How to Recognize and Cure Any Insomnia Symptom
As a kid, I suffered from horrible, debilitating onset insomnia. I would lie awake every night, staring at the ceiling, wishing I could sleep, then struggle to get out of bed the next morning, having slept perhaps four hours.
Part of it was that I was afraid that my house was haunted and I would be abducted by aliens. Part of it was that I had a habit of keeping the lights on- because aliens are afraid of light, right? Part of it was my junkie-level Dr. Pepper habit.
As I got older, I stopped believing in ghosts and started turning the lights off, but my caffeine use continued. I also started having trouble staying asleep once I got to sleep. Eventually I decided to take matters into my own hands, learn everything I could about insomnia, and do what I could to make mine better.
Now I usually sleep well. According to my FitBit, I average 7.5 hours a night- a little lower than I’d like, but not bad for a guy who loves the nightlife as much as I do. My insomnia isn’t gone, but it’s under control.
As a personal trainer and online health coach, I’ve also helped other people tackle their sleep issues. Some had trouble getting to sleep, some had trouble staying asleep, and some just weren’t finding enough time to sleep. Regardless, all of them were unhappy, low on energy, falling out of shape, and having trouble focusing during the day due to their lack of both quantity and quality of sleep.
Here’s what one client said last week:
I needed a little help to get out of a difficult sleep cycle. I had read and studied several articles, etc, but just wasn’t getting the sleep I needed. John focused in on several things I was doing that needed changing. Even when I was traveling, he had tips, tricks, and truly sound scientific methods for each situation. I would recommend John for this kind of coaching. Thanks, John! -Juanice
The thing about sleep is, it’s highly prone to the “nod and shrug effect.” That is, it’s the kind of thing that everyone agrees is important, but when you tell people about it, they tend to agree, then do nothing. It’s easy to think of sleep as only a small factor in our overall health, but nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, sleeping well is one of the biggest factors that impacts our life expectancy. Just as we spend one-third of our lives asleep (hopefully), so we should probably be thinking of sleep as about one-third of what makes us healthy.
Treating insomnia requires a lot of knowledge, and a systematic process. In this article I’m going to walk you through some of the science of sleep, the three types of insomnia, and fifteen of the most common causes of those three types of insomnia- along with at least one solution for each of those fifteen causes. At the end, I’ll lay out a systematic process for finding your own personal insomnia solution.
The Neurochemistry of Sleep
The brain produces hundreds of neurotransmitters, most of which affect sleep in some way. However, most of them have little relevance to combating insomnia. For our purposes, there are four major neurotransmitters that you should know about- two that are responsible for making you sleep, and two that can prevent sleep if your brain produces too much of them at night.
Melatonin is the primary neurotransmitter responsible for sleep onset. The brain synthesizes melatonin from serotonin, which in turn is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan.
Melatonin is normally produced by the brain in the evenings, once the ambient light level drops below a certain threshold. Light- particularly blue light- suppresses melatonin production. The use of electric lighting at night is therefore one of the biggest causes of onset insomnia- more on that later.
The stimulant hormone norepinephrine, aka noradrenaline, also suppresses melatonin production. On the other hand, eating carbohydrates and foods rich in tryptophan can stimulate the brain to produce more melatonin.
GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human brain. It is synthesized from the amino acids glutamine and glutamate. Its chief role is to reduce neuronal excitability- it relaxes the brain.
GABA is also the main neurotransmitter responsible for sleep maintenance. Where melatonin puts you to sleep, GABA keeps you asleep- insufficient GABA is often responsible for early awakening.
Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter, and the main neurotransmitter responsible for producing motivation and reward-seeking behavior. It is synthesized from the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine. It tends to rise in response to pleasurable or rewarding activities and experiences, or the prospect of such experiences.
Stimulants like caffeine increase production of dopamine, as do stimulating or inherently enjoyable activities like sex* and video games. Because dopamine is both stimulatory and motivating in nature, excess dopamine at night will both cause you to have too much energy, and make you want to get up and do something other than sleep. On the other hand, some dopamine is necessary for REM sleep- so you want dopamine to be on the low side when you sleep, but this isn’t a case of “less is better.”
