Sleep is one of the three pillars of life. About 35% of adults have brief symptoms of insomnia. 20% suffer from short-term insomnia for 3 months or less, and 10% live with chronic insomnia. Sadly, when you throw a global pandemic into the mix, you have the perfect storm for new and more severe sleep problems. So please be kind to yourself and know that if you’re having difficulty, you’re not alone. These are crazy times.
The science of sleep
You already know that you need melatonin for sleep. Melatonin levels start naturally rising in your body around 8PM as long as you’re using each cycle of the circadian rhythm correctly. For example, if you eat a heavy meal at night, especially too close to bedtime, you will compromise your digestion, which will throw off your sleep schedule. Melatonin gets most of the attention but you need other neurotransmitters and hormones to help you fall and stay asleep.
Serotonin and norepinephrine
When the pineal gland releases melatonin, it signals your nervous system that it’s time to wind down. Your nervous system then releases serotonin and norepinephrine. You need serotonin to help you fall asleep and sleep better. And norepinephrine, your “flight or fight” chemical, helps keep you safe. It gives you a sense of alertness to wake up if you perceive a possible threat. When your melatonin, serotonin and norepinephrine levels are in balance, you go through the natural sleep cycles of REM and non-REM sleep. A normal adult spends about 50% of total sleep time in light sleep, 20% in REM (dream) sleep, and 30% in the remaining stages, including deep sleep.
Adenosine and cortisol
A few other factors that affect your sleep are your adenosine, cortisol, GABA and glutamate levels. Adenosine comes from ATP, which is the energy source of the body. During the creation of energy, you free up adenosine. When the adenosine level in your brain is high, you feel tired. When you sleep at night, your brain gets rid of the excess adenosine. Your brain can only do this when you’re asleep due to the blood-brain barrier. So when you wake up tired in the morning, it’s a sign that you didn’t get enough deep sleep.
Cortisol can be another culprit in your insomnia. It’s known as the stress hormone. You produce cortisol all day long so no surprise that by the end of the day, your cortisol levels are high. You saw me write about taking breaks and resetting during the day, meditating before falling asleep, starting a gratitude practice and other mind-calming hacks. Well, that’s why. If you’re under a lot of stress during the day and don’t address it before you go to bed, your cortisol levels will stay high at night and make you wake up.
GABA and glutamate
GABA and glutamate are like yin and yang. They balance each other out. GABA is there to suppress nerve impulses and you have glutamate to stimulate them. Clearly, you want more GABA at night and more glutamate during the day. When they’re out of balance, you can’t sleep at night.
Insomnia comes in different shapes
By now, you’ve probably figured out that insomnia can take different shapes. One type of insomnia is related to when it happens. You experience onset insomnia when you can’t fall asleep. And you suffer from maintenance insomnia when you can’t stay asleep. Some people have both.
The moving force behind insomnia may be different too. You may struggle with insomnia because you’re experiencing a high level of anxiety or fear of missing out (FOMO). Or you may be awake at night because you can’t stop thinking about your to-do list, or making your project better in your head or at your desk. It’s all “for the win” (FTW). Depending on the moving force behind yours, your symptoms may vary.
Your insomnia may also be digestion related. When you eat the wrong foods at the wrong time, your digestion can interfere with your sleep at night. When you follow the cycle and law of nature, your sleep will be better. But let’s go back to the first two points.
What kind of insomnia do you have?
|FTW-type* of insomnia
|· I have a hard time falling asleep and/or staying asleep
· I usually wake up between 2AM and 6AM
· I have a restless, anxious and/or fearful mind
· I can’t fall asleep because my mind is going all over the place
· I’d rather stay awake so I can accumulate more experiences
· I can’t sleep because I’m too excited and/or over-stimulated
· Even though I’m restless, I stay in bed
· I’m super sensitive to sound and/or touch at night
|· I have a hard time staying asleep
· I usually wake up between midnight and 2AM
· My mind is active and focused
· I’d rather do more work and/or accomplish more instead of sleeping
· I often work and/or do stuff that give me a sense of accomplishment pretty much up until I go to bed
· I wake up because I’m problem solving and/or getting ideas at night and don’t want to forget them
· Since I’m already awake, I get up
· I’m super sensitive to light
In ayurvedic terms, vata dosha is responsible for the imbalance in the first scenario, while pitta dosha is the main culprit behind FTW-type insomnia.
Image by Molly Champion, Pexels
This article was inspired by current events, Mary Thompson Ayurveda’s presentation on the Science of Sleep at the 2020 National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) virtual conference mixed with basic ayurvedic principles and some creative liberties* from yours truly. This post is not intended as medical advice.