Two months into an experiment on sleep which involved radically changing our family’s diet, it feels important to share what we’ve learned so far. The following is a deep dive into the foundation of our new path – one that has already been life-changing in such a brief time.
Most of us have struggled to make it through a day without getting enough sleep the night before. We feel tired, sluggish, moody, reactive, unable to connect our thoughts or process information. Our executive functioning takes a hit and in general, we move through the day in great anticipation of going right back to bed to make up for it and call the day a wash. Unless you’re parenting young kids, of course.
When my partner and I became emergency foster parents a few years ago, I anticipated a rotating door of kids with various needs. We set up the rooms in our home to be a safe and nurturing space that could care for 2 or 3 school-age kids at a time if necessary. We thought a lot about what we could offer kiddos in transition during what would likely be a traumatizing time for them. We also knew that many would be victims of trauma and neglect. We structured our home to offer all the things people read about; opportunities for sensory play, cozy caves, quiet areas, areas for kinetic play, art, open space and nearby parks, for example. Our work wasn’t theoretical, as we both had lengthy backgrounds in social work – she a complex trauma therapist and teacher, myself, an artist and outdoor enthusiast, someone with a lifetime of working with the kids everyone else had all but given up on. We were not strangers to being involved with marginalized families and kids impacted by trauma and neglect. And we knew that bedtime and the night hours would be a difficult time for any kids coming through our home.
Which is to say, when we shifted from short-term to long-term foster parenting, and eventually to adopting a sibling group that came into our home, each of whom were deeply and differently impacted by trauma and neglect, it took some time to process the reality that our experiential and clinical knowledge wasn’t enough to meet their needs. We understood that choosing to adopt transracially from foster care included a lifelong commitment to these little beings and that our village of friends, family and providers would need to expand in order to raise them up well, but what we lacked was the perspective beyond the scope of what we had known, and we could not have calculated the impact that a loss of sleep would have on all our lives over time.
Two years into being a family of 4, and now an additional year as a family of five, sleep has become the hottest topic in our home. For the last 3 years, all five of us have battled both the quantity and the quality of our sleep. None of us have slept through the night consistently and chunks of sleep often involve 3-5 hour stints. We struggle to fall asleep, we struggle to stay asleep, and when we wake up it’s often abrupt; the baby is crying, a nightmare ends, I have to pee, they have to pee, someone is sick, the dog barks, something else. Some of this is environmental. Most of this is biological.
I think back now at how little we knew about the chemistry of sleep when we first started fostering. We certainly understood the need for structuring the environment to allow the body to shift into a bedtime mode, but we knew so little about the impact of trauma on the brain as it relates to the hormones necessary for allowing one’s body to fully enter a sleep cycle and stay there. We knew a lot about eating healthy but lacked an understanding of what it really looks like to use food and our body’s natural tendencies to heal from the inside out – and how detrimental sleep is to the entire process.
Gone are the days where a good dinner and consistent evening routine with electronic sunsets, dimmed lights, lowered voices, warm baths and bedtime books are thought to be enough to go to sleep. Weighted blankets, lavender spray (to keep the monsters away), rocking in the chair, singing, diva drops, stuffies, massages, humidifiers and swinging in the cozy swing to get the wiggles out are still hold their rank in our home. The difference now is that these are all bench players in a much bigger and more important game underway.
Our family was in crisis for longer than I think we recognized. That changed the same day we sought professional help the first week of November. Since then, our family has radically changed the way we eat and sleep. What follows is a list of 8 changes we’ve made and topics we are working to deepen our understanding around. The end goal here is about finding a path which will allow our kids to grow healthy and strong and for all of us to thrive. We are not experts. And all of our work is being overseen by a Psychiatrist practicing functional medicine, whom we have regular access to for guidance as needed. The following serves as knowledge which I believe should be more common for anyone struggling with their own sleep, their biological child’s sleep, their foster child’s sleep, or their adopted child’s sleep. Particularly if you or they have experienced trauma.