*To be clear- dopamine rises before and during sex, but falls after orgasm. Having sex before bed won’t cause insomnia, at least so long as you finish the deed.
Cortisol is another excitatory neurotransmitter. It’s known as the body’s main “stress hormone” and tends to rise in response to stress and anxiety. However, cortisol also plays a crucial role in energy metabolism and helping you wake up in the morning; cortisol levels are at their highest first thing in the morning, and then normally fall as the day goes on.
An excess of cortisol will inhibit sleep, and is normally caused by stress and anxiety. However, because cortisol rises after sleeping, excess cortisol can also be caused by napping.
The Three Types of Insomnia
Insomnia is often thought of as difficulty getting to sleep, but it’s actually much broader than that. Insomnia is better thought of as difficulty getting a full night’s sleep, regardless of whether that stems from issues with getting to sleep, or staying asleep.
By that definition, insomnia can be thought of as falling into three types. Note that there’s a lot of overlap between these three types of insomnia; many people suffer from two or even all three, and often more than one type of insomnia will stem from the same cause.
Onset insomnia is what most people think of when they think about insomnia- the inability to easily fall asleep when you need to. It can stem from a wide variety of causes including anxiety, caffeine usage, ambient light and noise, and jet lag.
As mentioned above, melatonin is the main neurotransmitter responsible for sleep onset, so onset insomnia frequently- though by no means always- stems from a lack of sufficient melatonin. On the other hand, it can also occur when other chemicals, like cortisol and dopamine, block or counteract the effects of melatonin.
Sleep Maintenance Insomnia
Simply put, sleep maintenance insomnia is where you get to sleep, but can’t stay asleep. If you regularly find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble getting back to sleep, you have sleep maintenance insomnia.
Note that this is only a problem if it keeps you awake for a long time and prevents you from getting a good night’s sleep; it’s perfectly normal to wake up, briefly, once a night. In fact, there’s substantial evidence that this used to be the normal human sleeping pattern before the advent of modern lighting and coffee.
Early Awakening Insomnia
The final type of insomnia is the one where you wake up too early in the morning, perhaps an hour or two ahead of your planned wake time. Early awakening insomnia somewhat resembles sleep maintenance insomnia; the main difference is that in this case, you wake up late enough that it’s impractical to get back to sleep. This is sometimes also called terminal insomnia since it comes at the end of the night, but that name isn’t commonly used since it sounds misleadingly dire.
Early awakening puts you between a rock and a hard place. Because you’ve slept most of the night, your brain is starting to produce cortisol, which starts to wake you up. And since sleep occurs in roughly 90-minute cycles, you may not have time to get back to sleep and actually make that sleep productive- going back to sleep might make you groggier than if you just got up and accepted that your sleep for that night is getting cut short.
The 15 Most Common Causes of Insomnia
Insomnia can have many, many different causes, and there’s no way to list all of them. What follows are fifteen of the most common, best-documented causes of insomnia. Some of them cause only one of the three types of insomnia, while others can cause two or even all three.
They’re listed in no particular order. Read through them and take note of which things you think may be causing your insomnia- then read the final section for my advice on how to go about systematically treating your insomnia.
Cause 1: Stimulants (Mainly Caffeine)
Can cause: Onset and sleep maintenance insomnia.
The most obvious and well-known cause of insomnia is caffeine consumption. Yes, caffeine is a major cause of insomnia. Yes, the solution is to consume less of it, and stop earlier in the day. The thing is, caffeine is actually much more harmful to sleep- and for a longer period of time- than most people realize.
Even if it doesn’t stop you from getting to sleep, caffeine can still reduce the quality of your sleep- or make you wake up in the middle of the night. Limiting yourself to two cups of coffee a day, and stopping after noon, may not be enough.
Solution 1: Consume less, stop earlier
A single heavily caffeinated drink consumed first thing in the morning- 16 hours before going to bed- is still enough to measurable impair sleep quality by reducing the time you spend in the deeper stages of sleep. In addition to its physically stimulating effects, 150 mg of caffeine is enough to induce anxiety. Long-term, 100 mg a day is enough to cause tolerance, and subsequent withdrawal symptoms.
