If you’ve ever sat up awake at night wondering how to sleep better, you are not alone. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, approximately one in three people suffer from at least mild insomnia (1). Despite these numbers, insomnia usually goes undiagnosed and untreated, leaving people inflicted with the condition searching for the most effective sleep aid they can find.
While over the counter sleeping medicines are available, and many do work, the root of the problem may lie in your head. Research shows that there is a connection between anxiety, depression, stress, and insomnia. Luckily, even if you’re genetically inclined to suffer from one of these conditions, you have more control over breaking the cycle then you know.
Insomnia occurs when a person has difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. It can happen at any age and is more common in females. The three types of insomnia are transient, acute or short-term insomnia, and chronic insomnia. Transient insomnia may only last for a few days while acute or short-term insomnia lasts for weeks. Chronic insomnia may last for months or even years.
Insomnia is caused by a variety of psychological and physical factors. In some cases, insomnia is caused by an underlying medical condition, certain medications, and genetics.
According to a study published in the BMC Public Health Journal, media technology in the bedroom causes insomnia in children. The study found that children who had computers, televisions, music players, mobile phones and video games in their bedroom slept less than kids who do not (2). Another study found that certain tablet computers can cause sleep loss due to interactions between light levels and melatonin suppression (3).
The American Association of Retired Person’s (AARP) found that the following medications may cause insomnia in some people:
Until recently, genetics were only suspected to play a role in insomnia. But a study published in 2017 confirmed this when it found that there are seven genes linked to insomnia (4). The study performed tests on approximately 113,000 people. Results showed that the seven genes associated with insomnia are also linked to other conditions, such as anxiety disorders, neuroticism, depression, and a general impacted overall well-being. This study is important because it links genetics to insomnia and other mental health conditions for the first time.
For most people, insomnia is caused by stress, anxiety, and depression. Ironically, these three symptoms are also what occurs when a person doesn’t get the sleep they need. A 2007 study published in Science Daily found that chronic insomnia can lead to anxiety and depression (5). The study stated that stress might cause a high level of insomnia that lasts for weeks before turning into depression and or anxiety.
Likewise, anxiety and depression may cause insomnia. Approximately three-quarters of depressed patients experience insomnia as one of their first symptoms (6). When compared to non depressed individuals, depressed subjects tend to have increased periods of wakefulness, reduced sleep efficiency, and shortened rapid eye movement (REM) latency3. They also fall asleep later and their total time of sleep is significantly reduced (6).
The same results were found to be true with anxiety. One study found that insomnia was a trait marker for people at risk of developing anxiety (7). Individuals who tend to be “worriers” often find themselves having trouble sleeping through the night. Worrying about your lack of sleep only enhances your insomnia and anxiety. The best way to cure insomnia is to break the cycle between stress, anxiety, and depression, but choosing the wrong treatment method could worsen your symptoms.
While it might sound like a good idea to use antidepressants as sleep aids, they may come with dangerous side effects. Taking an antipsychotic medication for either depression or anxiety has been associated with an increased risk of mortality (8). Antidepressants also increase the risk of stroke and ultimately death in postmenopausal women (9).
According to a 2016 study, common side effects of taking an antidepressant for insomnia include:
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for making you feel happy. It also plays a role in your sleep cycle, mood, sexual desire, social behavior, memory, and appetite. Many people with low levels of serotonin are prescribed an antidepressant to combat their depression, but they may be the reason why you can’t sleep at night.
According to Psychiatric Times, many antidepressants affect neurotransmitters that are required for sleep regulation (10). The report stated that due to the compound nature of serotonin’s role in the sleep cycle, any drug that modulates serotonin levels in the brain has the potential to cause “prominent and sometimes diverse effects on sleep (10).”
Regulating serotonin concentrations in the brain may also provoke bad thoughts and behaviors. One study found that antidepressants may double the risk of suicide and aggressive behavior, especially in children8.
In some cases, antidepressants may even increase depressive feelings. According to a 2012 study, some antidepressants may cause a worsening of mood. Antidepressants may also worsen the conditions of bipolar disorder, which often goes undiagnosed in patients with depression (11). This causes an increase in agitation and impulsive behaviors along with exacerbated psychosis to result in an increased risk of suicide.
