Mysteries of Insomnia

Quality sleep is crucial for good health and well-being. Don’t listen to advice that encourages you to sleep less for productivity, most people need around 7 hours of sleep per night.

Rather than being a simple on/off mechanism, sleep can be likened to the dimming of a light switch, where we gradually ease our bodies and minds into a state of slumber. It is very important to slow down in the evening to ensure a smooth transition into a restful sleep, and here’s why.

Upon waking in the morning, our brains shift from Delta wave patterns (0-4 Hz) to Theta (4-7 Hz) and eventually to the more active Beta and High Beta (12.5-30Hz) waves, where we spend the majority of our day tackling work and tasks. Our culture tends to emphasize being always in “go” mode – getting up, having coffee, and diving into the daily grind.

But what about slowing down?

We need to navigate through Alpha (7.5-12.5 Hz), the realm between calm and stressed waves. Picture Alpha as the “clutch” in an old stick-shift car – it’s the tool we use to smoothly shift up and down.

Many people are unable to slow down, and this leads to elevated cortisol levels, weight retention, and chronic stress. As a result, they experience poor-quality sleep, feeling tired and wired as they try to keep up with their commitments.

It’s no surprise that this lifestyle trend is linked to the rise in chronic diseases. This is why it’s crucial to learn how to slow down into Theta wave dominance in the evenings, tapping into healing, creativity, and eventually sliding into Delta for a restful sleep.

Contrary to popular belief, sleeping is not only a time to rest our body and brain; it is a period of heightened activity for them.

While we sleep, our body undergoes various changes and carries out several crucial functions, such as regulating hormone production and release, repairing damaged tissues, and recharging energy levels. It’s particularly important for the immune system, cardiovascular health, and maintaining a healthy metabolism.

Our brain also diligently engages in various tasks such as eliminating waste products, consolidating memories, and forming and strengthening neural connections based on the knowledge and experiences accumulated during the day.

We may attribute our sleepless nights to stress or worrying, but not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep can be caused by many different issues, and we must play detective to find the root cause if we want to give our bodies and brains sufficient rest to reset and recharge.

Do you feel you don’t sleep enough? Or you don’t get quality sleep? There may be several reasons why you can’t rest at night, and on this super-long page you may be able to find the reason (or more than one) so that you can take the appropriate action.

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that can impact all individuals, although it tends to be more prevalent among women and older adults. It can persist for a brief period of a few days or weeks, or it can become a long-term challenge. Stress, menopause, as well as various medical and mental health conditions (more on these below), often serve as underlying factors contributing to insomnia.

Insomnia can give rise to various risks and side effects that have detrimental results on both your mental and physical well-being, hindering your overall functionality.

You may notice these side effects in your daily life:

  • Daytime fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability, frustration, and confusion
  • Decreased coordination and increased accidents
  • Impaired memory
  • Overeating
  • Elevated inflammation
  • Weakened immune system
  • Heightened sensitivity to pain

Risks include:

  • Impaired performance at work or school
  • Heightened vulnerability to accidents
  • Elevated susceptibility to depression and other mental health conditions
  • Increased likelihood of developing chronic medical conditions like heart disease, stroke, and obesity

Types of Insomnia

There are several types of insomnia, and the main ones are acute and chronic.

Acute Insomnia, also known as short-term or adjustment insomnia, is a brief episode of difficulty sleeping. It is often triggered by a stressful event such as the loss of a loved one, a medical diagnosis, a major life change, or a pandemic, but also by environmental factors (like noise and light), unfamiliar sleeping arrangements, physical discomfort, certain medications, illness, and jet lag. Acute insomnia typically lasts for less than three months and may resolve on its own as the person copes with the underlying stressor.

Chronic Insomnia, on the other hand, is a long-term pattern of difficulty sleeping. It is considered chronic if a person has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least three nights per week for three months or longer. Chronic insomnia can have various causes, including irregular sleep schedules related to lifestyle factors (travel, jet lag, shift work, napping), stimulants (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, drugs), poor sleep hygiene, medications (chemotherapy drugs, antidepressants, beta blockers), mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, ADHD), physical or neurological problems (diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, hyperthyroidism, sleep apnea), and other sleep disorders.

Chronic insomnia can be categorized into the following:

Comorbid Insomnia refers to insomnia that occurs alongside another medical, psychiatric, or sleep disorder. It is often seen in conjunction with conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, or sleep apnea. The presence of these underlying conditions can exacerbate sleep difficulties and make it more challenging to treat insomnia effectively. Recent research also recognizes that insomnia often has a bidirectional relationship with these health issues. For example, anxiety can contribute to insomnia, and insomnia can worsen anxiety. Moreover, insomnia triggered by an underlying condition may persist even after the initial problem is resolved.

Early Morning Awakening Insomnia involves waking up significantly earlier than intended in the morning. Some experts consider it part of sleep maintenance, while others view it separately. The inability to get enough sleep during the desired hours affects physical and mental functioning during the day.

