I am not a doctor. I don’t even have the distinction of playing one on TV. I did once date a doctor. Does that count for anything? No? Okay. Well, everything I’m about to share is based on nothing more than my own experience. Having said that, I feel obligated to share my experience on the chance it might help someone else. So I’ll start from the beginning…
I was born on a blustery day in the Fall of…just kidding 😉 Three years ago I gave birth to my daughter. I had no real health issues prior to getting pregnant and until my third trimester I had an easy and uneventful pregnancy. In the last few weeks I developed pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy). It came on strong and sudden. I still mostly felt okay but I had a lot of swelling. I gave birth at 37 weeks via c-section, but I was still retaining a lot of fluid and as a result, my blood pressure was still high. So the doctor gave me diuretics, fluid came off, blood pressure went down, problem solved. I tell you all this because it will later tie into my story.
The first few months of Eva’s life I suffered through the same fog that all sleep deprived parents of newborns suffer through. At 3.5 months she started sleeping twelve hour stretches, but I still woke once a night to pump breast milk. That continued another two months. I stopped breast feeding and was finally able to sleep all night again. Things should have improved greatly at that point, right? But the opposite happened. My symptoms happened ever so gradually. At first, I just felt tired. I was sleeping well enough, my diet hadn’t changed. Yes, I was a new mother, a role that brings a whole new workload, but I knew that wasn’t the problem. As I told Sean at the time, and would continue to repeat for months, I felt worse than I had when Eva was first born and I was having to get up multiple times a night!
About 9 months passed before I finally saw a doctor. During those nine months I thought and scoured the internet looking for clues to my issue. Maybe age is catching up to me? Maybe you’re just never the same after having a baby? Maybe it’s hormonal? I tried a number of different things to give me more energy. I’d taken prenatal vitamins all through my pregnancy and even for several months before becoming pregnant, so I started back on those. When they made no difference I tried different vitamins, in various formulations. Some of them actually made me feel worse! I tried getting massages, going to the chiropractor, drinking more water, drinking herbal tea, exercising. All to no avail and I continued to gradually feel worse and worse. Then I came across a 5K training schedule in a magazine one day and thought, maybe I need to start running! Maybe I need some serious exercise to give me an energy jump start. So I started running. And I loved it. And I think it did help in some ways. I still felt strung out most of the time, but at least for the time I was running and maybe an hour afterward I felt mentally better. But with the running came one very unusual side effect: night terrors.
Night terrors are common in young children but actually very rare in adults. Mine were textbook though, so there’s no question that’s what I had. They aren’t the same as nightmares. Nightmares happen late in the sleep cycle and there’s usually a story line. Night terrors happen early in the sleep cycle and there is no “story”. Children often don’t even really wake up during one, although they can appear awake because they’re screaming or even walking around. They rarely remember anything the next morning. Adults who have them are more likely to recall what they saw or felt, but what you see is a flash of something vague, not a detailed memory. Here’s how my terrors always played out: about 45 min after I’d drift off to sleep, I would wake with a start, sometimes with a gasp or a yell. My heart would be pounding and I would be completely terrified. My reason for feeling so scared varied but was usually one of two main scenarios. One was that something was about to get me (a spider, a hand, a person in the room). The second was the feeling that I’d just swallowed something and now I was about to die. In all cases, within seconds of waking, I would realize where I was and that I was okay, but it still always took me a while (minutes to hours, in some cases) to calm myself down and get back to sleep.
After the night terrors started, I went to the doctor. At that time I wasn’t making a connection between my sleep issues and the running (neither did my doctor, for the record); I just thought that was a weird coincidence. Exercise is supposed to improve sleep after all. I did mention them to her but as they had just started I don’t think either of us thought much about them. I told her of my exhaustion. I also told her about this other really weird (albeit, not very important in the grand scheme) problem I had, which was that regardless of how much or what type of alcohol I drank, I felt nothing. No buzz, just nothing. She ran a full blood workup to check all the usual suspects (blood sugar, liver and kidney functions, etc). She also ordered a Spectracell test. This is a blood test that measures the level of various vitamins and minerals in your body at a cellular level. So it’s supposed to be very accurate. All my blood work came back normal. My Spectracell came back as deficient in zinc and copper. She also said that while I wasn’t technically deficient in them, my numbers for vitamin C and magnesium were both really low. The booze issue was likely psychological she said, probably just a subconscious need to stay alert with a child in the house (my husband said the same thing; I felt they were both wrong, but I didn’t really feel I could ask a doctor to spend too much time trying to figure out why I couldn’t get my buzz on. First world problems and all). She suggested a multi-vitamin and sent me on my way.
So there I was, really in the same place I started. I’d already tried various vitamins with results ranging from no different to worse. Still, I tried a few more, all the while continuing to feel worse. There was also that really tricky issue of how to correct both zinc AND copper deficiencies since too much of one can actually cause a deficiency of the other! New symptoms developed. I became foggy-headed and quite frankly, flat out bitchy. I was increasingly riddled with anxiety. Everything felt like a monumental effort: getting up, thinking a complete thought, breathing. I wondered sometimes if I’d had a “silent” stroke because I felt like my personality had changed. My night terrors also continued to worsen and happen more frequently. Every night I’d go to bed thinking, if I could just get one good night’s sleep I could get myself on track. I tried taking Zzzquil, Nyquil, melatonin, valerian, drinking sleepytime tea. None of it made any difference. It happened at home, at the homes of relatives, in hotel rooms. A year passed like this.