Some people may find that antidepressants work for them just fine. But other methods can be used to help you alleviate stress, reduce depression, and get to sleep faster. All you need is a little willpower and a few tweaks to your lifestyle habits.
The foods in your diet and the way you respond to stress have the ability to turn individual genes on and off. For example, if you carry genes that make you more likely to develop insomnia, depression or anxiety, you can repress them by including certain foods in your diet and practicing healthy lifestyle changes.
Epigenetics is defined as the changes in your genes that have nothing to do with DNA sequence. In other words, epigenetics tells us that we have more control over our genetics that most people are aware of. Environmental factors play a significant role in determining how your genes respond to triggers. If you are constantly under stress, eat a poor diet, and don’t exercise, you are more likely to turn on genetic factors that cause disease (12), including depression (13).
On the other hand, if you eat a diet high in plant-based foods, find healthy ways to cope with stress, sleep well at night, and exercise regularly, you can turn on “good” genes that help fight disease and improve mental health.
Research is beginning to show that epigenetics may play a role in insomnia. According to a 2014 study, it was recently suggested that the part of the brain that controls the stress response might be controlled epigenetically. The study indicated that “both sleep mechanisms and stress-response-related gene-environment interactions” may have an impact on brain plasticity (14). This means that healthy environmental factors and lifestyle habits may be able to turn off genes that cause insomnia.
It doesn’t take much to make a difference in the way your body responds to genetic factors. The human body is incredibly adaptable. No matter what state of health you’re in, the following tips will help you break the cycle between stress, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
One of the easiest ways to sleep better at night is to get rid of distractions. Video games, televisions, and even smartphones are tempting to indulge in if they are in your bedroom. Another good rule of thumb is to stop using electronics two hours before bedtime to wind down and decrease your exposure to light.
Set a bedtime routine for yourself by going to sleep at the same time each night and waking up at the same time every day. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
Even a small amount of exercise can alleviate stress, depression, and anxiety. Exercise also helps you sleep better at night. According to a 2013 study, exercising for 30 minutes at least five days a week offers protective symptoms against depression and anxiety (15). Check with your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough for exercise and to determine which type is best for you.
When it comes to your diet, you’ll need to go against the grain or stop eating a Westernized diet if you want to turn individual genes off. Replacing foods that are high in refined sugars and carbohydrates with anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables is a good place to start. Studies show that green tea, cauliflower, and kale may be able to turn on your “good” genes that reduce the risk of disease (16).
While it’s OK to have cheat days now and then, keep in mind that anything you put in your body can influence your genes. One study found that even small amounts of occasional indulgences produced adverse effects on gene expression that affected mental and physical health (17).
A complete diet overall might be necessary in extreme cases of bad eating, but starting small is better than not starting at all. Make simple changes such as cooking at home instead of eating fast food, eating fruit as a snack, and adding as many vegetables to your plate as possible.
Herbal supplements are an excellent way to alleviate stress and help you relax. Turmeric and saffron are a perfect example of two herbs that fight depression just as well as prescription medications (18).
According to a six-week trial, turmeric was found to work as well as the prescription medicine fluoxetine at reducing the severity of depression15. Another study showed that both saffron and fluoxetine both significantly improve depressive symptoms in subjects with no difference between the two (18).
Other herbs that may help reduce anxiety and depression are passionflower, chamomile, kava root, maca root, and ashwagandha.
Smoking is a significant lifestyle change you can make to improve the health of your DNA and reduce the risk of mental illness and insomnia. According to one study, smoking causes alters your genes by causing DNA damage similar to that of the aging process. Authors of the study concluded that epigenetic modifications such as smoking cause chemical alterations of DNA to affect genes and increase the risk of certain diseases (19).
There is a clear link between insomnia, depression, anxiety, and stress. While some people find that antidepressants work for them, others may choose to go the natural route. Epigenetics is a relatively recent theory when it comes to curing insomnia, but it’s one that shows promising results. Lifestyle changes that include proper diet, herbal supplementation, and moderate amounts of exercise may turn off genes that are associated with mental health conditions to help you sleep better at night.