Mixed Insomnia describes individuals who experience a mix of sleep initiation problems, sleep maintenance difficulties, and early morning awakenings. The broader term “insomnia” often encompasses this variety since many people with insomnia face overlapping sleep issues. Additionally, symptoms can change over time, making it challenging to strictly classify insomnia into specific subtypes.

Primary Insomnia refers to insomnia that is not caused by an underlying medical, psychiatric, or environmental condition. It may develop due to a combination of factors such as genetic predisposition, behavioral patterns, and psychological stressors. Primary insomnia often involves a disruption in the brain’s sleep-wake cycle, leading to difficulties initiating or maintaining sleep.

Psychophysiological Insomnia is typically associated with excessive worry or anxiety about sleep itself. It often starts with a triggering event, such as an acute episode of insomnia due to stress or a life change. Over time, individuals develop a conditioned fear response to sleep, leading to heightened arousal, muscle tension, and increased anxiety around bedtime. The anxiety about not being able to sleep perpetuates the insomnia cycle.

Sleep Maintenance Insomnia refers to having trouble maintaining sleep throughout the night. Individuals tend to wake up at least once and find it challenging to go back to sleep for 20-30 minutes or longer. This fragmented sleep leads to lower sleep quantity and quality, resulting in daytime sleepiness or feeling sluggish. Maintenance insomnia can be caused by mental health conditions like depression, as well as medical conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, sleep apnea, asthma, restless leg syndrome, and periodic limb movement disorder (more on these below).

Sleep Onset Insomnia refers to difficulty initiating sleep at the beginning of the night or for shift workers. It involves tossing and turning without being able to fall asleep. People with this issue often struggle to doze off even after spending 20-30 minutes in bed. As a result, they experience reduced sleep time and feel the effects of sleep deprivation the next day. The causes can be diverse, including psychological and psychiatric issues, stress, anxiety, and depression.

How Do You Diagnose Insomnia?

Understanding the causes of insomnia is the first step towards finding effective solutions. By addressing common factors like stress, adopting healthy sleep habits, and creating a comfortable sleep environment, you can significantly improve your sleep quality (you will find treatments and tips to support your body for sleep below). If you’ve tried self-help strategies without success or suspect an underlying medical condition, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional who can provide further guidance.

Diagnosing insomnia usually involves a physical examination and reviewing your medical history to identify underlying conditions. You may be asked to keep a sleep diary to track patterns and symptoms, something that I suggest to my clients if they have trouble sleeping. A sleep study might also be recommended to detect other sleep disorders. These diagnostic approaches provide valuable information for guiding appropriate treatment.

However, there may be other causes that neither the examination nor the study detects, and you are left without solutions. This is why identifying the causes of insomnia can be particularly challenging, but with patience and by listening to your body, you will be able to shed light and find solutions.

Very often, it’s just a matter of a dysregulated nervous system that is crying for help, asking you to slow down and rest. It happened to me years ago and it took me a long time to get out of this, but the journey was well worth it. I learned so much about myself and today I know what my body needs to support me.

Possible Causes

Below you will find a list (in alphabetical order) of common and uncommon causes of insomnia that I know of to help you identify what may prevent you from having a good night’s sleep and take the appropriate action.

Aging

As we age, it’s common to experience more awakenings at night and shorter sleep duration. These changes in our circadian rhythm can affect older adults, who often struggle to fall asleep, wake up too early, and have difficulty returning to sleep. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia and light exposure during certain times of the day can help improve sleep patterns.

Anxiety

Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, or social anxiety disorder, and can contribute to sleep difficulties. Persistent worrying, racing thoughts, or heightened arousal can make it challenging to relax and fall asleep. Nighttime awakenings, nightmares, or sleep-onset insomnia are common symptoms.

Anxiety can impact sleep in diverse ways:

  • Racing thoughts, worry, and rumination can arise particularly when trying to sleep. Obsessive thoughts, fear of the future, or replaying past events can keep your mind active, preventing relaxation and sleep.
  • Physical symptoms like a racing heart, shortness of breath, muscle tension, and restlessness can make it challenging to feel calm and comfortable enough to fall asleep.
  • Nighttime panic attacks, characterized by sudden and intense bouts of fear or terror can disrupt sleep and create a fear of going to bed.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder can disrupt sleep patterns. During manic episodes, individuals may experience reduced need for sleep, known as “hyperarousal,” leading to decreased sleep duration. Conversely, during depressive episodes, individuals may experience hypersomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain caused by arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraines, back pain, or injuries can disrupt the ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and obtain restorative sleep. The discomfort may cause individuals to toss and turn, disrupting the sleep cycle, leading to frequent awakenings throughout the night, and it often results in overall decreased sleep duration.

Circadian Rhythm Disorders

Circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders, characterized by a mismatch between an individual’s internal biological clock and the desired sleep schedule, include delayed sleep-wake phase disorder (DSWPD), advanced sleep-wake phase disorder (ASWPD), irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder, and shift work disorder. These disorders can lead to difficulties falling asleep and waking up at desired times.

