Insomnia is a miserable condition.
If you have trouble sleeping, you’ll be sure to agree.
The hardest thing to figure out is: why are you suddenly not sleeping well? Is it stress? Do you have some kind of rare disease that makes you unable to fall asleep?
No one actually seems to know what causes insomnia, or they tell you the causes are highly variable. That fact makes curing sleep problems a daunting task.
If you go to a doctor, the best advice you will probably get is to stop drinking coffee and take valerian. A lot of doctors also prescribe sleeping medication, like Ambien, Zoloft or Lunesta. The problem is, even if you think it helps to get you to sleep (which I assure you is just an illusion), it doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
As a result of this over-reliance on sleep medication, so many people become addicted to them. I hear countless stories of people who tell me about their sleep medications. In general, they don’t like to take them. I certainly can’t blame them.
Luckily, doctors are becoming more aware of alternative therapies, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In practice, CBT has produced some good results. It’s also impossible to get an addiction to CBT, so bonus points for that. But I still think it is too ineffective. There are lots of people, including me, who tried CBT and still couldn’t sleep.
I believe that the solution to sleep problems lies somewhere else. It’s true sleep problems can have varying causes, but I believe there are three major ones.
- A Messed Up Circadian Rhythm
- A Lowered Metabolic Rate
- Bad Habits And A Bad Mindset
The first thing to do if you can’t sleep is check which might be the cause of your insomnia. Some of them might not be doing good in one department, but most of the time, people don’t do any of them right. That’s because, while there are different causes, due to bad lifestyle habits, the different causes often reinforce one another.
Let’s talk about these three major causes of insomnia, and how they disrupt your sleep.
Cause Number One – A Messed Up Circadian Rhythm
For this one, I have to explain the circadian rhythm to you.
The circadian rhythm is basically your internal biological clock. The circadian rhythm regulates the flow of your hormones, and it tells your cells what to do at any given moment. A very important part of that is regulating sleep.
It works kind of like this: in the morning, your body is supposed to release lots of cortisol, to properly wake you up. At the same time, melatonin levels are supposed to be very low. This allows you to have high energy and be very wakeful in the morning. In the evening, the opposite happens. Cortisol levels are at their lowest and melatonin goes up. As a result, you feel tired and sleepy.
This only happens when your circadian rhythm is working properly. If your biological clock is set right, your brain performs these functions like clockwork. If not, you will not feel awake properly in the morning, and you won’t feel particularly sleepy either in the evening.
Now, you might ask, how do I know my circadian clock is messed up?
Well, the circadian clock is set by environmental cues, called zeitgebers. Your body doesn’t know how to read a clock. It needs these external cues to signal what time of day it is.
The most important one is light. In particular, very strong daylight.
For example, if you go outside on a sunny day, you get over hundreds of thousands worth of lux (the measuring unit of light). This light enters the eyes and acts upon a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). As a comparison, indoor lighting can give you mostly a few hundred units of lux, which is hardly enough to set your circadian clock. This strong daylight is a very powerful signal to your brain that it’s day.
It’s that signal that allows our bodies to tell night from day, and that allows our brain to release the right hormones at the right time. If those hormones enter your bloodstream at the right time, you feel wakeful and energetic in the morning and tired and sleepy in the evening. If your circadian rhythm is strong enough, it will be impossible for you to stay awake, because your brain will be flooded with these sleep hormones.
Next to light exposure, it’s also important to get enough movement during the day. Our bodies are evolutionarily primed to move and exercise at daytime, and getting enough movement also tells your body when it’s day. Then, if you calm down and rest in the evening, it will create this strong difference between day and night. The body picks up on this and this again gives a powerful signal to the brain to set the circadian clock.
Cause Number Two – How’s Your Cellular Energy Production?
A second, really important part of proper sleep, is the ability of your cells to produce adequate energy. This production of energy is called the metabolism.
The metabolism is basically your body being able to turn food into usable energy. When your metabolism is high and blood sugar levels are stable, all is well.
When the opposite is true, when your metabolic rate is low, then your nervous system gets a lot of extra work. You see, when your metabolism is low, the body has to release cortisol and adrenalin to break down your body’s own tissue to generate energy. This is what causes high levels of anxiety, racing thoughts, and an inability to fall asleep.
Now, how do you know if your metabolic rate is low?
Well, first of all, you don’t need to do expensive hormone testing. There’s actually a very simple way to figure out how your metabolic rate is doing. You do this by checking your body temperature.