I went back to the doctor. She ran all the blood work again (although not the Spectracell). Everything came back fine. She also ordered a sleep study. I was able to do it at home, just had to sleep with this thing on my head for two nights. Fortunately, I did have an “incident” on one of those nights. I was glad because I thought surely they would be able to figure something out. No luck. They said I had very, very mild sleep apnea, not even severe enough to recommend a corrective course of action. Gee. That helps…
Fast forward another 6 months to April 2014. I’m at the end of my rope with this sleep thing and, though he doesn’t really say anything about it, so is Sean because all my gasps, screams and jumpiness have been waking him up for the past year and a half, too. I feel like all my other problems (brain fog, moods, etc.) are likely a result of poor sleep, so if I can just get a handle on this one thing, the other stuff will fall into place. I consult my copy of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Dr. Ferber. Not only do I love this book for his sleep training methods, but I find the information on sleep in general to be fascinating and I recommend it to anyone who sleeps! I look up the section on night terrors. To paraphrase, he says they occur when, for whatever reason, the urge to wake is at odds with the urge to sleep. So, I reason, I need to get my sleeping urge stronger than my waking urge. I look up info on how to sleep deeper. And I run across an article that suggests magnesium. “Hmmm…a year and half ago I tested really low in magnesium” I think to myself. I Google more on magnesium. It’s sometimes used to treat night terrors-”I have night terrors!” It’s sometimes used to treat pre-eclampsia-”I had pre-eclampsia!” One of the causes of magnesium deficiency can be diuretic use-”I was given diuretics after giving birth!” You naturally lose magnesium when you sweat-”I sweat a lot when I run!” Magnesium is kind of like nature’s Valium, it helps your body relax-”The massage therapist says I even have knots in my feet!”
In my reading I also learned that magnesium deficits are quite common. And I have no trouble believing that because the main dietary source is green leafy vegetables and let’s be honest, most of us are lacking there. I read about mag supplements, their side effects and safe dosages. Then I went to the grocery store and bought a bottle. I was willing to try pretty much anything at that point. The recommended daily allowance of magnesium for a woman is 320mg. I took one 250mg pill of magnesium oxide with lunch. Maybe it was psychological, maybe I was just that desperate for it to work, but I swear within an hour of taking it I felt more relaxed. Not loopy, just calm. That night I did not have a night terror. The next day I took another pill. Same results. Then I read that magnesium oxide is actually poorly absorbed by the body, so I thought, well if it’s already helping me this much what would a more easily absorbed form be like? So I went to Whole Foods and bought magnesium citrate. It was only 200mg per pill but I still took only one.
After three nights of solid sleep, I started feeling like a different person. Actually, I started feeling like the person I used to be. I couldn’t believe it made such a drastic difference so quickly. I’ve been taking magnesium citrate for about 3 weeks now. I did up my dosage to two pills a day, one in the morning, one at night, for a total of 400mg. I feel great! I haven’t had a single night terror since starting the supplement. I also haven’t had any negative side effects that can occur from taking too much magnesium (stomach cramps, diarrhea, etc.). My anxiety seems to have disappeared with the night terrors and I feel like my old upbeat self again. When night comes my urge to sleep is definitely strong; I zonk out and wake up feeling refreshed and alert. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s nothing short of miraculous the way my life has changed these last few weeks! Oh, and remember my alcohol issue? How I was seemingly unaffected by it regardless of how much I drank? Well, magnesium has fixed that, too. The Cinco de Mayo margaritas were in full effect last night! Interestingly, in all my online research I came across this article about a study that was done in which they found a group of repeat DUI offenders all tested low in magnesium! How many times have you heard a drunk driver say, “But I feel fine!” And that’s how I always felt, completely unaffected by the alcohol (and for the record, at no time was I driving after drinking! That is never okay. Ever). But now I’m thinking, the alcohol did affect me, even though I didn’t feel it. Magnesium is needed for proper nerve function, maybe a lack of it deadens the buzzy sensation?? I don’t know (see paragraph one, sentence one of this post). All I do know is, I got my buzz back! Woo-hoo!
I only wish I’d figured it out sooner. I mean, I’ve known for a year and half that I was low in magnesium, but I was just more focused on the things that showed as full deficiencies. So, here’s the main message I want to share with all this: if you can relate to any of the problems I’ve listed, look into magnesium supplements. Do your own research, talk to your doctor and make your own decisions. I’ll admit that my mag shortage manifested itself in some pretty unusual ways, so you probably aren’t having sleep terrors. But if you’re having any kind of sleep issues, this really could help! And if you aren’t eating a lot of green leafy vegetables, you probably aren’t meeting the recommended daily allowance. Even if you take a multi-vitamin, look at your bottle and you’ll probably see that it does not provide anything close to 100% of the RDA. So the chances are good that you can safely supplement with a low dosage (200-250mg) of magnesium a day. But do your own research and see if it seems right for you. And if you know there’s something wrong with you, always trust your instinct, no matter what anyone (including a doctor) says. Don’t give up looking for answers! Figuring out my problem is a double victory for me because I knew it wasn’t just having a new baby or getting older or psychological. I still don’t know what caused my magnesium deficiency. My blood work doesn’t indicate any kind of illness, so I think it was likely the pregnancy or breastfeeding (both suck nutrients from your body for you baby’s benefit) or it was the diuretics I was given to help my blood pressure post partum. Maybe both. I just know how different I feel today compared to how I felt even a month ago. It’s a feeling I’d wish on anyone (minus the slight margarita hangover…I’d only wish that feeling on a few people) 😉