Depression

Some individuals may experience insomnia (finding it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night). On the other hand, some individuals may experience hypersomnia, characterized by excessive sleepiness and prolonged sleep duration. Changes in sleep architecture, such as reduced REM sleep or disturbances in deep sleep stages, are also common in depression.

Diabetes

Diabetics may have hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels), causing them to use the bathroom because their kidneys are overcompensating, or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels), causing nightmares, nighttime sweating, and feelings of confusion or irritation upon waking.

Disrupted HPA Axis

The HPA axis refers to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which plays a crucial role in regulating our body’s stress response. When we experience stress, the hypothalamus, a region in the brain, releases a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This hormone signals the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which then stimulates the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones like cortisol. In a healthy HPA axis, cortisol levels rise in response to stress and help the body cope with the situation.

However, chronic, or prolonged stress can lead to HPA axis dysregulation. A dysregulated HPA axis disrupts the natural cortisol rhythm, leading to elevated cortisol levels at night, making it challenging to fall asleep and stay asleep. This can result in insomnia, a disrupted sleep pattern, and other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome (more below).

Gastrointestinal Problems

Digestive disorders like acid reflux (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can cause discomfort, pain, or digestive disturbances that interfere with sleep. Symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion, bloating, or frequent trips to the bathroom can disrupt both falling asleep and staying asleep.

Histamine Intolerance

Histamine plays a key role in regulating sleep-wake cycles. It acts as a neurotransmitter and is involved in the sleep process, promoting wakefulness during the day and sleepiness at night. However, in individuals with histamine intolerance (where the body is unable to properly break it down and metabolize it), histamine levels accumulate beyond what the body can handle, leading to various symptoms, including nasal congestion, digestive disturbances, headaches, and insomnia.

Hormonal Imbalances

Hormonal imbalances can affect sleep patterns, particularly in women during pregnancy, perimenopause, and menopause. During menopause (more below), hormonal fluctuations can lead to night sweats, hot flashes, and mood changes that disrupt sleep. Similarly, conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or thyroid disorders can affect hormonal balance and impact sleep.

Hypoxemia Disorder

Sleep-related hypoxemia disorder manifests when an individual experiences a reduction in blood oxygen saturation levels during sleep.

When the body’s blood oxygen levels decrease, it can impact an individual’s energy and overall well-being. Low blood oxygen can lead to persistent fatigue and a sense of exhaustion, often affecting the quality of rest. This connection between low oxygen levels and compromised energy stems from a reduction in red blood cells and hemoglobin, which are vital for oxygen transport in the body. Even without anemia, a deficiency in these crucial components can result in diminished energy levels and poor sleep quality.

The brain, at its core, prioritizes survival, with oxygen supply being of paramount importance. During sleep, as individuals transition into deep delta wave stages, breathing tends to become shallower, thereby potentially causing a drop in oxygen levels. For individuals with blood that’s inefficient in transporting oxygen, this decrease can become alarmingly low, prompting the brain to awaken the individual through cortisol release as a protective measure.

Using sleep medications to manage insomnia can inadvertently interfere with the brain’s ability to monitor blood oxygen levels, hindering its vital function of safeguarding oxygen supply. The resultant morning drowsiness or other adverse effects following sleep medication usage are not immediate consequences of the drug clearing the system; rather, they signify the recovery of normalized blood oxygen levels.

To address sleep-related hypoxemia disorder, optimizing red blood cell count and hemoglobin levels is crucial. This can be achieved by stimulating the production of red blood cells and hemoglobin in the bone marrow. Balancing hormones, particularly testosterone, can significantly contribute to this process. Low testosterone levels can be associated with deficiencies in vitamin D or DHEA. Furthermore, certain medical conditions, such as lung diseases or neurological disorders, can contribute to sleep-related hypoxemia disorder.

Lifestyle Habits

These may include:

  • Poor Diet – If your go-to bedtime snack consists of a slice (or two) of pizza or a bag of chips, it’s no wonder you find yourself lying awake, gazing at the ceiling. Consuming a large amount of fat or protein right before bedtime, along with indulging in spicy meals, can significantly increase the workload on your digestive system. This can lead to difficulties in falling asleep and potentially trigger heartburn. On the other hand, hunger pains can disrupt your sleep, as well as sudden drops in blood sugar levels during the night.
  • Irregular Exercise – Physical activity can promote better sleep, but exercising too close to bedtime can have a stimulating effect as it elevates body temperature and heart rate and it stimulates your entire nervous system, making it harder to fall asleep. It’s recommended to finish moderate to vigorous exercise at least a few hours before bed, allowing your body to wind down. Taking a leisurely stroll around the block with your furry friend in the late evening can be beneficial, especially if it aligns your pet’s wake-up time with yours.
  • Traveling – The effects of jet lag can disrupt your body and mind, throwing your regular sleep patterns off balance. Additionally, trying to sleep in an unfamiliar environment can pose its own challenges.
  • Work Schedule – Having an unfavorable work schedule can significantly impact your circadian rhythm, especially if your shifts vary between early and late hours. In addition, the demands of a stressful job and long working hours can contribute to anxiety, making it difficult to find restful sleep and leaving you awake.

