Can’t sleep? You’re not alone. According to the WHO more than 40% of adults worldwide reporting sleeping problems, and as of late, it’s been happening to me. After a week of tossing and turning, I had the good fortune to attend child-birthing class. Now you’re probably thinking: wouldn’t watching those videos and learning the logistics of childbirth cause you to sleep less, not more? Not at all! The teacher actually made a very interesting comment about childbirth that applies to so many aspects of our life: “whatever it took to get the baby in is what it takes to get it out.” In other words, there is a chemical cocktail that needs to take place in order for childbirth to happen, and it’s strikingly similar to what needs to happen in order for sex and conception to happen in the first place.
This got me thinking about the chemical cocktail that needs to take place in our brain in order for us to sleep, and it turns out that the same chemicals required by women to get in the mood are very similar to those required by sleep. What’s more, by specifically targeting the chemicals and hormones that are keeping us up at night we start to dispel the silly notion that all insomnia is created equal, and can get a good night’s rest no matter what’s keeping us up.
Sleep Disrupter #1: You’re still amped from the day
Sleep Solution: Lower your Adrenaline
This neurotransmitter, in small doses, is your best friend during the day and your worst enemy at night. Designed to keep you alert, focused and poised to escape dangers and deadlines, adrenaline works with cortisol to raise your blood pressure and redirect your energy to your fight or flight instincts: neither of which are conducive to sleep.
If you’re up at night thinking about problems with sweaty palms and tense muscles, your insomnia may be caused by excess adrenaline. If that’s the case, engaging in some short, high-energy activity before sleep can help you break the cycle. This could be a handful of push-ups, burpees or a brisk walk around the block.
And please note that short is key here. When your adrenaline levels are high, your primal brain wants you to escape from danger, and a quick burst of energetic energy does just that. Anything more releases a whole other set of chemicals which tell your brain that it’s time to be up and working.
Sleep Disrupter #2: You’re feeling uneasy or agitated
Sleep Solution: Up your Oxytocin
The other thing you need to know about adrenaline is that is inhibits oxytocin, the bonding chemical that tells the body to be at ease with the world and to trust others. Feeling safe and secure is, as you may have guessed, critical for getting a restful night’s sleep.
But regardless of whether or not you’re buzzed on adrenaline, increasing your oxytocin is extremely conducive to getting a good night’s sleep. One easy way to increase the levels of oxytocin is to handle or drink something warm, to put on a pair of sox (warm feet facilitate the release of oxytocin), or to spend some quality time cuddling with your favorite person or pet. Watching an emotionally compelling movie can also cause your oxytocin to increase by nearly 50%, expressing love and gratitude, dancing and singing also have equally positive effects.
Sleep Disrupter #3: You just can’t seem to sleep
Sleep Solution: Activate your Melatonin
Or rather: stop suppressing it. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates your sleep cycle, and while it won’t help you fall asleep, the lack thereof will certainly keep you up at night. The single greatest melatonin disrupter in modern times is artificial light, so if you find yourself counting sheep to fall asleep, try turning off the screens (kindles are ok!) at least an hour before bed, preferably two.
If you’re still falling short, try eating a bowl of cherries, pineapple, bananas or oranges, all of which can naturally increase melatonin and tryptophan–the sleepy chemical found in turkey–and help you get to sleep, plus, according to some scientists, cause a small spike and drop in blood sugar that makes you feel sleeper than you did before.
Sleep Disrupter #4: You’re just too excited by life to sleep
Sleep Solution: Watch your Dopamine
People often confuse the two happiness hormones oxytocin, which creates a sense of safety and relaxation, and dopamine, which is linked to happiness, excitement and new experiences. Spanish researchers found that dopamine–which is released by exercise, pleasurable experiences, hard work and chocolate–interferes with the creation of melatonin, which is why doing too many stimulating things at the end of the day can leave you tossing and turning at night or waking up before dawn.
Sleep Disrupter #5 Your head is spinning with thoughts
Sleep Solution: Kill the Questions
If it’s those nagging questions that are keeping you up at night, rest assured (pun intended!) that there is nothing wrong with you. In fact, those nagging questions are a survival mechanism created to prevent you from falling asleep in times of danger and uncertainty.
The fact that your brain won’t turn off is due to the Zeigarnik Effect, a psychological phenomenon that forces incomplete thoughts or tasks back into your conscious mind whenever there is an open space: like when you’re trying to relax and go to bed. Originally designed to help us figure out pressing questions like how to find our next meal in times of famine, this mechanism is completely outdated in our modern world.
Journaling can help control these thoughts, but even the simple act of making a to-do list will do the trick. If it’s a broader topic that’s keeping you up at night, you’ll be able to get to sleep by acknowledging the problem, accepting that there is no ready solution, and outlining steps you can take to resolve it.