The solution here is to get even stricter about restricting caffeine. Limit yourself to just one cup of tea or coffee, early in the morning- either with, or ideally before breakfast. Which leads us to…
Solution 2: Consume caffeine on an empty stomach
Like most ingested drugs, caffeine will be absorbed faster when consumed on an empty stomach. That means that a smaller dose will be able to kick in faster, exert a stronger effect, and will then be cleared out of your system faster.
By combining these two solutions- consuming less caffeine, earlier in the day, and before breakfast- you can consume one caffeinated beverage a day without inducing insomnia or caffeine dependency. You can sometimes even have two a day, although you probably don’t want to do that every morning.
Cause 2: Anxiety
Can cause: Onset, sleep maintenance, and early awakening insomnia
No surprise here- anxiety can cause insomnia. While it most commonly causes onset insomnia, anxiety can also contribute to the other two types of insomnia. It’s debatable how much anxiety can cause you to wake up in the first place- my belief is that it can- but what’s less debatable is that anxiety makes it harder to get back to sleep once you’ve woken up.
Solution 1: Meditation
Meditation is a time-tested strategy for reducing anxiety and improving overall well-being. Thankfully, you don’t need to become a monk or a hippie, attend a silent meditation retreat, or even meditate for all that long. Meditating for as little as two minutes a day can be beneficial, as long as you do it every day- and once you make meditation a daily habit, it’s easy to gradually extend the length of time you spend on it. This article provides more information on how to build a daily meditation habit.
Solution 2: Keep a To-do List
This solution is mainly for people whose anxiety stems from thinking about what they need to do the next day. If you find yourself dwelling on all the work and chores you need to get done, your anxiety can be exacerbated by not having a clear plan. You can greatly mitigate this by always having a to-do list for the next day. Keep this list as detailed as possible- not just a list of things to do, but a schedule for what gets done, when.
Be warned: if you make your schedule too aggressive, such that you’re unable to get everything done on time, that can actually exacerbate your anxiety. Start out easy, scheduling only as much as you’re confident you can get done. Add “buffer time” in your to-do list to catch up on late work.
Solution 3: Cognitive Overwriting
For onset insomnia only
If anxiety keeps you from getting to sleep in the first place, one solution is to fill your mind with other thoughts to “push out” your anxieties- a technique called cognitive overwriting.
The way you do this is by doing something else that’s moderately mentally stimulating for at least ten minutes, immediately before bed. The two most common and effective ways to do this are to read a novel or play Tetris, Sudoku, or a similarly simple puzzle game. Note that this truly needs to be done immediately before bed, after doing everything else like brushing your teeth and getting into your pajamas, so that when you lay in bed, your mind is filled with thoughts about the book you just read or the game you just played.
Solution 4: Your Bed Is For Sleeping
Never do work in bed. In fact, never use a phone or computer in bed. Don’t even watch TV in bed. Use your bed for sleeping, sex, and fiction reading only. This conditions your mind to start relaxing once you get into bed, because your bed becomes associated with relaxation.
Solution 5: Lifestyle Change
This is going to be vague, but it needs to be said. The above techniques are ways of tolerating anxiety, not eliminating it. The best way to deal with anxiety is to eliminate it at the source wherever possible. That might mean handling your finances, or getting a less stressful job, or leaving an unhappy relationship. Things like meditation and cognitive overwriting are great, but at some point it behooves you to actually solve your problems.
Cause 3: Light and Noise During Sleep
Can cause: Onset, sleep maintenance, or early awakening insomnia
Like caffeine, this is an issue that everyone is aware of, but many people still under-react to. Almost any amount of light and noise in your bedroom at night is a problem- even the running light on your fan, or the slight whir of the heater. The only exception here is “white noise” which is easily tuned out, like the sound of a fan- that can actually be desirable for overwriting other sounds.