Medications

Some medications can disrupt your sleep patterns as a side effect. These may include:

  • Allergy and Cold Medications – Over-the-counter allergy or cold medications, particularly those containing antihistamines, may help initiate sleep, but they can cause drowsiness and next-day grogginess.
  • Antidepressants – Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) can cause changes in sleep architecture, leading to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing vivid dreams.
  • Stimulants – These are used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy such as methylphenidate (Ritalin), amphetamines (Adderall), or modafinil (Provigil), and they can increase alertness and make it challenging to fall asleep or stay asleep, especially if taken later in the day.
  • Corticosteroids – Commonly used to treat inflammatory conditions or autoimmune disorders, including prednisone or dexamethasone, they can cause increased alertness, restlessness, or mood changes that interfere with falling asleep or maintaining sleep.
  • Diuretics – Commonly prescribed to treat conditions like high blood pressure or heart failure, they can increase urination and disrupt sleep by causing the need to wake up to use the bathroom during the night.
  • Medications for asthma – Short-acting beta-agonists like albuterol or oral corticosteroids can cause increased heart rate, restlessness, or difficulty falling asleep.
  • Beta-blockers – Often prescribed for conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease, such as propranolol or atenolol, they can cause side effects like vivid dreams, nightmares, or daytime fatigue, which can disrupt normal sleep patterns.

Never stop or modify your medication without consulting your healthcare provider first, as they can provide the necessary guidance and support.

Menopause

During menopause, hormonal fluctuations such as decreased estrogen and progesterone levels can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle and lead to sleep problems. Hot flashes, night sweats, and mood changes can make it challenging to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.

Narcolepsy

This disorder, affecting the brain’s ability to regulate sleep-wake cycles, causes disrupted nighttime sleep: individuals may have difficulties falling asleep initially or have frequent awakenings throughout the night, and they may experience a temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up. 

Neurological Disorders

Neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy can disrupt sleep patterns. These conditions may lead to issues such as insomnia, daytime sleepiness, or disruptive sleep behaviors due to movement problems, muscle stiffness, or involuntary movements during sleep.

Nocturia

Nocturia refers to the condition where an individual wakes up one or more times during the night to urinate. Each awakening interrupts the sleep cycle and can make it difficult to fall back asleep, leading to fragmented sleep. It can also contribute to sleep onset insomnia, since the anticipation of waking up to urinate can create anxiety or hyperarousal, making it harder to relax and initiate sleep.

Nocturnal Leg Cramps

Nocturnal leg cramps are sudden, involuntary contractions of the muscles in the legs, usually occurring during sleep. These painful cramps can disrupt sleep and cause awakenings. The exact cause of nocturnal leg cramps is not always clear, but factors such as muscle fatigue, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, or certain medications may contribute.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

The distress caused by intrusive thoughts or obsessions and repetitive behaviors or compulsions can interfere with sleep. Individuals with OCD may experience difficulties falling asleep due to racing thoughts or perform compulsive rituals that delay bedtime.

Parasomnias

Parasomnias are a group of sleep disorders that involve abnormal behaviors, movements, emotions, perceptions, or dreams during sleep. Examples of parasomnias include sleepwalking, sleep terrors, confusional arousals, REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), and nightmares. These disorders can cause disruptions in sleep and may lead to sleep fragmentation or injury during sleep-related activities.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder or PLMD involves involuntary and repetitive limb movements during sleep. These movements can occur in the legs or arms and can disrupt sleep, leading to fragmented sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. PLMD often coexists with other sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Sleep disturbances, including nightmares, night sweats, and flashbacks, are common among individuals with PTSD. Hypervigilance, anxiety, and fear associated with the traumatic event can make it challenging to relax and feel safe, leading to difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep.

Respiratory Issues

Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and allergies can have a significant impact on sleep due to the breathing difficulties, coughing, and wheezing they cause. Shortness of breath can cause discomfort and prevent individuals from finding a comfortable position for sleep initiation.

Many respiratory conditions can also worsen at night, leading to increased coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness, disrupting the sleep cycle and making it difficult to stay asleep. Severe respiratory conditions can even lead to decreased oxygen levels (hypoxia) and increased carbon dioxide levels (hypercapnia) in the body during sleep.

Restless Leg Syndrome

This is a neurological disorder characterized by an uncomfortable sensation in the legs, often described as a creeping, crawling, or tingling sensation. This sensation is relieved by moving the legs, leading to an irresistible urge to move them. RLS symptoms typically worsen during periods of rest or inactivity, making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. RLS can be idiopathic (without a known cause) or secondary to conditions such as iron deficiency, kidney failure, peripheral neuropathy, or pregnancy. 

