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Nighty Night! Your Scientific Guide to Sleeping Tight

Contributing Writer

Jennifer Thomé


Everyone craves more energy and sleep, but when the time comes to hit the hay, over 40% of adults struggle to fall asleep. Many experts attribute our insomnia to poor sleep hygiene, such as reading on our phones, or drinking coffee or wine too close to bedtime. 

New research suggests, however, that our hormones and neurotransmitters – in particular adrenaline, oxytocin, dopamine and melatonin – all have a unique and powerful effect on our sleep, meaning there are actually four types of insomnia. 

In this piece, I’ll share expert advice on how these four sleep thieves present themselves, and what simple lifestyle changes your readers can make to overcome them.

According to the WHO, 40% of adults are lacking in sleep. While great sleep hygiene plays a big role, most people overlook how our hormones are can wreck havoc on your sleep.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 40% of adults have trouble getting enough sleep. Sound familiar? 

While you may be tempted to blame your tablet or busy lifestyle, scientists have found that there is a precise, chemical cocktail that is needed for restful sleep. If any of the key players – adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin or melatonin – are out of whack, you may find yourself counting sheep long after you’ve turned off your iPhone.

Here are 5 ways your hormones and neurotransmitters may be wreaking havoc on your sleep, and how to get them under control.

Sleep Disrupter #1: Adrenaline
Symptoms: You’re still amped from the day

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-intensity activity an hour 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: Low Oxytocin
Symptoms: You’re feeling uneasy or agitated

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.

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 socks (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: Missing Melatonin
Symptom: You just can’t seem to fall sleep

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. The added bonus of eating before bed is that the small spike and drop in blood sugar that makes you feel sleeper than you did before.

Sleep Disrupter #4: Dopamine
Symptoms: You’re just too excited (by life, ideas) to sleep

People often confuse the two happiness hormones oxytocin, which creates a sense of safety and relaxation, 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. If you find this happening to you, consider implementing a simple sleep routine and staying away from exciting news or TV programs after dinner.  

Sleep Disrupter #5:  The Zeignarnik Effect
Symptoms: So many ideas popping into your head!

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 has become the bane of modern man.

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.

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