The Brain Chemistry of Insomnia - Let's put and end to Midnight Madness

By Dr. Barbara Custer

More than 53 million sleeping pill prescriptions are given per year. That’s a lot of people not sleeping. There are many more people taking the so-called “non addictive” sleeping medications which are sold over the counter. These statistics do not include the number of prescriptions for anxiety. What are the real issues behind insomnia and anxiety, and what can we do to stop “The Midnight Madness”?                     

Our Body Rhythms and Brain Chemistry

The body has natural rhythms that have evolved over thousands of years. These rhythms are governed by light and the absence of light. When the sun rises and your eyes are exposed to natural light, the optic nerve signals the release of many different brain chemicals. These brain chemicals are called neurotransmitters. Some of the neurotransmitters are exciting, producing vital energy and brain function where others are calming and cause relaxation and sleep.

The neurotransmitters that are calming and relaxing are produced by the absence of light. When these nighttime neurotransmitters become more dominant, the body becomes more relaxed, tired and falls to sleep.

Over Worked and Sleep Deprived, a Society of “Stress Junkies”

We are a society of people who are working multiple jobs, raising families, and drinking tons of caffeine to push the body into a constant state of sheer exhaustion. The pushing, drive and over use of caffeine is like “trying to whip a little donkey up a hill when he has already carried 50 people up the mountain.”  Eventually the over-pushing, will cause the body to be in a constant state of adrenal fatigue. It causes chronic exhaustion, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety and depression. Missing out on deep sleep can be damaging to our health because this is when most of the important repair work for organs and tissues happens.

Come Into the Light!  Don’t be a “Cave Dweller” Living in the 21st century

This is the first time in history that masses of people work in offices, exercise indoors, and rarely see natural light. Eighty percent of people who work and exercise indoors, and drink lots of caffeine will tell us they have some level of chronic insomnia, anxiety or depression. There are also many serious life situations that cause these problems. The main point is that the body has thousands of years of genetic adaptation to evolve into this level of sophisticated functioning. Now we are seeing what happens when we push ourselves too hard and live against the body’s natural cycles.

Stop Insomnia the Insomnia

The sleep center at UCSF San Francisco highlights “Sleep Hygiene” as one of the most important aspects for curing insomnia. It includes going to bed before 10 pm, which is when certain hormones start elevating causing a “second wind.”  They also recommend lying down, reading and relaxing. Reading is the best activity to do at this time (no action movies or scary novels are recommended). Reading also helps as it mimics the eye movement produced in REM sleep, which is one of the deepest levels of sleep.

Other Tips to Stop “The Midnight Madness”

  • Yoga and meditation are calming exercises that can also be used to relax and calm the body in the evening.
  • Caffeine has a half-life of 12 hours in the body, so any chocolate, tea, and coffee consumed at noon or after is still affecting you at midnight. This includes decaf coffee (one cup of decaf coffee contains 6% caffeine.)
  • Any strenuous exercise after 4 pm may be over stimulating to your adrenal glands. This turns on the stimulating neurotransmitters that may not allow your body to relax enough to fall asleep.
  • If you have been taking sleeping pills for a long time, go off them gradually and take natural products so you don’t have withdrawal symptoms and rebounding insomnia.
  • All alcohol, especially red wine and hard alcohol are heating and inflaming to the body. It can cause a histamine reaction that may over stimulate the brain and body tissues and cause insomnia.

Insomniacs of the World; There is Hope For You!

The most effective natural products used for sleep, anxiety and depression are Gaba, Taurine, Thenine, Valerian, and Melatonin. There are non-addictive and safe Chinese Herbal formulas that have been used for thousands of years. If these products are accompanied with the important sleep hygiene guidelines, you will notice that your sleep cycles will improve greatly in just a few weeks.

For people who have been taking prescription drugs, start increasing the use of natural products, outdoor exercise, and go to bed early.  If you have been taking prescription sleep medication for more than a few weeks, it is recommended that you wean off these medications slowly and gradually with the help of your doctor. For those with more chronic problems we recommend checking for thyroid, adrenal, and neurotransmitter imbalances.