Persistent insomnia can feel like a prison.
You just want relief from being awake. Why can’t I fall asleep? What’s wrong with me?
Maybe a sleep supplement solves the problem for a while. That is, until the solution wears off as the body builds tolerance and becomes resistant to it.
The body creates new cells that have fewer chemical receptors for the supplement’s active compound that induces sleep.
Sleep doesn’t need to be induced, though. It’s a natural process or, at least, it can be.
Maybe it’s the unnatural stuff — or even the unnatural way we do/take natural stuff — that prevents the body from being able to sleep.
Get To The Root Cause
Anxiety about insomnia can certainly make the situation worse.
That’s why it’s so important to understand what is at the root cause of poor sleep.
There’s not as much room for anxiety about poor sleep if we have a deep understanding of our body — what works for us and the general factors that improve or harm sleep.
If you find yourself struggling with insomnia, look at this list of potential causes. If you recognize something on this list, you’ll have identified a potential cause of your insomnia. Which means it can be fixed holistically.
Let’s clear some things up, and hopefully reduce anxiety about sleep.
Perhaps the premier cause of insomnia is sleeping in late.
Sleeping in throws off the circadian rhythm so deeply that, without doing anything else “wrong,” sleep can become extremely difficult.
Some folks are able to overcome the negative impact of sleeping in by being extremely active during the day — athletic types and performers can sometimes appear to “get away with” a later circadian rhythm. These people are typically younger and haven’t faced the scourge of debilitating health problems, and live on the high of sheer exhaustion. They may be able to “pass out” at night, but this is certainly a recipe for future insomnia.
For the rest of us, sleeping in greatly disrupts the ability to fall and stay asleep the following night. The circadian rhythm is delayed, meaning melatonin simply won’t rise the next evening.
Serotonin is created by morning light and, without this light stimulus, evening melatonin will not be adequately created from that serotonin.
For those folks interested in the ill effects of high serotonin, perhaps the most reasonable way to fight back is bright sunlight — which balances serotonin by raising dopamine during the day and lowers serotonin at night by properly converting it to melatonin.
Sleeping in robs the body of the necessary morning light stimulus, sets the circadian clock backward several hours and harms the efficiency and inevitability of sleep the following evening.
Insulin sensitivity (a marker of diabetes) is also impaired by sleeping in, which could directly lead to a metabolic energy deficit at night. Needing to eat late at night to induce sleep, or waking up hungry? Sleeping in could be impairing your glucose metabolism all day, destabilizing your blood sugar, and making it harder to stay asleep through the night.
On the other end, staying up late at night will contribute to insomnia, mostly because it makes sleeping in more likely. Late nights also introduce bright light at night (this is correlated with nearly every disease risk factor) which makes sleep less efficient, and thus further impairs an early rise the next morning.
When staying up late for any reason — whether socially or otherwise — it’s still best to follow natural light cycles to some extent. Better light cycles certainly make it more easy to wake up early after a late night.
If sleeping in has become the norm, the answer is to simply wake up early while supporting this change with simple circadian hygiene steps.
When shifting to earlier mornings, it will be necessary to endure one or multiple short nights of sleep. The days following short nights of sleep don’t have to miserable. The beauty of being awake early, even if tired, can shine through the temporary challenge of resetting the circadian rhythm.
Again, when coupled with other pro-circadian habits — proper light cycles, daily movement, meal timing, etc — forcing an early rise can invite exhaustion and “sleep pressure.” This sleep pressure, when coupled with better circadian habits can lead to an excellent reset of the circadian rhythm after long periods of sleeping in.
These tenets of good sleep hygiene — waking up early, being active, eating on time, and moving a little — are incredibly effective at restoring sleep in their own right and represent the solution to the type of insomnia that occurs as a result of sleeping in.
Unfortunately, there are some situations that can derail sleep to its core — on their own — and, when these situations become bad enough, sleep hygiene is not enough to overcome them. Let’s explore some of them:
Nutrient imbalances are becoming exceedingly common in the modern health world, especially in the groups dedicated to boosting metabolism and hormone production/manipulation.
Decades of science have provided studies demonstrating the pro-metabolic and prohormone effects of nearly every substance and chemical on the planet.
It only takes a little research to find lists of biochemicals, vitamins, and hormones that research suggests will boost or block a desired biological activity.
Unfortunately, this method of supplementation may be pyrite — fool’s gold.
While a young and healthy person may be able to take hormones and nutrients without apparent harm — for instance, a college-aged fitness enthusiast taking steroids, stimulants, estrogen blockers, or high doses of nutrients to increase lean muscle and burn fat — for folks who aren’t already extremely healthy this approach can be a disaster, and sleep is often where the negative symptomology is ultimately displayed.
