Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Question of the week: "I have problems sleeping. Can anyone give me tips on going to sleep earlier?"

I know its been a bit since I last posted really much of anything, but I would have to say that school has been keeping me busy. Spring break was good, got a lot of sleep and had some interesting incites to life and sleep. Some of those things I have already posted about and some of those things I don't think fall into the research area where I want this blog to stay. I will though continue onto the research side of things as I continue out the semester here at college as well as during the summer as my study has been extended out to then. After that I will continue with the blog as I have noticed a great deal of people taking interest in what is posted here, but I do encourage more e-mailed questions or feedback in the comments section if possible.

Every week I try to answer one question about sleep on the Yahoo Questions and Answers and I have noticed a common trend in the questions being asked. The main ones I see are about the inability to sleep well or at all. In this question I address the concept that bad sleep is based on a uneducated culture into the concept that sleep is important, and that we need to know how to support our bodies in order to get quality sleep. I think this has been overlooked in the education system today and should be addressed if we want to continue living life at its fullest. In this question I address the idea of how to support the brainstem on getting to the sleep mode, but nothing about the quality of sleep. To read more about that you can read the past posts I have made as I address those ideas.

"I have problems sleeping. Can anyone give me tips on going to sleep earlier?
I'm tired of always sleeping really late. Its hard for me to go to sleep so please give me some tips on going to bed early :)"

"I recently have had the same problem that you speak of and really the answer can be simple or complex based on a number of factors.
Much of the current sleep issue that people experience is based on not being educated in the reasons and processes that are taking place while we transition from waking to sleep. Those processes are composed of a combination of chemical and biological events that produce sleepiness and eventually REM. Understanding what is required in order to transfer from waking and sleep will help you either find out your problem or fix the issue.

During our transition from waking to sleep we experience a number of chemical changes in our brain.

Melatonin is one of the key components that support our bodies to fall asleep (histamines are also sleep inducing chemicals but I wont go into that right now). Melatonin is a sleep inducing agent but is not the only reason why we sleep and is produced when light is absent. This means that if there is light in your room and you can see it through your eyelids, your melatonin production will be reduced. Your body may as well be lacking in its melatonin production, but I do not suggest like many people to take melatonin supplements as it seems to be a fix to a deeper issue. If you do take melatonin supplements, chances are your problem will persist once you are off of the supplements and require you to keep taking them. A precursor to melatonin is serotonin.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that not only affects our sleep process but many other daily bodily functions as well as mood. Many depressed patients take medication that supports either the production of serotonin or the reduction in the breakdown of serotonin. Serotonin also plays a large part in our sleep process as well as the transition of NREM (Non-REM) to REM (Random Eye Movement) supporting our bodies in a good night sleep after we are asleep. Foods that contain larger amounts of precursors to serotonin (cheeses, turkey, beans, peas, fruit, vegetables, or any type of tryptophan type food) will help promote higher serotonin levels. It is not suggested that you eat these before going to bed, as it will help keep you awake (I know sounds odd as turkey is said to make you sleepy), but during the day so that your body can build up its serotonin levels and promote production of melatonin during the night. The amount of serotonin that enters your brain as useful serotonin is contrary what is called an MAO which stops serotonin from either entering your brain, or being useful in the brain. MAO’s protect us from having too much serotonin or other types of neurotransmitters and dangerous chemicals to our body, so don’t go and take a bunch of MAOI’s. Sometimes people use a mild MAOI such as Saint Johns Wort (a supplement), nicotine, and coffee. Eating healthy foods that are not dangerous is one of the best ways of lowering your MAOs in your system as they are not required to protect yourself. Also many people that drink coffee counter act the sleep helping agent in the coffee as caffeine increases many different types of chemicals in our body, besides melatonin since we are not asleep when we drink it. A good idea would be to drink a little bit of coffee.

The brainstem is the control center of our sleep. It is what drops our core body temperature when we are getting ready to sleep, it keeps track of time with our circadian rhythm, and paralysis us so we don’t move around while we dream. Supporting this mechanism in our brain can be one of the best ways in inducing sleep. This means go to bed at the same time every night, wake up at the same time every day, don’t sleep during the day, and relax when you lay down. The reason I say all those things is because your brainstem acts as a time keeper, and if our times we wake up and go to sleep are all random, our brainstem acts as if we have jet lag every night. Relaxing helps with this process as our brainstem knows it’s now time to sleep, now that we are not active and moving around.

There are many other things that you can do that can help you with sleeping. Supporting a better mood and not stressing out is a huge factor as stated before because it effects serotonin levels, that is why many people have issues sleeping in economic troubling times… they are depressed or chemically have smaller amounts of serotonin or too much MAOs."



  1. You know, sometimes I wonder if all of the artificial light that we constantly surround ourselves with is altering our circadian rhythms. I certainly seem to sleep easier when, prior to bed, I sit in absolute darkness. For me at least, it definitely seems to raise my endogenous melatonin rates.


  2. I would have to say yes to that. I know its not proven but there sure seems to be a lot of research that points into that direction. Light activation of the pineal gland does show that it shuts off melatonin production and starts the production of serotonin reducing even greater the amount of melatonin in the brain. This does not require sunlight, but is dependent on any type of light. I would think that even some light enters the eyes even when the eye lids are shut if there is light available in the room.

    Lesson learned folks is to sleep in a dark room.