1. Fight, Flight, Freeze: Two Brains
As I sought to better understand how the brain responds to trauma, I learned that we have 2 brains; animal and human. Although we’re no longer running from saber tooth tigers, outrunning avalanches or hiding from predators (not in the primal sense, anyway), our brains are believed to still respond to situations as if we were. I understood this peripherally, but what I did not fully integrate into my parenting, was that the animal brain makes us go to sleep and makes hungry and the battle to reclaim the parts of the body and brain most deeply impacted by trauma cannot be won with hugs, high-fives, routine and behavior modification. Kids who are traumatized get stuck. They get stuck in the narrative, they get stuck in a developmental phase, they get stuck biologically. The body becomes conditioned to interpret the world as a terrifying place where you consistently think of yourself as being unsafe despite the best efforts of parents and caregivers to create a safe home, school and life experience. I made the mistake of assuming that 3 years should be enough time for my kids to feel safe with me – at least safe enough to sleep. I would get frustrated at one of my kids, in particular, at bedtime or naptime or any time we put kiddo down because kiddo would take 2-3 hours to fall asleep and would literally shake themselves awake. I felt desperate and hopeless for a long time.
Traumatized people, even in moments of joy or bliss, have a hard time experiencing those emotions and being in their body to experience them. Their bodies are used to a higher level of cortisol, the stress hormone, and they are stuck in FFF. The areas of the brain deeply impacted by trauma have no access to cognition or language – which is why it has been a real challenge for verbal processors, like me, to set aside language in moments where I’m really trying to be helpful to my kids. In order to relax you have to feel safe and my kids’ brains were not allowing them to feel fully safe. And definitely not safe enough to wind down at bedtime. As a result of chronic sleep disruption, they were also being robbed of fully integrating new sensory experiences during the day. Kiddo’s brain was stuck despite multiple years of desperately trying to build an alternative narrative around sensory, safety and joy. And although it felt important for us to avoid the use of medication for sleep because the long-term effects can be so terrible, for this particular kiddo, we understood that one route of treatment and achieving sleep needed to include a high dose of melatonin 45 minutes before bedtime and a dose of medicine in the middle of the night to keep kiddo asleep. For the last few weeks, kiddo has slept through the night more often than not and this is one reason we’re all sleeping better.
2. Circadian Rhythm: The Body’s Clock
All living organisms have an internal clock that is believed to run on approximately a 24-hour cycle - most obviously seen in the sleep/wake cycle. In the caption of an Instagram post from November 4, I offer a snapshot of a typical night of sleep for our family as we had known it, which illustrates how disrupted our collective clocks have been and which now, by comparison, highlights how profoundly we’ve improved:
There are lots of things that promote restful sleep; food, exercise, water, hormones. Children who experience trauma and stress have a higher level of cortisol running through their system ongoing, which is believed throw off natural sleep cycles and push circadian rhythms back a couple hours.
There is much that we don’t know, so we are using tools we have access to in order to readdress things we now understand need to be addressed, circadian rhythm being one of them. I believe the night captured above is common for more families than many of us realize. What’s important to note here, and which I touch on next, is the cellular and physiological mechanisms underlying the regulation of circadian rhythms.
3. Falling Asleep, Staying Asleep and Waking Naturally
In the post above, I include a pic of a flowchart from our psychiatrist. it turns out, many of us are deficient in the vitamins these hormones need in order to do their jobs, namely the vitamin B’s. Further, the hormones needed to fall asleep (tryptophan – [hello falling asleep after eating tons of turkey and egg whites] 5-HTP, serotonin, acetylserotonin, and melatonin) are like shifting a car’s engine from 5th gear to neutral; the brain cannot fall asleep without down-shifting in order.
I understand it like this: the body takes cues from our own internal clocks and the sun to release hormones that allow us to wind down. During a restful sleep period (which includes various stages of sleep) we process memories while dreaming and essentially reset our bodies to attack another day. If we have restful sleep, and a regulated circadian rhythm, our bodies then take cues from the sun in the morning, releasing a separate group of hormones (including healthy amounts of cortisol) which naturally crescendo a shout to our brains to rev and wake up. Throughout the day, our bodies are supposed to naturally decrescendo as we head toward the night. Now, I don’t know anyone who operates this way but I understand this is the body’s natural rhythm.
So, what did we do? Well, because vitamin B's are involved in almost every step of the process, we increased and regulated the amount of vitamin B’s. We do it this way. Every day. Almost.
