Understanding Insomnia

Many people suffer from the sleeping disorder known as insomnia. The term covers a wide range of sleep disorders, from lack of quality sleep, through to lack of enough sleep. People who suffer from insomnia typically find it difficult to fall asleep, have trouble staying asleep, or both. Often they feel tired all the time and have difficulty concentrating on tasks. Insomnia can lead to a poor performance at work or school and cause other disruptions to daily routines, as well causing a range of serious health issues.

Types of Insomnia

Insomnia can be classified into several categories:

  • Transient – This is when the insomnia only lasts for a short duration, usually just a few days or weeks.
  • Acute – Also referred to as short-term insomnia, acute insomnia is when the symptoms last for several weeks.
  • Chronic – This type of insomnia can persist for months and years if left untreated.

Insomnia can also be classed as either primary or secondary. Primary insomnia is when the sleep problems are unrelated to any other health condition. This usually accounts for incidences of transient and acute insomnia. It can be triggered by periods of extended emotional stress. Secondary insomnia is symptomatic of some other health condition, such as asthma, cancer, arthritis, or other health issues that causes discomfort. Medication, depression or substance abuse can also lead to secondary insomnia. Most cases of chronic insomnia are classed as secondary insomnia.

insomniaHow Common Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a very common condition, with most people suffering from it at stage throughout their life. Approximately one third of people throughout the UK have some form of insomnia. Some researchers suggest that the percentage of the UK population suffering insomnia may be closer to 40 percent1. It affects all age groups, although females tend to be more susceptible than males. Also, incidences of insomnia are more common as people age. This is perhaps because as people age they are more prone to other medical conditions that can lead to secondary insomnia.

Why Is Insomnia Bad For The Body

The impacts of insomnia on the body are more serious than simply just feeling tired and irritable. Getting enough sleep is vital for our health. While the amount of sleep required varies between individuals, on average most people need eight hours sleep per night. When individuals fail to get enough sleep over an extended period of time, they become more susceptible to a wide range of health issues:

circulation anatomy

Chronic insomnia interferes with the way in which the body processes and stores carbohydrates. It can also disrupt hormones that normally suppress appetite during periods of sleep2 3. Consequently, chronic insomnia can lead to weight gain and associated health issues.

Serious insomnia has been linked to an increase in stress hormones, inflammation, hypertension and irregular heart beat. There have been many studies that have shown that insomnia increases blood pressure and can elevate the risk of heart disease or stroke4 5 6.

The immune system becomes compromised through sleep deprivation. Studies have shown that insomnia can lead to an increase in overall morbidity and mortality through increasing susceptibility to cancer, diabetes and heart disease, amongst other conditions7.

While depression is sometimes a trigger for insomnia, depression can also result as a consequence of insomnia. Constantly being tired increases irritability, lack of concentration, impatience and a general decline in mood. When this persists for long time periods, depression can develop. Research has shown that insomnia can put people at risk of developing an array of psychiatric disorders, not just depression8, 9. While not necessary the root cause, insomnia is frequently associate with mental disorders, including anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar.

People who don’t get enough sleep over an extended period lack concentration and their reaction time is impaired. This can lead to workplace accidents, as well as road accidents. In some cases, the result is fatal.

Insomnia Treatments

There are a range of treatments available for insomnia. Options include lifestyle and behavioural changes, often in association with medication. Relaxation exercises, cognitive-behavioural therapy and positive thinking are some of the behavioural changes use to treat insomnia. Avoiding caffeine before bed, regular exercising and maintaining a regular bedtime are also recommended.

In the case of chronic insomnia, behavioural and lifestyle changes alone are not necessarily effective. Often medication is prescribed, most commonly, sleeping pills.

sleeping pills
There are many different types of sleeping pills available. Most sleeping pills need to be prescribed by a doctor, while some milder medications are available over-the-counter at pharmacists. Sleeping pills are basically sedatives that act to depress the central nervous system and allow people to fall asleep.

While sleeping pills are helpful, long-term use should be avoided. Many people find that sleeping pills become addictive. While this is typically a psychological dependence, it’s nevertheless problematic for the patient. There are also a wide range of physical side effects associated with sleeping pills. These can include vision problems, chest pain, problems breathing, nausea, itchiness, hives, increased heart rate, vomiting and rashes.

In rare cases, some patients are allergic to sleeping tables, causing anaphylactic shock. There are also reports of unusual behaviours after taking sleeping tablets, such binge eating, sexual intercourse and driving after falling asleep and having no recollection of these activities.

There have been suggestions that prolonged use of sleeping pills may increase the risks of early mortality10 11. However, researchers are calling for more detailed clinical trials to understand the long-term effects of using sleeping pills.