Solution 1: Remove Light and Noise
Install blackout curtains over your bedroom windows. Unplug or cover up any devices in your room that emit light- for instance, I have a router in my room with a small running light, so I throw a black t-shirt over it. If noise is coming in from another room, stop it if possible- otherwise, shove a towel into the crack under your door to muffle it.
Solution 2: White Noise
If there’s any amount of noise you can’t get rid of, use white noise to cover it up. There are white noise generators you can buy for this purpose, but a fan will do just fine. In fact, many fans have a “white noise” setting for this purpose.
Solution 3: Mask and Ear Plugs
If the above solutions aren’t enough- if there is any amount of light and noise in your bedroom- wear a sleep mask and/or ear plugs to bed. If you’re able to see around your bedroom once your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, that means there’s light in it, and you need a mask.
Cause 4: Nighttime Feels Like Daytime
Can cause: Onset insomnia
As I explained earlier, your brain starts producing melatonin once it receives cues that tell it that it’s nighttime. Darkness is the main cue your brain looks for, but relaxation is part of it too. If you’re keeping the lights on and doing high-energy or mentally stimulating activities at night, you may be delaying the onset of melatonin production.
Solution 1: Dim the Lights at Night
Start dimming the lights at least two hours before bed. Since melatonin production is blocked by blue light in particular, you can achieve the same effect by blocking out blue wavelengths of light- when you do so, the remaining light will appear reddish or orange in color. Install f.lux on all of your devices to dim and redden the screens at night. To block out blue light from other sources, you can wear red, orange, or amber-tinted goggles for the last hour or two before bed to increase melatonin production.
Solution 2: Have a Relaxing Evening Routine
Spend the last two hours before bed doing this that relax you. This will be different for everyone- common choices include reading, yoga, and watching TV. However, because Tv emits blue light, you should wear blue-blocking goggles while watching it in the evening.
Solution 3: Make Daytime brighter
Instead of, or in addition to darkening your nights, you can expose yourself to more bright light during the daytime to make the nighttime feel darker by comparison. Again, sky-blue light is particularly effective. For maximal effectiveness, this light exposure should come as early in the morning as possible.
Solution 4: Melatonin
You can also make this a lot easier on yourself by taking a melatonin supplement before bed. The optimal dosage for most people is about one milligram- or less- thirty to sixty minutes before bed. Note that this is not a magic pill- even when taking melatonin, you’ll still likely have trouble sleeping if you spend the evening doing things that keep you awake and having bright lights shined into your eyes.
You may also have noted that most melatonin supplements are dosed higher than one milligram. About that…
Cause 5: Excessive Melatonin Usage
Can cause: Early awakening insomnia acutely, onset insomnia if melatonin is discontinued
The brain normally produces less than a tenth of a milligram per night. Granted, not all of the melatonin you ingest will be absorbed into your brain, but still- taking five or even ten milligrams is excessive. And yet, many over the counter melatonin supplements are dosed that high.
Using too much melatonin can hurt you in two ways. First, it can cause psychological dependency, making it harder to sleep without melatonin. Second, excess melatonin can fast-forward your sleep cycle, causing you to wake up earlier by tricking the brain into thinking it’s later in the morning than it really is.
Solution 1: Use .3 to 1 mg Per Night
Studies have shown that .3 mg of melatonin is enough for most people to be able to sleep throughout the night. Taking up to one milligram doesn’t seem to be harmful, but taking more than that is rarely helpful- if one milligram of melatonin doesn’t work, you have other problems. The best time to take melatonin is about 30–60 minutes before bed.
Marius van Voorden explains this in more detail in his interview on nootropics- I highly recommend reading it if you’re interested in using supplements like melatonin for sleep and/or cognitive enhancement. TK add link to nootropics interview
Solution 2: CBD Oil
Many people find that CBD oil helps them to fall asleep, and sleep more deeply throughout the night. The research on CBD is a bit mixed- not all studies show that it improves sleep depth or latency, but it has been demonstrated to be anxiolytic- so it may be most effective for people whose sleep issues are anxiety-related.