For folks who have been battling chronic illness for several years, this “metabolic boosting” and “hormonal manipulation” can lead directly to a no man’s land of severe insomnia with no clear path out of it.
Supplemental hormones can use up nutrients, leading to depletion of minerals and vitamins.
Hormone-blockers can lead to depletion of certain hormones — and then cause the body to create new cells that are hypersensitive to the hormone being blocked. This is especially common with estrogen-blocking supplements like DIM and calcium d-glutarate, along with cortisol blockers like Seriphos (and cortisol-lowering herbs, to a lesser extent).
Over time, supplemental vitamins and minerals can cause severe nutritional imbalances, especially when focusing on boosting desired biological results. Nutrients should rarely or never be taken for their drug-like effect — whether it’s to induce sleep, alter the metabolism, nudge hormone balance, or elevate performance — and especially not long-term and in doses that far exceed 100% of the recommended daily value.
The fat-soluble vitamins (D, A, E & K) are especially known to cause sleep disturbances when levels are imbalanced or too high in the system.
The fat-solubles are incredibly powerful at boosting the immune system (they are quite antimicrobial) and are equally pro-metabolic. This means they are essential for health. It also means they can produce excellent results upon initial supplementation — with a happy honeymoon period of solid results — only to be followed by worsening symptoms that persist for weeks or months after the nutrient supplementation ceases.
When Vitamin D levels have become too high, it may even be necessary to avoid UVB light frequencies from the sun (from midday, summer light) until Vitamin D levels can return to a healthy level.
Vitamin A is a double-edged sword, much like Vitamin D. Much of the population will be deficient in both D & A, and yet some will be dangerously high in one or both (usually after supplementation). If one is low, that deficiency alone can wreck sleep. If one is high, that excess (or “vitamin toxicity”) can equally disrupt sleep.
Vitamin A & Vitamin D are just as likely to ruin sleep in excess as they are to restore sleep in deficiency.
Additionally, of particular importance is one’s sodium and potassium balance.
In chronic illness and hypothyroidism, sodium levels are often depleted, so adequate daily sodium intake can be incredibly pertinent for sleep. Any nutrient — when too low or too high — will raise levels of cortisol, and this is true of sodium in particular as a primary electrolyte.
Many folks will need to restrict sodium intake and balance it with potassium.
Monitor this critical, fragile ratio daily, doubly-so if insomnia is a recurring issue.
For example, restless leg syndrome (RLS) is especially related to sodium/potassium balance. RLS is also linked to Vitamin D/A balance, as well as calcium/magnesium balance. If any nutrient is low or high, restless legs can present.
All in all, any nutrient, when out of balance with its cofactors (read: all other nutrients), can cause persistent insomnia until supplementation has stopped and the body can balance itself once again.
It can take weeks for sleep to return when nutrients and hormones have been thrown out of whack, although improvements can often be noticed within mere nights of stopping the offensive supplementation.
Insomnia can certainly be caused when too-few calories are eaten, or when calories are eaten too late in the day.
When calories aren’t eaten early, they are less efficiently metabolize later in the day — leading to an energy deficit that can only be ameliorated by further, excessive caloric intake.
Simply put, eating too little early means even more calories must be eaten later in the day to compensate — to keep up with energy requirements of the body.
Especially in cases of long-term malnutrition and chronic illness (due to extreme dieting, infections, or even poor gut health), the body is in a perpetual state of energetic deficit.
In this state, adequate caloric intake may become essential to facilitate sleep. Erratic blood sugar (possibly as a result of a disrupted circadian rhythm or low-grade infection) can directly cause insomnia. The obsession with caloric restriction as a path to longevity can directly impair health, particularly if it disrupts quality sleep.
When blood sugar regulation is a concern, it’s increasingly important to 1) eat enough calories and 2) eat those calories on time: early and not late.
The caveat: if you find yourself unable to sleep due to insufficient calories during the day — there may be no other choice but to get up and eat sufficient calories to induce sleep.
Snacking at night isn’t ideal (poor glucose metabolism, eating signals “daytime” to the brain), but insomnia is easily a worse outcome. Eat what’s needed for the night, and get back on track in the morning and over time.
Daily movement is a major component of good sleep.
Movement reinforces the circadian rhythm by suppressing melatonin and signaling daytime to the brain’s clock (suprachiasmatic nucleus).
Additionally, movement burns through glutamate stores, allowing for a more appropriate GABA-glutamate balance in the evening which facilitates better relaxation of the nervous system.
Exercise also improves liver bile flow and digestive wellness, allowing for more efficient absorption of nutrients and, therefore, improved metabolic function.
