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The Complete Guide to Curing Insomnia
Solutions to every symptom so that you get the sleep you deserve.
The thing about sleep is that 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.
I’ve worked through my own issues with insomnia. Additionally, as a personal trainer and online health coach, I’ve helped other people tackle their sleep issues. Some have had trouble getting to sleep, some have had trouble staying asleep, and some just haven’t been finding enough time to sleep.
Regardless, all of them have been unhappy, low on energy, falling out of shape, and having trouble focusing during the day due to problems related to both quantity and quality of sleep.
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—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.
Table of Contents- The Neurochemistry of Sleep- Types of Insomnia: Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening- Cause 1: Stimulants (Onset & Sleep Maintenance)
- Cause 2: Anxiety (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
- Cause 3: Light and Noise (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
- Cause 4: Nighttime Feels Like Daytime (Onset)
- Cause 5: Excessive Melatonin Usage (Onset, Early Awakening)
- Cause 6: Alcohol (Maintenance)
- Cause 7: Lack of Physical Activity (Onset)
- Cause 8: Anticipatory Awakening (Early Awakening)
- Cause 9: Jet Lag (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
- Cause 10: GABA Deficiency (Maintenance, Early Awakening)
- Cause 11: Hunger (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
- Cause 12: Sleeping Partner (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
- Cause 13: Lack of Time (Onset)
- Cause 14: Shift Work or Irregular Schedule (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
- Cause 15: Napping Late in the Day (Onset)- How to Systematically Treat Your Insomnia
The Neurochemistry of Sleep
The brain produces hundreds of neurotransmitters, but for our purposes, there are four major ones that you should know about. Two are responsible for making you sleep, and two can prevent sleep if your brain produces too much of them at night. We’ll cover how to manipulate these hormones in some of the insomnia solutions later in this article.
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.
The stimulant hormone norepinephrine, which can be boosted by exercise and some antidepressants, 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 relaxes the brain by reducing neuronal excitability. It is synthesized from the amino acids glutamine and glutamate.
GABA is also the main neurotransmitter responsible for sleep maintenance. Where melatonin puts you to sleep, GABA keeps you asleep, and an insufficient quantity of it 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 reach orgasm.
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. Levels of cortisol 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.
Types of Insomnia: Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening
Insomnia is often thought of as difficulty getting to sleep, but its definition is 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 those related to 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 when 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 that leads you to 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 get through another full cycle.
Insomnia can have many, many different causes. 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.
Read through them and take note of which factors you think may be causing your insomnia—and 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 your consumption before 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 measurably 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.
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 then be cleared out of your system faster.
By combining these two solutions — consuming less caffeine earlier in the day and consuming it 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. 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. Many of you may also already have a guided meditation app that you love, such as Calm or Headspace. However, if you’ve never tried guided meditation before and want to try it without having to download an app and make an account, try this YouTube video from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Solution 2: Keep a To-do List or Journal
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 feeling by always having a to-do list for the next day.
Sometimes this list can be as simple as an entry in a journal kept next to your bed. Once you’ve written down the anxiety that’s keeping you awake, you can relax, knowing that the chore or task is captured and out of your head.
However, some people may need to journal quite a bit more, including details like a schedule for when tasks will get done.
Other times there may be dozens of anxieties bumping around in your head. In that case, some therapists and coaches recommend journaling out a “Fear Inventory,” which is simply a list of each of those anxieties.
In all cases, your goal should be to experiment with getting the thoughts that are keeping you awake into a journal in the hopes that your mind will be able to let go of them.
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 activities are to read a novel or play Tetris, Sudoku, or a similarly simple puzzle game.
Note that Tetris breaks the “no screens” guidance that we’ll explore later. That goes to show that these aren’t hard rules — rather, they are some strategies that may be more or less effective for you than they are for other people.
Cognitive overwriting 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. This is accepted and common advice, which I’ve also tested on myself and with clients. However, I’ve never been able to find a scientific study that explains the rationale behind this advice.
What I and other people think is going on is that these activities condition your mind for alertness. If instead you use your bed only for sleeping, sex, and fiction reading, this will condition your mind to start relaxing.
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 better, 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. As a middle ground, consider therapy also. Many health plans cover therapy sessions, and you can start to investigate this possibility by looking into coverage for generalized anxiety disorder.
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 ignore. Almost any amount of light and noise in your bedroom at night is a problem, even the running light on your fan. The only exception here is “white noise,” like the sound of a fan.
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. However, a small bit of black electrical tape would probably work better for you (and me). 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. For example, this model is $39 at the time of writing, well-reviewed by The Wirecutter, and recommended by my editor. But a fan will do just fine for most people. In fact, many fans have a “white noise” setting for this purpose.
Solution 3: Mask and Earplugs
If the above solutions aren’t enough to eliminate all of the light and noise in your bedroom , wear a sleep mask and/or earplugs 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 encourage production 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. Turn on NightShift mode if you own an iPhone. 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.
Here’s what Consumer Reports found when it tested Blue Blocking glasses:
We tested three pairs of glasses in our labs for their ability to block blue light, measuring light intensity at all wavelengths to find out how much each lens absorbed. Of the three, only one — the Uvex Skyper safety eyewear (orange tinted), $8 — cut out almost all blue light.