4. Bedroom Basics & Nighttime Routines
If you Google variations on complex trauma and problematic sleep for children your search is going to serve up a lot of information about kids’ behavior and structuring the home environment. People will talk about predictability, routines, consistency, the things that a lot of us already do, right? I’m talking here about the choices we make as the grown-ups in charge to set the tone in our home that says, “hey, it’s time to start slowing our bodies down.”
In my twenties, I was a supervisor in residential treatment facilities for years – which is a fancy way of talking about an institution where kids live who cannot stay safe or manage the intimacy of a foster home environment while they’re waiting for permanency through adoption. This can also be a last resort for families needing respite from their challenging kiddo or intervention help. A profile of these kiddos often involves variations of diagnoses: ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, cognitive delays, autism spectrum. Many of these kids struggle to form relationships with people as a result of early trauma and seek maladaptive ways to meet their needs. They’re also known as difficult kids and sometimes, the shittiest frame: unlovable kids. This is all, of course, an oversimplified snapshot of a totally complex, multi-layered system in which a surprisingly large number of kids to grow up in. That said, part of what happens in these types of environments is that kids are on a lot of medication, staff work around the clock to keep kids safe from themselves and others and as a result, the environment is highly routinized and structured with behavior plans and sticker charts. Reward and punishment. Nature over nurture. Compliance over competence. Survive over thrive.
As a supervisor in a variety of these institutions I trained my staff on what I knew and how I had been trained. Bedtime and sleep were always the most difficult time of day. To help the kids in our care begin to settle down and prepare for their bodies for bedtime, we had consistent, predictable evening routines with assigned seating for dinner, light chores, and ADL’s (Active Daily Living. Hygiene). When everyone was ready for bed and kids who had evening showers were finished, the common thinking was to put on a movie. As if to say, “ok everyone, this is it. This is the last thing we do before going upstairs to bed. You know it, I know it, we all know it…let’s not have any problems here, ok?” And inevitably, there was always an explosion of big feelings and anxiety as we made our way to bed.
Now, of course, I’d do everything different. But these principles continue to permeate the experiences of a lot of kids and a lot of adults and teachers and community members caring for kids.
What I know now is this: kids who’ve experienced trauma often have higher levels of disruptive thought patterns, which can trigger a lot at bedtime. If something traumatizing or bad has happened to a kiddo at bedtime, bad things can come up at bedtime for years and maybe for that kiddo, night terrors and nightmares will also be a big barrier. Kid is stressed out, anxious and not sleeping well. Performs all day at school, for better or worse, and tries the same things over and over to little or no reprieve or respite. Its grinding. (Here’s where the hormones doing their job can help.)
Another common thing you’ll hear or read about is ensuring that the bedroom is truly a safe place. Adults will go through great lengths to make sure that kiddo’s bed is comfortable and clean and the room is suitable, pajamas are cozy, sound machines are on and lavender spray has been sprayed. Some people swear by essential oils. A nightlight comes in handy for some kids, avoiding furniture that may look similar to another place where they lived and may have experienced a traumatic situation is thoughtful. There is consideration over whether to keep the door open or closed, security objects to help comfort them, such as blankets stuffies, chewy tubes, music or lullabies. We used to listen to Thomas the train on YouTube with an old iPhone sitting on a busted-up Bose speaker dock, which worked until it didn’t. Reduce stimulation. Promote relaxation. Mindful meditation, breathing, muscle relaxation. Some folks believe in rhythmic movement to help settle unsettled parts of the brain through the brain stem’s limbic system. Inviting kids to take part in locking the door at night and making sure the windows are locked and the curtains are closed, etc. may help create a sense of security and safety. All important things to consider and useful for some kids. Many of these interventions were fruitless in our home and we had to be very honest with each other about our need for radical intervention.
5. Get Back in Your Body
Pooping, peeing, eating and breathing our foundational to our bodily systems. And yet, when we talk about healing the brain and body, there are gaps in the discussion and treatment here. When you’re a victim of trauma, all of these functions go awry. Traumatized people cut off a relationship to their bodies, shutting down their emotional awareness of self. In order to turn to reverse this, traumatized people need to feel safe inside their bodies before feeling connected to it. Bloated tummies, itchy skin and scalp, foggy thinking, slow processing, hyperarousal and hypersensitivity are all barriers here which can be treated with the right foods. Profound.