The optimal timing for this is the same as melatonin- 30–60 minutes before bed. The optimal dosing is less clear, and seemingly more variable. Start with as low a dose as you can, and slowly work up until you find your minimum effective dose. CBD oil can be combined with melatonin, but you should probably not use it every night to avoid tolerance buildup.
Cause 6: Alcohol
Can cause: Sleep maintenance insomnia
As a depressant, alcohol seems like it would help you sleep. In fact it often does help people get to sleep. However, alcohol reduces the depth of sleep, both due to its direct effects and because it gets metabolized into sugar as it breaks down. It some cases, this can make people awaken in the middle of the night, but even if it doesn’t it will make sleep less restful and restorative.
Solution: Drink Less, Stop Earlier
Don’t drink at all most nights. When you do, limit yourself to two drinks, and stop drinking two hours before bed. As with caffeine, you can also fast-forward through the process of clearing it from your system if you drink on an empty stomach, at least for the first drink of the night.
Cause 7: Lack of Physical Activity
Can cause: Onset insomnia
It’s widely believed that tiring yourself out via exercise is a good way to help yourself get to sleep. While it can definitely be harder to sleep if you’ve been sitting down all day, in practice, working out doesn’t always seem to help people sleep. Even a very hard gym session of more than an hour often fails to move the needle.
There seems to be a specific type of physical activity that helps people sleep: activity that taxes your nervous system, and your sense of balance. While the exact mechanism behind this isn’t clear, the following two methods seem to work consistently for many people.
Solution 1: Stand/Walk Throughout the Day
Spending more time on your feet throughout the day is a reliable way to help you sleep more. The effective dose for most people seems to be about eight or nine hours of standing, or three to five hours of walking. Spending this much time on your feet can be inconvenient and often makes your feet sore; for those who can tolerate it, the best way to work it into your day is to use a standing desk. For everyone else, see option 2.
Solution 2: Iso-Lateral Workouts
Instead of standing all day, you can trade time for intensity by doing a short workout that taxes your balance. There are actually two ways to do this. First, you can do a gym session centered around iso-lateral movements- exercises that work one side of the body at a time, like lunges, split squats, one-armed rows, and one-armed dumbbell presses. Around 40–60 minutes of exercise, or 20–30 sets, is usually enough.
On days you’re not planning to work out, you can stand on one leg to exhaustion, a few times per leg. You can make this go faster by slightly bending the leg you’re standing on.
Cause 8: Anticipatory Awakening
Can cause: Early awakening insomnia
Entrainment is a psychological phenomenon where the body starts to react to the anticipation of something that normally happens at a certain time of day. You start to get hungry before your usual lunch time, or you start to have more energy shortly before the time of day when you normally work out.
Entrainment can sometimes cause early awakening, as the body gets energized- and the brain produces dopamine- in anticipation of something that normally happens shortly after you get out of bed. This can be any number of things, but there are a few usual suspects to check for first.
Solution 1: Skip or Delay Breakfast
Anticipation of breakfast is one potential cause of anticipatory awakening. If you normally eat breakfast shortly after waking, try delaying it by an hour or two for a week and see if that helps you sleep in later.
Solution 2: Delay Morning Caffeine
As with breakfast, caffeine consumption can produce an entrainment effect, causing your brain to start producing dopamine in anticipation of your morning coffee. Try skipping your morning coffee or tea for a week and see if that helps.
Solution 3: No Alarm Clock
Some people wake up early in anticipation of their alarm clock going off. Unlike breakfast and caffeine, in this case the effect is caused not by a positive sense of anticipation, but by an anxiety over the alarm clock or a desire to avoid being jarred awake by it. If possible, try turning off your alarm clock for a few days. If that can’t be done because you need to get up at a specific time, try the techniques listed under cause 2: anxiety.
Solution 4: Self-Experimentation
If none of the above work, try eliminating or delaying other aspects of your morning routine, such as TV watching or listening to music. Try each change for at least three days- it may take as long as a week to break the entrainment, but some result will usually be seen after three days if it’s going to work at all. If none of this works, your early awakening may not be a case of anticipatory awakening after all.
