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“More so than even the amputations and traumatic brain injuries that have come to define the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, insomnia is the hidden wound that America’s warriors are bringing home. It’s largely unnoticed, under-prevented and untreated.”1

At Fort Hood, Texas, Dr. Vincent Mysliwiec, reported that between 2000 and 2009 they found a 19-fold increase in cases of insomnia; that is an 1800% increase in insomnia in less than a decade. “If this was anything else, it’d be labeled an epidemic,” the Army’s top sleep specialist said at a Seattle sleep conference, according to Peter Green of Van Winkle’s (

“… Restoring sleep cycles is key to alleviating many post war ailments, including post traumatic stress.  It’s also the single most important factor, say military sleep researchers, for treating the post traumatic stress disorders that plague America’s returning veterans, keeping them on meds and out of work and preventing them from enjoying a normal life.2

We see this regularly at the Healing Warriors Program (HWP) clinic. Exhaustion from lack of sleep leads to high blood pressure, depression and often accompanies a sense of hopelessness. We all know this. We have all probably lived this. When we are over tired, what might be standard stressors become overwhelming making us feel engulfed, unable to swim out from the whirlpool.

So what can we do about this? We have some suggestions.


Those who have been in the military train themselves to perform certain tasks with specific cues, a process that usually started in boot camp. Through repetition and drill, muscle memory eventually and automatically takes over. It’s a good thing too, as it may be life-saving. In the same way, though, we need to signal our minds and bodies to relax, rest, and sleep by establishing those cues and creating a routine.

For example:

  • Take a hot bath using a scented bath salt or soap that you really like (this will also engage the sense of smell as a cue)
  • Brush your teeth and create yourself a pattern
  • Fluff your pillow with intent
  • Brush down your sheets and blankets to smooth out
  • Breathe – use conscious breathing techniques like resetting your breath to remind your body that it’s time to stop and cleanse
  • Smell – spritz an essential oil on the pillow (lavender, chamomile, valerian, vanilla) that you will begin to associate with going to sleep and will become your cue
  • Calm your mind – try using a short meditation or prayer to focus and calm the mind
  • Use guided Imagery which uses verbal suggestions in order to relax

All of these help you create a nightly ritual for going to bed that signals your body that it is time to power down and get some sleep. Best of all, it is a good way to practice self care.


When was your last physical? Do you get any exercise at all? How about taking a walk right after dinner? Walking helps keep the digestive system moving and increases oxygenation to the body.  Exercise helps all bodily functions work better because it stimulates the production of enzymes and hormones that keep us running well.

Speaking of running, it is important to include some cardio into your weekly routine.  Running, calisthenics, bicycling and even sex, are important ways to get that blood circulating and feeding the entire system.

Exercise also has the added benefit of helping soften the side effects of some medications that slow down digestion and elimination.  When our bodies are sluggish about processing waste, it adds more workload for our major organs.

Do you get healthy meals regularly? Are you drinking alcohol or consuming a lot of sugar before bed? Having a heavy, carbohydrate meal right before bed makes the digestive system, and our major organs, work even harder.  Worst of all, they can trigger the central nervous system into a state of agitation and anxiety. Again, we want to power down, not rev the engine.

Make sure you deliberately take in more vegetables and fruit.  These provide critical fuel and cleansers for your body.  The protein helps feed the creation of new cells and the fiber acts as internal scrubbers.  Even the simple act of munching on an apple or a carrot sets a host of enzymes and digestive processes in motion that clean and tune up your internal engine.

Always remember to eat and drink moderately in the evenings, and try to be kind to yourself. When your body doesn’t have the opportunity to digest properly, the result is churning and discomfort with resulting gas.

And remember, it’s ok to go to bed feeling a little hungry, but if you have to have a nightly snack, try a mug of hot chocolate or some hot milk with cinnamon. Keep it light.

Making some simple changes with your activity levels and with nourishment will make a big difference in how you feel.  You’ll have better rest and sleep.


A service member once told me a story about sleeping in the walk-in refrigerator on base. As odd as it may sound, studies have shown that we sleep better when the temperature is lower. Always keep your bedroom quiet, dark and cool.

If you’re having problems from different light sources, invest in black-out curtains for your bedroom. If you are having trouble sleeping because of a hot room, and you don’t have air conditioning, purchase a cooling gel pad for your mattress – good ones can be had from $30 to $100, and on up. If you do have air conditioning, try lowering the temperature at night 2-4 degrees.

Getting a good night’s sleep often hinges on our body’s memory. Use these suggestions, hit the reset button, and make valuable changes. If you live in the Colorado area, come down to a Healing Warriors Program clinic and participate in our 6-session sleep therapy series. You can restfully sleep again.

“…There is also a need for further research to evaluate the efficacy of innovative and promising treatment techniques that may fill treatment delivery gaps and be preferred by servicemembers, such as video teletherapy, therapies delivered through mobile technology, and CAM techniques  (e.g., meditation)….2


2 Sleep in the Military: Promoting Healthy Sleep Among US Service Members, Wendy M. Troxel, Regina A. Shih,  Eric Pedersen, Lily Geyer, Michael P. Fisher, Beth Ann Griffin, Ann C. Haas,  Jeremy R. Kurz, Paul S. Steinberg  pages             , 129

Other articles

As Sleep Improves, So Does an Injured Brain

How Soldiers Deal with Sleep Deprivation

An Epidemic of Sleeplessness,  f

We are helping to rebuild lives, and through our relationships with innovative organizations around the country, we are changing the way we approach giving back to veterans.