In our home, you can often overhear one of us saying, “squeeze your muscles…get back in your body.” This is one way we draw awareness to what our kids are feeling at a functional level; hot, cold, tight, tummy upset, short of breath, fast heart, closed airways, dizzy, blurry. Movement is also helpful here – dancing, yoga, drumming. Way before we can talk about how we’re feeling we need to be aware of what we’re feeling somatically. This takes practice, patience and perseverance. If the body is always working toward being healthy why do we get in the way? One of the biggest ways we get in our own way begins with what we put into our body. The right diet can have powerful effects on how we sleep, think, feel, remember and act. Which is why I believe so many kids are misdiagnosed with ADHD. We take that very seriously now.
6. Food: You Are What You Eat. And What the Animals You Eat, Ate
For 9 weeks, our diets have been free from: soy, dairy, gluten, grains, nightshades, processed sugar, chemicals and dyes. WTF do we eat, then, right? Well. That was certainly my first response when we agreed to chart these waters together. I grew up in and out of poverty, with sugar in my bottle, on my cereal and in everything I ate. We did TV dinners, Sunny D, soda pop, starches, all the dairy and veggies in a can. For all of my upbringing and well into adulthood, there was little to no distinction between organic or preserved. Water and liquids. Energy from food, energy from caffeine. There was no real understanding of why my stomach always hurt or why I felt swollen and sore or why I had headaches from toddlerhood. Literally all my life I’ve been poisoned, poisoning myself and putting things into my body which take away from my health rather than contribute to it. Changing my diet has been revolutionary and liberating. My relationship with my weight, my body and food have never been this healthy.
Daily, people will ask us what diet we are on. The way I answer this has evolved and these days, my response is this: there are no easy answers. Under the supervision of the same psychiatrist, we are some parts whole30, paleo, elimination diet, or PCOS if there is a need to categorize. But really, we are whole foods, healthy meats, low glycemic, dairy and soy free and no junk.
So where did we start? All props here go to my partner, who has opened my eyes to a world I did not know existed and who continues to teach me to fish rather than just leading me to water, ergo, this journey. We’ve always eaten decent (before this experiment, I would have said we ate great). But we were never this fierce. We ate out, enjoyed our spirits, devoured desserts, celebrated all the things fully with cake and cupcakes and chemicals. All of that came to a complete halt one day. One Friday afternoon. After one meeting with a psychiatrist who simultaneously blew our minds and woke us up. Our choice to radicalize our diet was less if, and more when? Which is to say we had the privilege and the resources to make it happen that day and we dove in head first.
5 Recommendations for where to begin if you're thinking about changing your diet:
- Start with what you know. Build a foundation on top of that. Write down what’s working. Take pictures to remember so you don’t have to think so hard the next time. We do this with our lunches and snacks, using the hashtag #EpicLunchboxLuv.
- Be totally open with our kids. They’re resilient. They can handle it. Be curious out loud with them, invite them in where it makes sense. Do you need a navigator to get you to the grocery store? Do you need someone to push the cart? Test the crunchiness of the kale? Hold the receipt? Swipe the card? Wash the sweet potatoes? Sample the new soup? Make the table? Whatever it is – find ways to give them agency. It builds confidence through competence, love and connection through belonging and healthier, secure attachments. These are my early thoughts on introducing kids to new foods.
- Don’t go it alone. Build off of successes, help each other see the successes however few and far between.
- Budget, plan meals ahead, cook in bulk and make it fun. Food is our biggest investment right now. Making lunches and snacks take up a pretty hefty chunk of our time each night but it also provides opportunities to come together and to invite our kids. Here are some of our recipes and maybe a starting place for you.