Cause 9: Jet Lag
Can cause: Onset, sleep maintenance, or early awakening insomnia
Jet lag can throw off your circadian rhythm badly enough to keep you tired and groggy for several days at a time. Obviously you’ll know if and when jet lag is an issue for you, and there are two ways to solve it: you can fix it ASAP, or prevent it from happening in the first place.
Solution 1: Melatonin and Caffeine
This is the one case where it can be beneficial to use higher doses of melatonin and caffeine, if only for a few days at a time. Because jet lag is a short-term problem, you can use higher doses of caffeine and melatonin for two or three days to reset your circadian rhythm, and stop short of developing an addiction to either of them.
For the first night at your destination, you can take around three milligrams of melatonin. The next morning, consume two hundred milligrams of caffeine (2–3 cups of coffee) first thing in the morning. Cut these dosages in half every day- so on the second night you’ll take about one and a half milligrams of melatonin, the morning after that you’ll have a hundred milligrams of caffeine (a cup of strong coffee or two cups of tea), and then the third night you’ll have one milligram of melatonin, and little or no caffeine the morning after. At that point you should be over your jet lag.
This solution is only recommended if you’re traveling no more than once a month- meaning you suffer from jet lag no more than twice a month, once at either end of the trip. More frequent travelers should master the next solution.
Solution 2: Split Sleep
A more elegant solution to jet lag is to prevent is altogether by starting the adjustment process before you travel. The way to do this is to split your last night of sleep before you fly out in half. Sleep for three or four hours at a time that corresponds to a normal sleep or wake time in the time zone you’re leaving, then stay awake for a while, then sleep four more hours at a time that corresponds to a normal wake time at your destination.
For example, suppose you’re flying from Los Angeles to London, leaving at 4 PM PST and arriving at 11 AM GMT. You would sleep from 3 to 7 AM the night before your flight. After getting on your flight, you would wait four more hours, then sleep for four hours- from 4 to 8 AM London time. Upon waking you’d have some caffeine to help reset your internal clock.
Three hours later you would arrive at your destination, relatively well-rested because you’ve had eight hours of sleep in the past day, the second half of which was on London time. The next day you’d be completely jet lag-free.
Cause 10: GABA Deficiency
Can cause: Sleep maintenance and early awakening insomnia
Because GABA is the main hormone responsible for sleep maintenance, some sleep issues may be as simple as your brain not producing enough of it. This can sometimes be fixed through improved diet or lifestyle, but if that fails, you can address it more directly with supplementation.
GABA itself doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier except in minute quantities, so supplementing it is rarely effective for insomnia, but there are a couple of other options you can try to effectively raise your GABA levels. Note that this isn’t the first thing you should try- experiment with non-drug option first, and come back to this if nothing else works.
Solution 1: Phenibut
Phenibut is a modified form of GABA that was developed in the Soviet Union to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. Structurally, it’s GABA, but with a phenyl ring attached which allows it to be absorbed into the brain. It is only mildly effective at treating onset insomnia- and even high doses won’t really knock you out as such- but highly effective at helping people stay asleep, and sleep more deeply- so much so that cosmonauts use it to help them sleep in space, where it’s hard to maintain a normal circadian rhythm.
It does come with the downside of rapid tolerance and addiction, however. Phenibut usage should be limited to 250 mg a day, no more than five days a week. It takes a while to kick in, so it’s best taken several hours before bed. If you’re the kind of person who easily gets addicted to even mild drugs like caffeine or alcohol, it’s probably better not to use phenibut.
Solution 2: Glutamine plus B6
A less direct approach is to give your brain more of the chemicals that it uses to make GABA. Glutamine, an amino acid, is the main building block of GABA, while vitamin B6 is used as a cofactor in GABA synthesis. Glutamine can also be processed into glutamate- another amino acid with neurostimulatory effects- which itself can be processed into GABA. Glutamine supplementation often produces a stimulatory effect at first, and a sedative effect later, so timing is important here.
The optimal dosage is about 10 grams of glutamine and 100 mg of B6, taken 3–4 hours before bed. If this still feels stimulating, try taking it earlier.