The Gunnar Intercept gaming glasses (medium yellow), $58, cut blue light by about half.
However, none of these approaches are an invitation to indulge in continuous screen time before bed. Reducing blue light isn’t always the same as eliminating it.
Solution 2: Have a Relaxing Evening Routine
Spend the last two hours before bed doing things that relax you. These 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 task a lot easier on yourself by taking a melatonin supplement before bed.
The optimal dosage for most people is about 1 mg, or less, thirty to sixty minutes before bed. However, it’s hard to find supplements in anything smaller than 3 mg, so be prepared to break the pill up. Too much supplemental melatonin actually keeps you awake, so be prepared to experiment on yourself, starting with a low dose.
Cause 5: Excessive Melatonin Usage
Can cause: Acute early awakening insomnia, onset insomnia if melatonin is discontinued.
The brain normally produces less than a tenth of a milligram of melatonin per night. Granted, not all of the melatonin you ingest will be absorbed into your brain, but even still, taking 5 or even 10 mg is excessive. And yet many over-the-counter melatonin supplements are produced in those dosages.
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 0.3 to 1 mg Per Night
Studies have shown that 0.3 mg of melatonin is enough for most people to be able to sleep throughout the night. Taking up to 1 mg doesn’t seem to be harmful, but taking more than that is rarely helpful. If 1 mg of melatonin doesn’t work, you have other problems. The best time to take melatonin is about thirty to sixty minutes before bed.
Solution 2: Switch to 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, meaning anxiety reducing. So there may be other reasons to replace melatonin supplements with CBD.
The optimal timing for CBD use is the same as for melatonin: thirty to sixty minutes before bed. The optimal dosing is less clear and seemingly more variable. Start with as low a dose as you can and slowly increase it 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.
If you go down this route, you may run into a subtle difference between CBD oil, which contains trace amounts of THC, and hemp oil, which theoretically does not. If marijuana is legal in your area, you’ll be able to purchase CBD oil. If not, then go ahead and purchase hemp oil. My recommendation is to treat insomnia as a series of experiments, and CBD and hemp oils are worth experimenting with, whichever one is available.
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 wake up 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.
The UK’s NHS guideline is that it takes one hour for your body to process one unit of alcohol. That’s where the above advice is coming from. But that guideline is very dependent on your body weight, metabolism, and even what you ate that day. In other words, you should be giving yourself a pretty wide margin of error.
Your experience is much more important than the guideline in this article. Are you going to bed feeling even a little bit buzzed? Try giving that up. I know a lot of people believe in a glass of wine at night, but that’s often not a good tradeoff. Sure, the wine may relax you and help you get to sleep earlier, but often at the cost of the quality of your sleep.
As with caffeine, you can also fast-forward through the process of clearing alcohol from your system if you drink on an empty stomach, at least for the first drink of the night.
This recommendation is probably the opposite of what you’re used to hearing. But what I’m saying is: get buzzed for a shorter period of time, not get sloppy drunk. You know your own drinking patterns, and if drinking without eating leads to even more drinking, then don’t do it (obviously).
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 relationship 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. However, 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. These are exercises that work one side of the body at a time, like lunges, split squats, one-armed rows, and one-armed dumbbell presses. Around forty to sixty minutes of exercise, or twenty to thirty 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 reach exhaustion faster by slightly bending the leg you’re standing on.
Cause 8: Anticipatory Awakening
Can cause: Early awakening insomnia
Entrainment is a psychological phenomenon in which 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 lunchtime, 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. These cues 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 you can prevent it from happening in the first place.
Solution 1: Melatonin and Caffeine
This is the one case in which 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 but stop short of developing an addiction to either of them.
For the first night at your destination, you can take around 3 mg of melatonin. The next morning, consume 200 mg of caffeine (two to three cups of coffee) first thing in the morning. Cut these dosages in half every subsequent day. So on the second night you’ll take about 1.5 mg of melatonin, and the morning after that you’ll have 100 mg of caffeine (a cup of strong coffee or two cups of tea). Then the third night you’ll have 1 mg 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 it 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, and 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 p.m. PST and arriving at 11 a.m. GMT. You would sleep from 3 to 7 a.m. the night before your flight. After getting on your flight, you would wait four more hours and then sleep for four hours, from 4 to 8 a.m. 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 would have had eight hours of sleep in the past day, the second half of which would have been 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 issue 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 supplements aren’t the first thing you should try. Experiment with other options first and come back to them 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 that 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. However, it is highly effective at helping people stay asleep and sleep more deeply. It’s so effective that cosmonauts use it to help them sleep in space, where it’s hard to maintain a normal circadian rhythm.
Phenibut does come with the downside of rapid tolerance and addiction, however. As a result, 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 best not to use phenibut.
Also, many of you will probably find it alarming that this supplement can’t just be found at your local pharmacy or on Amazon. It’s the kind of thing that you have to get from a nootropics dealer online and where you might find yourself browsing Reddit for recommendations on the best supplier.