You see, a normal body temperature is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37 degrees Celsius. Is your body temperature lower than this? That’s an indication your metabolic rate is low. This in turn causes your stress hormone levels to be chronically elevated.
An important question is: how did I get there, and how do I fix it?
A low metabolic rate is usually the body’s way to adapt to a high level of stress. If you have a history of dieting, working out too hard, or generally stressing your body with unhealthy things like alcohol, smoking or crappy food, you can be sure of it that your metabolism will suffer.
To counter the effects of a low metabolic rate, you need to start eating healthy, with some more healthy carbs, like fruit, and also get more movement, as long as you don’t overdo it.
Number Three – Bad Habits and a Bad Mindset
The last thing I want to talk about is something I discussed earlier, in the introduction.
I want to talk about the effects of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy on sleep. You see, this kind of treatment has shown itself to be quite effective. The reason for this is because many people have a bad way of dealing with their sleep problems, and have created this problem through years of bad habits.
For example, when you regularly watch TV in your bedroom, or use it as a place to work, your mind will stop associating your bedroom with good sleep. Instead, you will start feeling awake when entering the bedroom, because it will think of your bedroom as a place to be active, instead of a place that’s designated for rest.
Also, when you can’t sleep, and you feel anxious, and you continue to lie in bed all night, wide awake, you will only increase your sleeping problems. Because again, you will have trained your mind to associate anxiety with lying in bed.
Then, when you haven’t slept for days, weeks, months and years on end, you’re going to start to associate yourself with insomnia. You join all these insomnia support groups on internet forums and facebook groups, and being an insomniac becomes part of your identity, it becomes literally part of who you are.
Rest assured, this only adds to the problem. All you do by doing all these things is teaching your subconscious mind that you are an insomniac, that that is just who you are and that it can never change.
That’s really a bad thing. If you ingrain the belief that you are an insomniac into your mind, you will never recover. The subconscious mind is very powerful, and has a tendency to make your beliefs into reality.
The fact of the matter is that all that is wrong with you is that your hormones are probably just a bit out of whack. I think most people can be fixed with some proper lifestyle and dietary changes. In all other aspects, you’re just a normal person, like anybody else.
To fix the mind, it’s important that you start believing that you can get better, and stop lying awake in bed at night. If you can’t sleep, it’s important that you get up and do something fun. That way, the anxiety that normally comes with the night will start to fade. Sure, you won’t feel rested in the morning, but at least you’ll have avoided a dreadful night filled with anxiety, boredom and fear.
Doing cognitive behavioural therapy can really help in this aspect. Nevertheless, it’s a lot less powerful than fixing your circadian rhythm and your metabolic rate. Once those two are fixed properly, you’ll have a harder time staying awake than you will falling asleep.
Nevertheless, CBT can still help you cope with insomnia in the meanwhile. So as a temporary strategy, it can be quite useful.
There’s a lot of confusion about what to do when you can’t sleep. A lot of the tactics you find online are well-intended. But often, they are ineffective.
Before you try to find out what to do to reclaim your sleep, you first have to figure out the reason you aren’t sleeping. That’s what we talked about above. It’s the first step.
So what I want you to do is the following. Do some honest soul-searching. Take a good look at your daily habits.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Am I getting out of bed at the dawn of light? Do I get enough daylight exposure each day, and especially in the morning? Do I move enough during the day, or do I sit on my ass all day, working some desk job?
- Is my metabolism healthy? Is my oral body temperature during the day a stable 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit/37 degrees Celsius?
- When I can’t sleep, do I keep lying in bed? Do I just lie there, awake and anxious? Or do I get out and do something fun to pass the time and get my mind off my insomnia. Do I identify as an insomniac? Do I really believe it’s a part of who I am?
The answer to these questions is the key to figuring out how to recover from sleep problems. Once you figure out what you’re doing wrong, only then can you figure out what you should do to heal your insomnia.
If you don’t ask these questions first, and keep trying out random tactics you find on the internet, you will never get better.
On the other hand, if you act smart, and figure out what’s causing your insomnia before you try to fix it, then fixing it will become so much easier, and you’ll be able to recover in a matter of weeks.
I know, I’ve seen it happen with myself, and I’ve seen it happen with others.
Right now, sleeping might look like the hardest thing in the world for you. But believe me that it can be exactly the opposite.
Just do the smart thing, and follow the advice above.