Cause 11: Hunger
Can cause: Onset, sleep maintenance, or early awakening insomnia
Hunger is rarely the sole cause of insomnia, but it can exacerbate an existing case of insomnia, either via the sensation of hunger, or because a lack of essential nutrients limits the brain’s ability to produce GABA and melatonin. A small pre-bed meal can help, but not just any meal- it should be one that supports the optimal neurotransmitter mix for sleep.
Solution: Small Second Dinner with Animal Fat and Sugar
Based on widespread anecdotal experience, the optimal meal for sleep seems to be a small meal (300–600 calories) eaten an hour or so before bed. The meal should be high-carb, with some animal-based saturated fat, like cheese or sausage.
This works on a couple of different levels. Eating in general activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the mind and body, sending it into “rest and digest” mode. The sugar in particular helps the brain produce melatonin, while the animal fat helps the brain produce hormones like testosterone and growth hormone. Of course you don’t want to use this as an excuse to overeat, which is why I recommend limiting this meal to 600 calories unless you’re trying to gain weight.
The type of carbohydrates used also seem to matter. Unprocessed starches like rice and potatoes have been shown to aid sleep- processed starches like bread and noodles may not be helpful, and may even impair sleep quality. Anecdotally, natural sugars like fruit and honey also seem to work well.
As a final note, while protein is great, this meal doesn’t need to be very high in protein. It should have some, but any animal food will have enough for this purpose- don’t go out of your way to make this meal high in protein.
Cause 12: Partner Sleeping
Can cause: Onset, sleep maintenance, and early awakening insomnia
Sleeping with a partner can be fun and romantic, but it can also make it hard to sleep. I’m not talking about your partner making noise, keeping the lights on, or watching TV in bed- I assume you can figure that one out for yourself. I’m talking about the problems inherent in the mere act of sleeping together. Namely, bedmates can jostle each other while they’re sleeping, or indirectly disturb each other by shifting the bed.
This is one area where people’s subjective feelings about sleep quality are dead wrong- most people report that they feel like they sleep better with a partner, but objective measurements show that it’s quite the opposite.
Solution: Don’t Touch Each Other
That is, don’t touch or hold each other while sleeping. Keep to your own side of the bed so you don’t bother each other. It’s less romantic, but you’ll probably sleep better.
Cause 13: Lack of Time
Can cause: Onset insomnia
Some people just don’t get to bed on time because they have too much to do in the evening. This is arguably not insomnia so much as poor planning, but there isn’t always a clear dividing line between the two, so I’ll address it here.
Solution 1: Keep a Schedule
As above, not just a to-do list, but an actual schedule of what you’re doing, and when. This can substantially cut down on wasted time at night once you start have a schedule to follow, rather than thinking of the evening as “free time” even though you have stuff you’re set on doing.
Also, look at your weekends. Many people try to cram too many activities into their evenings- especially weekday evenings- when their weekends are full of time spent lying around doing nothing. Consider shifting some of your nighttime activities to Saturday and Sunday during the day.
Solution 2: Protect the Last Hour Before Bed
Be strict about what you do for the last hour before your scheduled bedtime. No working at minimum. Ideally, no TV or computer usage either. Force yourself to start winding down an hour before bedtime, no matter what other things you wanted to do that evening.
Solution 3: Cut Things Out
If all else fails, it’s time to eliminate things from your daily routine to save time. Start with the things you least want to do. Could you hire a maid to come once a month instead of cleaning your own apartment? Are you watching TV shows you’re not even really that into?
The first thing I would look at, however, is commuting. Often you can save yourself an hour a day just by changing when you commute. For instance, a client of mine recently switched from working out at home to exercising in a gym after work, and it saves him a half hour a day because he drives home after rush hour instead of in the middle of it.
Cause 14: Shift Work or Irregular Schedule
Can cause: Onset insomnia, sleep maintenance and early awakening insomnia
Rule number one of sleeping well is to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Some people are unable to do that due to a regular work schedule- they work the afternoon shift some days, evening shift on other days, and then on their days off they abandon all pretense of a schedule to catch up on sleep. This is…not healthy, to put it mildly.