Natural Alternatives

There are several natural alternatives to sleeping pills that can help people suffering from insomnia. In particular, the amino acids tryptophan and glutamine are very effective. Also, there are a variety of vitamins and minerals that help to fight insomnia.

tryptophan sleeping aidTryptophan: This essential amino acid is involved in the biosynthesis of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found mainly within the central nervous system, platelets and gastrointestinal tract. It’s most commonly known for its association with feelings of happiness and well-being. Serotonin can also be converted into melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that benefits the body in a number of ways. Not only is it an important antioxidant, it also helps to regulate sleep.

Melatonin helps to signal the body’s circadian rhythm. It chemically induces drowsiness, lowers body temperature and naturally induces sleep. Melatonin is synthesised by the pineal gland. This gland is regulated by the amount of light entering the retina, hence, it’s stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light.

Deficiencies in melatonin can contribute to insomnia. In order to maintain a healthy level of melatonin, the body must have a sufficient supply of serotonin. Since tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin, a deficiency in this amino acid can significantly impact circadian rhythms and lead to sleep deprivation.

nuts amino acidsAs tryptophan is an essential amino acid, it must be sourced through diet. Anyone suffering from insomnia should include tryptophan rich foods within their diet. Ideal foods to boost tryptophan concentrations include poultry, tuna, soybeans, salmon, red meat, shell fish, nuts, legumes and seeds.

Glutamine: This non-essential amino acid has many functions within the human body, including supporting the immune system, protein synthesis, helping with healing following injury or illness, and promoting muscle mass, amongst other roles.

Glutamine is also the preferred precursor for gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA receptors help to regulate brain activity and stimulate sleep12. Although the body produces glutamine, during periods of stress or illness it can become a conditional amino acid. This may suggested that people suffering from insomnia are also glutamine deficient. Elevating glutamine levels through diet can further support GABA and subsequently, promote better sleep.

Glutamine rich foods include eggs, dairy, meat, celery, papaya, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, carrots and spinach.

Iron: An iron deficiency can contribute to sleep disorders. Many studies have found a link between low iron levels and restless leg syndrome, poor sleep patterns and insomnia amongst adults, teenagers and infants13 14 15. The reason why iron is so important for sleep is because it’s essential for the synthesis of dopamine. Like the hormone melatonin, this neurotransmitter also plays an important role in maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm. When dopamine levels are dramatically decreased, sleeplessness is common16. Conversely, elevated dopamine levels can also contribute to insomnia through over stimulation. Having the right balance of iron within the body can help to combat sleep deprivation.

Iron rich foods include red meat, leafy greens such as spinach and collards, oysters, scallops, beans, chick peas, lentils, soy beans, artichokes, and liver.

calcium in milkMagnesium & Calcium: Both these minerals work together to help combat insomnia. Calcium is needed by tryptophan to manufacture serotonin, and subsequently, melatonin. A calcium deficiency can interfere with the natural circadian rhythms. Magnesium is needed to convert vitamin D and consequently, stimulate calcium absorption. Maintaining an optimal balance of these minerals is important to promote better sleeping patterns.

Calcium rich foods include dairy products, as well as almonds, tofu, sesame seeds, collard greens, bok choy and broccoli. Some examples of magnesium rich foods include bran, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and soybeans.

B Vitamins: These vitamins are required for serotonin metabolism. When the body is experiencing a deficiency in these vitamins, insomnia can result.

Foods rich in B vitamins include egg yolk, beef, liver, legumes, Brazil nuts, avocado, bananas, oats, potato and turkey.


Insomnia is a common complaint that affects most of us at some point. However, chronic cases have serious long-term health implications. While sleeping pills are often the conventional treatment method, they too have negative side effects and don’t fix the underlying cause of the condition.

Through understanding the triggers that help us fall asleep, it’s possible to use our diet to promote better circadian rhythms. Ensuring that the body has enough tryptophan and glutamine will help to improve sleeping patterns. It’s important that the body also has the right balance of calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, and iron; as these vitamins and minerals play an important role in regulating sleep.

Through eating a balanced diet incorporating foods rich in these amino acids, vitamins and minerals, it’s possible to help treat insomnia naturally. There are also dietary supplements available for those individuals unable to maintain a regular intake of these foods.

  1. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17425223”
  2. “http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1038/oby.2007.118/full”
  3. “http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/164/10/947.short”
  4. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8641742”
  5. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10818083”
  6. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14975482”
  7. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3403737/”
  8. “http://jcem.endojournals.org/content/86/8/3787.short”
  9. “http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=378663”
  10. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9583003”
  11. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12531158”
  12. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/119833100”
  13. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18555195”
  14. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14592231”
  15. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8085504”
  16. “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3545461”