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea and insomnia are two separate sleep disorders, but they can be interconnected and influence each other, as those pauses (known as apneas) happening in breathing during sleep cause the body’s oxygen levels to decrease, and carbon dioxide levels to increase. This triggers the brain to wake the person up partially or fully, leading to fragmented sleep.

Sleep apnea also disrupts the normal pattern of sleep stages which can cause a reduction in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, crucial for memory consolidation, emotional regulation, and overall restoration. 

Sleep Environment

Your sleep environment plays a crucial role in promoting restful sleep. Factors such as excessive noise, uncomfortable bedding or pillows or sleepwear, an overly warm or cold room, and allergens and asthma triggers can disrupt your sleep.

In addition, whether it’s the illumination from the alarm clock display, or the street light seeping through your window, light plays a crucial role in sleep disturbances. Similarly, blue light emitted by electronic devices can have a similar negative impact as it suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep.

Last, but not least, sharing your bed, whether with a human companion or a furry friend, can significantly impact the quality of your sleep. Issues such as snoring, crowding, cover-hogging, and overall discomfort can arise, leading to disrupted sleep patterns. Differing preferences regarding sleeping conditions, such as temperature, light, and noise levels, can also contribute to sleep disturbances when sharing a bed with a partner. Furthermore, when sharing a bed with an infant, both the parent and the child may experience more fragmented sleep and increased nighttime awakenings.

Sleep Habits

Poor sleep habits can include:

  • Irregular Sleep Schedule – Going to bed and waking up at different times each day can confuse your body and make it harder to fall asleep when you want to.
  • Excessive Napping – While short power naps can be beneficial, excessive daytime napping or long naps close to bedtime can interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night.

Snoring

Snoring can have various impacts on sleep, both for the person who snores and their sleeping partner, causing disruptions in sleep, leading to frequent awakenings throughout the night, and preventing them from achieving deep, restorative sleep stages. Even if the snorer does not fully awaken, the noise and vibrations from snoring can disturb the normal sleep cycles. Over time, persistent snoring can lead to relationship strain between bed partners.

In some cases, snoring may be a sign of sleep apnea, a more serious condition that can lead to significant sleep disruptions, oxygen deprivation, and potentially serious health consequences if left untreated.

Stress

Stress is a normal response to challenging situations or events, but when it becomes chronic or overwhelming, it can disrupt your sleep patterns. Stress affects our sleep in many ways:

  • Racing Thoughts – When you’re stressed, your mind may be filled with racing thoughts, worries, and unresolved issues. These intrusive thoughts can make it difficult to relax and fall asleep.
  • Hyperarousal – Stress triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol, which can keep your body and mind in a state of hyperarousal. This heightened state of alertness can make it challenging to wind down and transition into sleep.
  • Sleep-Disrupting Habits – Stress can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like excessive caffeine consumption, alcohol or drug use, or late-night snacking. These habits can directly interfere with sleep quality and make it harder to fall asleep.

Substance Use and Withdrawal

The use of certain substances can affect sleep patterns. These include:

  • Alcohol – Alcohol initially acts as a sedative by enhancing GABAergic activity, promoting relaxation and facilitating sleep onset. However, as alcohol is metabolized and its sedative effects wear off, a rebound effect occurs, resulting in increased glutamate activity. This rebound in glutamate can disrupt sleep architecture and lead to sleep disturbances, including sleep fragmentation. 
  • Nicotine – Nicotine is a stimulant that can interfere with the normal sleep architecture, reducing the amount of deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which are essential for restoration and cognitive function. Nicotine can also make it harder to fall asleep because it stimulates the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones, and it can lead to frequent awakenings throughout the night. 
  • Caffeine – Caffeine has a half-life of three to five hours. This means that even hours after consumption, half of the caffeine dose remains in your system, potentially disrupting your sleep. Its effects have been linked to difficulties in falling asleep, reduced total sleep duration, and perceived lower sleep quality. Keep in mind that the presence of caffeine extends beyond just coffee: energy drinks, sodas, certain medications, and even chocolate also contain this stimulating substance.

While some individuals may rely on substances to help them fall asleep, the quality and restorative value of the sleep obtained may be compromised. Moreover, the withdrawal from substances can also lead to sleep disturbances as the body adjusts.

Teeth Grinding

Teeth grinding, or bruxism, is frequently triggered by stress, and you may not even know you’re doing it, unless you wake up with a tender jaw during the night, as well as experiencing headaches and tooth pain.

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction

TMJ disorders can disrupt sleep in multiple ways: they cause pain and discomfort, hinder finding a comfortable sleep position, and lead to difficulty falling and staying asleep. Teeth grinding is common in TMJ disorders and can disturb sleep patterns. TMJ disorders also increase the risk of sleep apnea, disrupt sleep due to stress and anxiety, and certain medications used for treatment may have sleep-related side effects.

Trauma

The effects of traumatic experiences can have a profound impact on an individual’s sleep. Following a trauma, the brain often becomes overstimulated, leading to an increase in adrenaline levels. This heightened state of alertness and awareness can make it challenging to both fall asleep and maintain sleep. Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may find that flashbacks occur frequently during the night, alongside daytime occurrences. Nightmares can also disrupt sleep, causing individuals to wake up abruptly and struggle to return to sleep.