Solution 2: Glutamine Plus B6
A less direct approach is to give your brain more of the chemicals that your body 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.
As a starting dosage try 10 g of glutamine and 100 mg of B6, taken three to four 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 don’t just give yourself 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 a few scientific studies and 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 strategy 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. Sugar in particular helps the brain produce melatonin, while 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 seems to matter. Unprocessed starches like rice and potatoes have been shown to aid sleep, while processed starches like bread and noodles may not be helpful and may even impair sleep quality. In my experience, 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-based food will have enough for this purpose—don’t go out of your way to make this meal high in protein.
Cause 12: Sleeping Partner
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 those problems out for yourself. I’m talking about the problems inherent in the mere act of sleeping with someone else. Namely, bedmates can jostle each other while they’re sleeping or indirectly disturb each other by shifting the bed.
This is one area in which 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 quite the opposite is true.
Solution 1: 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.
A king-size bed with a nice mattress can easily run you a few thousand dollars, but it’s an investment that easily pays off in terms of improved productivity and health from better sleeping.
Solution 2: Address Snoring
If your partner snores and that snoring keeps you from falling asleep, wakes you up, or keeps you from falling back asleep, then you absolutely should do something about it.
Unfortunately, getting a partner to stop snoring is a very complicated tasks. What I would recommend is to go through the following steps:
- Try earplugs for yourself.
- Have your partner talk to his or her doctor.
- Try a Nora. I’ve never tried this device, but the Better Humans editors love it. It’s $300, so not cheap, but if it works, it’s a great investment in your health. The way it works is that it places an insert into your partner’s pillow and then listens for signs that your partner has started snoring and responds by inflating the insert. The result is that the device tips your partner’s head a little bit each time he or she starts snoring.
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, it’s important to keep 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 by giving you a schedule to follow rather than encouraging you to think 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. At minimum, you shouldn’t be doing any working, and ideally, there should be 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, give yourself permission to eliminate things from your daily routine. 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 has saved 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 an irregular work schedule — they work the afternoon shift some days and 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 work nights — as long as you have a consistent schedule.
Solution 2: Protect Four 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 a.m. to 4 p.m., and sometimes from 4 p.m. to midnight, make 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. your core sleep time. You’ll sleep from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. some nights, and from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. other nights, but you’ll always sleep from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. That will give you a decent amount of consistency, as your sleep time will only vary 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 and 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, however, 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, will 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 and 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 then 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 fewer than four hours before bedtime. If that isn’t enough, stop napping six hours before bedtime. If that doesn’t do it, avoid napping fewer 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
Below is a checklist of the fifteen causes of insomnia along with their suggested solutions. In order to tackle insomnia systematically, you need to be willing to try many solutions. To start, go through the checklist below and check each potential cause that you think is likely to be contributing to your insomnia. Then, for each cause, check all of the recommended solutions that you’re able to try. Don’t second-guess whether you think a solution will work for you; if it’s something you can try, write it down.
_ Cause 1: Stimulants (Onset & Sleep Maintenance)
_ Consume less, stop earlier
_ Consume caffeine on an empty stomach_ Cause 2: Anxiety (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
_ Keep a To-do List or Journal
_ Cognitive Overwriting
_ Your Bed Is for Sleeping
_ Lifestyle Change_ Cause 3: Light and Noise. (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
_ Remove Light and Noise
_ White Noise
_ Mask and Earplugs_ Cause 4: Nighttime Feels Like Daytime (Onset)
_ Dim the Lights at Night
_ Have a Relaxing Evening Routine
_ Make Daytime Brighter
_ Melatonin_ Cause 5: Excessive Melatonin Usage (Onset, Early Awakening)
_ Use 0.3 to 1 mg Per Night
_ Switch to CBD Oil_ Cause 6: Alcohol (Maintenance)
_ Drink Less, Stop Earlier_ Cause 7: Lack of Physical Activity (Onset)
_ Stand/Walk Throughout the Day
_ Iso-Lateral Workouts_ Cause 8: Anticipatory Awakening (Early Awakening)
_ Skip or Delay Breakfast
_ Delay Morning Caffeine
_ No Alarm Clock
_ Self-Experimentation_ Cause 9: Jet Lag (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
_ Melatonin and Caffeine
_ Split Sleep_ Cause 10: GABA Deficiency (Maintenance, Early Awakening)
_ Glutamine Plus B6_ Cause 11: Hunger (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
_ Small Second Dinner with Animal Fat and Sugar_ Cause 12: Sleeping Partner (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
_ Don’t Touch Each Other
_ Address Snoring_ Cause 13: Lack of Time (Onset)
_ Keep a Schedule
_ Protect the Last Hour Before Bed
_ Cut Things Out_ Cause 14: Shift Work or Irregular Schedule (Onset, Maintenance, Early Awakening)
_ Work the Same Shift Every Time
_ Protect Four Hours of Core Sleep Time
_ Split Sleep
_ Change Jobs_ Cause 15: Napping Late in the Day (Onset)
_ No Naps in the Evening (and Maybe the Afternoon)
Now, ideally I would have liked to write all of these strategies 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, but 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.