Solution 1: Work the Same Shift Every Time
Try to get yourself permanently assigned to the same shift, or maintain a regular work schedule, even if it means compromising on something else. Do this even if it means sticking to a shift you don’t like. Even if you hate the night shift, it’s better to work the night shift every time than to switch back and forth between the night and morning shifts every few days. By keeping the lights bright at night and keeping your home dark during the day, you can entrain yourself to working nights- as long as you have a consistent schedule.
Solution 2: Protect 4 Hours of Core Sleep Time
If you alternate between two or more work schedules, find a four-hour period that doesn’t overlap with either of them and always sleep during that time. For example, if you sometimes work from 8 AM to 4 PM, and sometimes from 4 to midnight, make 2 AM to 6 AM your core sleep time. You’ll sleep from 10 PM to 6 AM some nights, and 2 AM to 10 AM on other nights, but you’ll always sleep from 2 to 6. That gives you a decent amount of consistency as your sleep time is only varying by a few hours either way, rather than being all over the map.
Solution 3: Split Sleep
If you tend to change shifts less than once a week, and stick to a given shift for at least a week at a time, the same split sleep strategy I described for beating jet lag can be used to adjust to shift changes. For instance, many police officers work the day shift for six weeks, then the night shift for six weeks- they could easily use this strategy. This doesn’t work so well if there’s no regularity to your shift changes, or if they come up without warning.
Solution 4: Change Jobs
If all else fails, look for a job that offers more regular hours. This may require you to commute a little further, or take a small pay cut, but it’s almost always worth it. You’ll be healthier, have more energy to put into your career in the long run, and will probably save money by cooking at home more often rather than resorting to fast food because you’re too tired to cook.
Cause 15: Napping Late in the Day
Can cause: Onset insomnia
As mentioned earlier, your cortisol levels peak after waking, then slowly drop throughout the day. Normally, cortisol levels reach a nadir at bedtime, so cortisol doesn’t interfere with sleep.
Naps can disrupt this rhythm by resetting cortisol to a higher level. This isn’t usually a problem if you nap earlier in the day, but the later in the day you nap, the more likely your cortisol levels will still be elevated at bedtime.
Solution: No Naps in the Evening (And Maybe the Afternoon)
Just as with caffeine, the solution here is to set a limit on how late in the day you’re allowed to nap, and gradually push that limit earlier and earlier in the day until you find a time when it no longer causes problems.
At the very least, you should refrain from napping less than four hours before bedtime. If that isn’t enough, stop napping six hours before bedtime. If that doesn’t do it, avoid napping less than eight hours before bedtime. That should be strict enough for most people; taking a nap at, say, noon is unlikely to make it harder to sleep at night, provided the nap doesn’t drag on for two hours or more.
How to Systematically Treat Your Insomnia
After reading through the last section, take note of which of the fifteen causes of insomnia you think are likely to be contributing to your insomnia. Then for each one, write down all of the recommended treatments that you’re able to try. Don’t second-guess whether you think it would work for you; if it’s something you could try, write it down.
Now, ideally I would have liked to write all of these in the order I would recommend trying them, but the reality is that some solutions are easy for some people to try, and very difficult for others. Some workers can easily move to a different shift, while others can’t change shifts at all. Americans can buy melatonin over the counter; in many countries, it requires a prescription.
So it’s up to you to decide which treatments to try first. Out of all the treatments you’ve written down, arrange them in order of how easily you could try them, from easiest to hardest. For instance, trying melatonin, if it’s available over the counter, should be near the top of your list, while changing jobs or completely changing your lifestyle should be near the bottom.
Now try the solutions you’ve written down, one at a time, in the order you’ve written them. Allow at least a few days for each- many will require a week of trial to see if they work for you. The whole process is likely to take a month or two, but it’s worth the time to fix your insomnia once and for all. As with anything really important in life, you’ll get better results by going about it systematically rather than applying slapdash solutions in an uncontrolled manner.
If you think you would benefit from professional help with this process, you can always hire a sleep coach on coach.me. If you have questions or suggestions about anything in this article, please share them in the comments below.