Moreover, the sleep environment itself can play a role. A dark room may contribute to heightened anxiety, while complete silence may amplify sensitivity to otherwise insignificant sounds, leading to increased nervousness.

How to Treat Insomnia

Treatment for insomnia varies based on the cause, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. 

Acute insomnia can often be managed at home with over-the-counter sleep aids (even though I don’t recommend these – more below) or stress management techniques. Chronic insomnia may require a multimodal approach, which is what I see with my clients. Besides coaching, solutions include implementing behavioral changes and improving sleep hygiene practices, addressing cognitive factors through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), managing comorbid conditions, and potentially considering pharmacological interventions under the guidance of a healthcare professional who can conduct a comprehensive evaluation, identify any underlying factors contributing to insomnia, and develop an individualized treatment plan to improve sleep quality and overall well-being.

In my coaching practice, I help clients reclaim their sleep with different strategies and techniques. Of course, recalibrating their system is not a quick fix, but they can get outstanding results with dedication, patience, and commitment. Below are some solutions, however, if you feel you need more guidance and personalized assistance, let’s chat. Schedule a FREE Clarity Call below.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia

CBT-I is a widely recognized and effective treatment approach that focuses on addressing the underlying thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that contribute to sleep difficulties. CBT-I does not involve medication and instead utilizes techniques derived from cognitive behavioral therapy. It includes five components:

  1. Cognitive restructuring – Changing thoughts and feelings about sleep.
  2. Stimulus control – Associating bed only with sleep.
  3. Sleep hygiene – Following rules for better sleep.
  4. Relaxation training – Establishing a nightly ritual.
  5. Sleep restriction – Gradually adjusting sleep time.

Entrainment

Entrainment utilizes external stimulation like light, sound, touch, or electromagnetic fields to synchronize the brain and promote different states. These methods are being explored for insomnia and other conditions like ADHD and anxiety.

The brain produces various waves with distinct characteristics:

  • Gamma – 35-100 Hz, rapid information processing.
  • Beta – 12-35 Hz, wakefulness, conversations, speeches.
  • Alpha – 8-12 Hz, relaxation, meditation, nature walks.
  • Theta – 4-8 Hz, dreaming, daydreaming, creativity.
  • Delta – 0.5-4 Hz, deep sleep, meditation.

Listening to beats within these ranges can induce corresponding states, providing benefits such as stress reduction, enhanced focus, relaxation, mood improvement, creativity, and pain management. Delta beats are particularly relevant for improving sleep.

Methods to listen to these beats include:

  • Isochronic tones – Repetitive tones without headphones.
  • Binaural beats – Requires headphones, creates an “auditory illusion” by playing different frequencies in each ear.
  • Monaural beats: – Combination of similar-frequency tones without headphones.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation, rooted in Buddhism and Hinduism, offers a proven approach. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness and developed the renowned 8-week program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to help people with fibromyalgia, cancer, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

Mindfulness-Based Therapy for Insomnia (MBTI or MBT-I) combines mindfulness with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) techniques, and it reduces sleep anxiety and stress.

The key principles of MBTI are:

  • Beginner’s mind – Embrace new approaches.
  • Non-striving – Allow sleep naturally.
  • Letting go – Release negative sleep thoughts.
  • Non-judging – Avoid judging sleep difficulties.
  • Acceptance – Engage in relaxing activities.
  • Trust – Expect sleep improvement.
  • Patience – Understand sleep restoration takes time.

Sleep Aids

While sleep aids and drugs can be helpful in certain situations, investigating the root cause before relying on sleep aids is advisable for several reasons:

  • Masking the problem. Sleep aids and drugs can provide temporary relief by helping you fall asleep or stay asleep. However, they don’t address the underlying issues that may be disrupting your sleep. By relying solely on sleep aids, you may be masking the root cause and missing an opportunity to resolve the underlying problem.
  • Dependency and tolerance. Continuous use of sleep aids can lead to dependency and tolerance. Your body may become accustomed to the medication, requiring higher doses to achieve the same effect. This can create a cycle of reliance on sleep aids, making it even more challenging to establish healthy sleep patterns without them.
  • Side effects. Sleep aids and drugs can have side effects, ranging from grogginess and drowsiness the next day to more severe reactions. These side effects can negatively impact your daily functioning and overall well-being. Additionally, long-term use of certain sleep aids may have potential health risks that should be considered. Another factor that I always point out to my clients is that some sleep aids, particularly benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, can alter sleep architecture, disrupting the natural progression and proportions of stages. For example, they may increase the duration of light sleep and reduce the amount of deep sleep.