The lymph system is nourished by daily exercise and, when sleep cycles have been impaired, the lymph system depends upon movement even more to clear lymph and the toxins housed inside it. This increased reliance on movement is because the circadian rhythm is critical for lymph function. In circadian disruption, movement is all that remains to stimulate lymph flow (along with, potentially, manual lymph drainage, massage and infrared light).
Some well-intentioned health advice recommends extreme resting and avoidance of exercise. While this advice is based on some measure of truth (long-term overexertion can harm health), it mustn’t ignore the fact that daily, tolerable levels of movement are critical to digestive motility, lymph function, and preventing insomnia.
Bodily hydration is a major challenge in chronic illness.
It can be a struggle to maintain homeostasis and fluid balance due to chronic inflammation and poor nutrient absorption.
Monitoring fluid intake — as well as water quality — is important when sleep is a challenge.
There’s certainly a “Goldilocks zone” for each person when it comes to fluid intake.
The amount of water required will vary depending on the diet and intake of minerals. Sunlight, light therapy, heat therapy, exercise, and mineral intake will all greatly increase daily water needs.
In hypothyroidism, it’s common for folks to restrict water intake and increase sodium consumption. This improves fluid balance due to hyponatremia as a result of various health challenges: low hormone levels, high inflammation, poor gut health, and poor nutrient absorption.
Increasing this sodium-to-water balance may help sleep. However, it’s possible to go too far in either direction: You may find water to impede sleep during the night, and sodium induces sleep. You may wake up a few hours later dehydrated (from the sodium), and need more water.
Ultimately, this is a sign of severe fluid imbalance. Frequent night urination can be a sign of many things: diabetes, mold toxicity, high EMF exposure, and high inflammation. The root causes of fragile fluid balance need to be addressed going forward, rather than merely addressed through intense sodium/water balancing.
Poor Gut Health
Poor gut health can cause each bite of food eaten to turn into endotoxin in the gut.
In dysbiosis of the gut, nutrients will be poorly absorbed and, when absorbed, will not reach cells efficiently due to inflammation.
Pathogens become comfortable in the gut, eating food and causing inflammation. They’ll even enter the bloodstream — a place they certainly don’t belong — and trigger a strong immune response (more inflammation).
Some folks are able to find some spotty relief by removing problematic foods from the diet (such as grains, fibers, or animal products). However, this does not totally address the underlying health problems and may cause imbalances over time (due to an imbalanced diet).
If insomnia is truly persistent, it’s certainly possible gut health is a root-cause factor.
Of course, the circadian rhythm is a primary controller of overall gut health. Therefore, attacking both the gut and sleep simultaneously through great sleep hygiene and a solid gut health regimen may present a valid approach.
There’s no reason to go in-depth on this topic, here.
However, if you’re really struggling with insomnia and absolutely nothing else is helping, you might want to explore your building — and see if it’s a sick building.
When water damage grows significant mold — or air conditioning units go unmaintained and grow mold — this can cause insomnia all by itself.
Mold releases toxins called mycotoxins which directly cause inflammation. Its spores can also be allergenic and even become lodged in the mouth and nose and grow fungal colonies (possibly the gut, too). The scent of mold (technically “volatile organic compounds” or VOCs) is particularly disruptive to the sensitive body, too.
EMF, on the other hand, doesn’t affect everyone equally — but if you’re someone who is affected by it, it can cause sleep to flatline on its own, as well.
Get to know your sleeping domain — is it within high-risk distances for any of the EMF-emitting sources in this chart?
It’s an ongoing process to understanding mold and EMF in the environment.
Mold is becoming a modern epidemic as buildings are built with cheaper materials and tighter envelopes (less air exchange), and are inhabited and owned by people who are too busy, ignorant, or financially limited to properly maintain their premises.
EMF prevalence is rising exponentially, with current 2020 average exposure levels most likely exceeding previous decades’ average exposure levels on a magnitude of millions of times more radiation — and that’s just the wireless component of EMF, not magnetic and electric fields, which may have remained more constant. One thing is for certain: EMFs are biologically active and not completely inert.
If you’re struggling with insomnia, it’s most important to understand why it’s happening rather than look for a quick fix.
As tempting as it is to find a quick solution — and as sweet a relief a few decent hours of sleep might be — in the long run, the only thing worse than having insomnia now is still having chronic insomnia in the distant future.
Instead of searching for random, fleeting fixes, it’s best to see if we can analyze our situation and remove the common major obstacles that are capable of — on their own — causing debilitating, unrelenting insomnia, the kind that can occur despite even the best of sleep hygiene habits.