- Take one step at a time at home before tackling things at school. Our biggest kiddo struggled with the shift from shitty cafeteria food to her own beautiful Planetbox lunchbox full of delicious, healthy food she packed on her own. She watched us pack both her brothers’ lunches for weeks. She helped on occasion. She knew she had her own box just waiting but she wasn’t ready until she was ready. She knew what she knew and social situations for her are tender. Here’s the moment that changed. This video was actually her tipping point:
6. Sugar is the Devil: The Glycemic Index & Blood Sugar
Have you ever felt hungry shortly after devouring a huge meal? Or eaten something sweet and gotten a rush of energy, only to crash shortly thereafter. We see this all the time with kids after they’ve eaten sugary or processed foods. Sugar is not your friend and it’s not theirs either. It increases inflammation in the body and brain and causes erratic brain cell firing. It’s been known to increase aggression and is addictive.
The quality of your food affects how your brain and body function and it’s not as simple as calories in, calories out because not all calories are the same. For example, you can eat a cinnamon roll and consume about 700 calories. It’s gonna taste sweet and delicious and your brain and body will probably convince you that you need it and it will bring all the joy and blah, blah, blah. You’ll get a surge of energy from the sugar, crash, poop shortly thereafter, then crave more of the same. Conversely, a fresh salad with baby kale, spinach, diced bell peppers, walnuts, dried raisins and grilled organic chicken will bring in around 400 high quality calories. Eating more of the healthy, high quality food not only gives your body more energy and makes you smarter, you’ll feel fuller longer, have fewer cravings, your taste buds and gut bacteria will clean up AND you turn on the hormones that affect metabolism. The higher your metabolism, the more likely you are to maintain a healthier weight. This is one of the ways I’ve shed almost 30 pounds in 9 weeks without a weight loss goal. Without even thinking about losing weight…because my relationship with my body and with food is much healthier now and I put stuff in my mouth that contributes to me being a better me. Same is true for our kids.
Get to know what’s on the glycemic index. It rates carbohydrates (sugar) based on their effects on blood sugar, using a scale of 0-100+. High glycemic/sugary foods are a higher number, low glycemic/sugary foods have a lower number. The gist is that when we eat foods high in processed sugar like breakfast cereal, white bread, white rice, flour, grains, gluten - most other easily accessible and affordable foods and the bulk of food fed to our kids in public school lunchrooms - our body digests it quickly. As its zipping through our bodies, there’s a surge in insulin to help with the process and then as soon as it’s done there’s a drop in that insulin. The boost followed by the crash. The crash is also known as low blood sugar. When that insulin has come and gone we start to feel hungry immediately all over again. Some foods like fruits, nuts, and vegetables move slowly through the digestive system taking more time and more energy, using up more calories while winding their way through the digestive system. The lower the number is of the food you’re eating, the fewer crashes you experience and the more stable your blood sugar is throughout the day. Huge for kids. They are more regulated, can focus easier and process more quickly and they experience fewer cravings and hunger pangs throughout a school day. Think of how many kids are misdiagnosed with ADHD as a result of diet.
Changing our diet has been equal parts revolutionary, healing and liberating. Where I once was anxious and intimidated, I now grab recipes and produce with a ferocity to learn by trying new things. Feeding my family has become my most powerful way to show my love for my kids, my partner and my own self. I’ve long been one impacted by my own trauma and I have to say out loud, the narrative is shifting for me. My connection to my own body is happening in real time versus a numbing I’ve known and frequent triggers of a time long past but that my body still remembers well.
We got into this because we were desperate for sleep. In 9 weeks, we went from having no one sleeping through the night to all kids sleeping through the night more often than not. Our kids are unthawing. We are greeted each day with more of their personality, more of their thoughts and ideas and opinions. We are witnessing not the turning back of time but the building of resilience by healing from the inside out and it is the most profound thing. I haven’t even touched on epigenetics, water, neuroplasticity, gut bacteria, our weekly shopping list, exercise or eating from the rainbow. There is much to learn and experiment with and evolve with.
For a long time and still quite frequently, I had a hard time being the parent my kids needed me to be. There’s no class for this. No guide. No mentoring aside from a psychiatrist we see. Parenting kids who have been traumatized is not easy and it brings up all my own stuff. Understanding it now is the only path. I’m taking ownership for my own recovery and doing the same for my kids one molecule at a time.
*To carry the conversation forward around health and wellness and some of the hottest topics of our time, we'll be inviting some of our favorite folks to guest blog post every Sunday through winter 2018. Check back to stay on top of the discussion.