Instead of immediately turning to sleep aids, it’s often recommended to try the following steps to investigate the root cause of your sleep issues:

  • Evaluate sleep hygiene. Assess your sleep environment, bedtime routine, and daily habits. Make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep, establish a consistent sleep schedule, and adopt relaxation techniques before bed.
  • Manage stress and anxiety. Identify and address sources of stress or anxiety in your life. This may involve practicing stress-reduction techniques, seeking support from a coach like me or a therapist, or implementing coping strategies.
  • Review lifestyle choices. Evaluate factors such as caffeine or alcohol consumption, exercise routine, and exposure to screens before bed. 

Functional Medicine

Since everyone’s sleep needs and experiences are unique, it’s essential to approach and address sleep difficulties with a personalized and holistic mindset. This is why I always recommend Functional Medicine as it provides an approach to healthcare that focuses on identifying and addressing the root causes of health issues rather than just treating symptoms.

When it comes to poor sleep or insomnia, functional medicine can offer several benefits over conventional allopathic medicine:

  • Holistic Approach. Functional medicine takes a holistic view of health, considering the interconnectedness of various systems in the body. It recognizes that sleep disturbances can be influenced by multiple factors, including lifestyle, nutrition, stress, hormonal imbalances, and underlying health conditions. By addressing these factors comprehensively, functional medicine aims to restore balance and optimize overall well-being.
  • Individualized Care. Functional medicine practitioners take a personalized approach to patient care. They recognize that each person is unique, and the causes of poor sleep or insomnia can vary from one individual to another. Functional medicine emphasizes thorough patient assessments, including detailed medical history, lifestyle factors, genetics, and environmental influences, in addition to recommending advanced and specialized testing. This information helps in creating individualized treatment plans tailored to address the specific underlying causes contributing to sleep difficulties.
  • Root Cause Analysis. Functional medicine seeks to identify and address the underlying root causes of health issues rather than solely focusing on managing symptoms. By understanding the factors contributing to poor sleep or insomnia, such as hormonal imbalances, gut health, nutrient deficiencies, chronic inflammation, or stress, functional medicine aims to correct these imbalances or dysfunctions to restore healthy sleep patterns.
  • Integrative Therapies. Functional medicine embraces a wide range of therapeutic modalities, including both conventional and complementary approaches. While conventional medicine often relies on medication as the primary treatment option for sleep disturbances, functional medicine practitioners may integrate lifestyle modifications, nutrition, stress management techniques, supplements, botanical medicine, acupuncture, and other therapies to support healthy sleep. This integrative approach allows for a more comprehensive and tailored treatment plan.
  • Emphasis on Lifestyle Modifications. Functional medicine recognizes the importance of lifestyle factors in promoting optimal health, including sleep. Practitioners often prioritize lifestyle modifications such as improving sleep hygiene, establishing consistent sleep schedules, managing stress, promoting regular exercise, optimizing nutrition, and addressing environmental factors that may disrupt sleep. By addressing these foundational aspects, functional medicine aims to create an environment conducive to restful sleep.
  • Patient Empowerment. Functional medicine promotes patient education and empowerment. Practitioners often take the time to explain the underlying causes of sleep disturbances, help patients understand the importance of lifestyle changes, and actively involve patients in the decision-making process regarding their treatment. This approach encourages patients to take an active role in their own health and well-being, leading to greater engagement and adherence to the recommended interventions.

It’s important to note that functional medicine and conventional allopathic medicine are not mutually exclusive, and there can be benefits to utilizing both approaches as part of an integrative healthcare plan. It’s recommended to consult with qualified healthcare professionals, such as functional medicine practitioners or sleep specialists, to determine the most appropriate approach for your specific needs and circumstances.

For more information about functional medicine and to find a practitioner, visit The Institute for Functional Medicine.

How to Support Your Body for Sleep

Sleep duration holds significant importance; however, the quality of sleep is equally crucial. By successfully completing multiple cycles of our sleep stages, consisting of four distinct phases, we can ensure that we have obtained a rest of superior quality (I discuss the concept of sleep stages and cycles in detail in this video).

Employing the practical strategies mentioned below can improve both the length and excellence of your nightly sleep. Try them tonight, as they might provide remarkable benefits before considering the use of sleep aids.

Day

  • Get sunlight exposure. Aim for at least 30 minutes of outdoor exposure to natural light each day, preferably in the morning or early afternoon. If going outside is challenging, sitting near a window that allows natural light to enter can also be beneficial. Sunlight exposure during the day is crucial for regulating our sleep-wake cycle. It helps synchronize our internal body clocks with the external environment, promoting a consistent pattern of wakefulness during the day and better sleep at night (I talk about our internal clocks in this video). Adequate exposure to natural light during the day can also improve mood, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increase daytime alertness, all contributing to a more restful sleep at night.
  • Set boundaries between life and work. To prioritize your sleep and overall well-being, it’s important to address any work-related factors that may be negatively affecting your sleep. Consider discussing your schedule with your employer or exploring strategies to manage stress levels effectively. By creating a more ideal work schedule and creating time for yourself, family, and friends, you can enhance your sleep quality and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day.
  • Engage in regular physical activity. Regular exercise can promote better sleep but avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime as it can be stimulating.
  • Limit daytime napping. If you struggle with falling or staying asleep at night, try to limit daytime napping. If you must nap, keep it short (around 20-30 minutes) and avoid napping too close to your intended bedtime. In this video, I share the best ways to nap.
  • Avoid consuming caffeinated beverages or foods within six hours of bedtime. Manage your caffeine consumption by keeping it below 400 mg. per day.
  • If you travel often, implementing strategies such as gradually adapting to new time zones and environments, and adjusting your sleep schedule before and after travel, creating a comfortable sleep environment, and practicing relaxation techniques can help minimize the negative effects of jet lag and ensure better sleep while away from home.

Night

  • Avoid heavy meals before bed. Eating a large, heavy meal close to bedtime can cause discomfort and disrupt sleep. It is recommended to have dinner at least 2 to 3 hours before bedtime. This allows your body enough time to digest the food before you lie down for sleep.
  • Limit your alcohol intake. While it may initially make you feel sleepy, it can disrupt the later stages of sleep and lead to more fragmented sleep.
  • Explore calming beverages. Certain beverages can have a calming effect on the body; examples include herbal teas like chamomile or valerian root. 
  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This helps regulate your body’s internal clocks and promotes better sleep.
  • Create a bedtime ritual. Establish a consistent routine before bed that signals to your body that it’s time to wind down. This could include activities like reading a book, taking a warm bath, or practicing relaxation techniques. Do not watch the news, engage on social media, pay bills, or discuss work matters before bedtime as they can increase stress levels and they will disrupt your sleep.
  • Limit electronic device usage. The blue light emitted by electronic devices can disrupt your natural sleep-wake cycle. Try to avoid using smartphones, tablets, or computers for at least an hour before bed. Instead, engage in relaxing activities or read a printed book.
  • Create a sleep-friendly environment. Download my digital guide Create your Sleep Sanctuary to help you improve your bedroom environment with useful tips to implement immediately regarding light, temperature, sounds, and more; creating a sleep-friendly space can enhance relaxation and promote better sleep.
  • Manage stress and anxiety. Engage in relaxation techniques before bed to help calm your mind and prepare your body for sleep. Deep breathing exercises, meditation, journaling, or listening to calming music can promote relaxation and improve sleep quality. You can also practice progressive muscle relaxation to promote physical and mental relaxation: Start by tensing and then releasing each muscle group in your body, working from head to toe. Another effective technique involves imagery and visualization: use your imagination to create a calming and peaceful mental environment that can facilitate sleep. By focusing your mind on positive and soothing images, you can redirect your thoughts away from stress and anxiety, allowing your body to relax and prepare for sleep.
  • Experiment with different sleep positions. Try sleeping in alternative positions to find the one that suits you best. Elevating your legs with a pillow or sleeping on your side with a body pillow can provide comfort and help reduce tossing and turning. In this video, I share pros and cons of sleeping positions and tips to choose the best one to rest better and improve your overall health.
  • Try acupressure. Applying gentle pressure to specific points on your body is believed to promote relaxation and sleep, such as the space between your eyebrows, the base of your skull, or the inside of your wrist. Explore acupressure tutorials or consult an expert for guidance.
  • Create a “worry” journal. If racing thoughts keep you awake, keep a journal by your bedside. Before going to bed, write down any worries or thoughts that are preoccupying your mind. This can help offload your concerns, allowing you to mentally set them aside and relax.
  • Don’t look at the clock! Avoid checking the time during the night if you’re unable to sleep. Instead, rely on your perception upon waking up to gauge whether your body and mind received sufficient rest, even if you didn’t adhere to the traditional 7-8 hours of sleep.
  • Don’t catastrophize the situation. You may have some bad nights, but focusing on the positive can help fix the issue. Catastrophizing and worrying excessively about your sleep difficulties can exacerbate stress and anxiety, making it even harder to fall asleep. Instead, try to adopt a positive mindset and approach sleep with a sense of calm. Remind yourself that occasional sleepless nights are normal and that you have the ability to improve your sleep over time. Engage in relaxation techniques or mindfulness practices to shift your focus away from negative thoughts and promote a more relaxed state of mind.

For more information on sleep, find my favorite books on Amazon: 

Are you tired of sleepless nights and the frustrating cycle of insomnia? 

As a holistic life and wellness coach, I can help you dive deep into the root causes of your insomnia and design a personalized plan that aligns with your specific needs. Whether it’s implementing relaxation techniques, creating a sleep routine, or addressing any underlying stress or anxiety, I’m committed to guiding you towards restful, rejuvenating sleep.

Take the first step towards a more restful life by scheduling a FREE Clarity Call with me by clicking on the button below.

Let’s work together to reclaim your nights, restore your energy, and awaken your true potential for wellness!

DISCLAIMER
The content shared on this page is intended exclusively for general information. It’s not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any disease or condition.
It’s also not intended to substitute for the advice, treatment and/or diagnosis of a licensed health care professional.