Insomnia and sleep problems

  • Introduction
  • The vitamin D link
  • REM Sleep
  • Occasional Brain Chatter
  • Consider if You Are Overtired
  • Can Toxicity Interfere with Sleep?
  • Acupuncture
  • References


There is a difference between true insomnia and being unable to get to sleep because we have things on our mind.

The main difference is that techniques we use to help us sleep well work for people who on occasion can’t shut up their brain chatter or feel ‘wired’– but they don’t work for people who have insomnia. Insomnia is indicative of the cortisol and adrenalin ‘off switch’ not working and is useful to understand.

The internal clock in the brain, called the circadian rhythm, which controls when we fall asleep and wake up every day, can be damaged by brain injury disrupting the manufacture of chemicals resulting in the brain having problems with telling the body to fall asleep.

The causes of insomnia and sleep problems can have related links. It is imperative to address all sleep problems as early on as possible. Try to avoid taking medications, but if this is your choice bare in mind that they are designed for short-term use to encourage us back into good sleep cycles.

Avoid over-the-counter sleep medications as they contain an antihistamine, which can cause problems with memory and new learning. Also, some drugs prescribed for asthma or depression may cause insomnia after brain injury.

Medications can irritate the brain after injury. However, everyone is different, and it is best to start by speaking to your doctor and listening to your body.

Sleep problems, including sleep apnea, need to be evaluated by a specialist.

It has long been known that getting enough daylight regulates the pituitary gland and sleep hormones.

According to Dr Stasha Gominek, a general neurologist, it isn’t only a lack of sunlight that can disturb our sleep. She advocates that this isn’t the only cause of insomnia and sleep problems and cites good gut flora balance as being involved in how well we sleep and for how long.

Through her studies with sleep patients, Dr Gominak realised that many of the people she was treating were deficient in vitamin D. By treating this deficiency it then became clear how important a good nights sleep is to our natural healing systems. Often, once people started to sleep again, they would become deficient in B12 – the vitamin that is used by the body, during sleep, to repair and restore the body. Finding the correct balance needs careful administration to get the individual dosage right. Ask for a referral to a sleep expert.

REM sleep

Getting the ‘right’ kind of sleep with at least three hours in the REM state is crucial to healing. Many people don’t realise how important this is and often overlook the amount of work the body needs to do to restore general health and neurological function following a brain injury.

Also, much of the non-specialist research on sleep tells us to avoid more than a twenty-minute nap during the day and advocates discipline with getting up and going to sleep at the same times to induce sleep routines. However, some people struggling with fatigue and brain fog may be unable to get through the day without a nap or break.

It is essential to work with a sleep specialist and to listen to your own body rather than accepting broad advice.

Many people find they need more than eight hours sleep a night following a brain injury and we should bear in mind that the body is healing while we are sleeping – specifically in REM sleep when different areas of the body are closed down and immobilised while this is happening.

Occasional brain chatter

There are times when we can struggle to get to sleep because we are worried about things and keep turning them over in our minds – especially at bedtime when we get the quiet space to think.

It is common for this to happen to most people, but can be exacerbated following a brain injury when there is usually so much else going on in the body and mind. Feeling ‘wired’ after a day of brain fog and fatigue is also a common problem.

Most of us are aware of the difference between constant brain chatter linked to life stressors that we recognise and insomnia. Very often, the ‘chatter’ can be helped by following many of the generally known good sleep practices.

Other things that help are:

  • Listening to guided meditations designed to help us sleep
  • Keeping a notepad by the bed to write down things we need to do and things we need to give more consideration to
  • Using essential oils to calm the mind
  • Natural remedies can help, but many of these have multiple drug interactions so speak to your doctor before using valerian, melatonin or herbal teas
  • Acupuncture

Consider if you are overtired

Many people struggle with getting a good nights rest because at some point they have become ‘overtired.’ While everyone has a natural sleep pattern life events can disturb routines and disrupt sleep such as a member of the family being poorly, babies who need feeding and changing or stress and worry that interfered with sleep.

Sleep is especially important following a brain injury because this is the time in which memories are stored and is when the brain flushes out toxins that built up during the day. Sleep is restorative, so it is vital for healing.

Some people are aware that if they miss any sleep, they don’t feel right again until those lost hours have been caught up.

Chronic sleep loss can interfere with the natural rhythms of the body and brain and sometimes catching up the hours that were lost can, on its own, restore natural patterns.

Being overtired can also cause insomnia and often a herbal sleep supplement (see above) will help people regain natural sleep patterns by inducing rest and more extended periods of sleep. It is worth taking a few days or more to see if this is the cause of your sleep problems. It is best to put a few days aside where you can sleep for as long as you need to without interruption to see if ‘catching-up’ helps to restore natural sleep. 

Can toxicity interfere with sleep?

Cerebrospinal fluid clears out toxins through a series of channels that expand during sleep. It stands to reason that if we aren’t sleeping well, then this function doesn’t have the impact it should.

Dr Maiken Nedergaard and her colleagues at the University of Rochester Medical Center reported that the glymphatic system could help remove a toxic protein called beta-amyloid from brain tissue. While not focused on the effects of a brain injury or the causes of insomnia, this research does raise several interesting points.

The study suggests a molecular connection between the sleep-wake cycle and the brain’s cleaning system, and if this isn’t working well, the toxicity can lead to insomnia. Heavy metal toxicity and toxic chemicals in the blood have been linked with and can cause insomnia.

Inflammation drives down the level of serotonin, which can lead to feelings of depression or anxiety, and problems with memory. It prevents melatonin from being produced, which causes insomnia. Inflammation also causes dopamine levels to rise, which contributes to insomnia and feelings of anxiety and agitation.


Used by many people for a wide variety of reasons many people with a brain injury use acupuncture as a means to overcome insomnia. shares the following:

“In general, acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system and cause the release of neurochemical messenger molecules. The resulting biochemical changes influence the body’s homeostatic mechanisms, thus promoting physical and emotional well-being. Stimulation of certain acupuncture points has been shown to affect areas of the brain that are known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for insomnia and anxiety (Hui 2010).

Research has shown that acupuncture treatment may specifically be of benefit in people with insomnia by:

  • increasing nocturnal endogenous melatonin secretion (Spence et al 2004).
  • stimulating opioid (especially b-endorphin) production and µ-opioid receptor activity (Cheng et al 2009).
  • increasing nitric oxide synthase activity and nitric oxide content, helping to promote normal function of brain tissues, which could help to regulate sleep (Gao et al 2007).
  • increasing cerebral blood flow (Yan 2010)
  • reducing sympathetic nervous system activity, hence increasing relaxation (Lee 2009a)
  • regulating levels of neurotransmitters (or their modulators) such as serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, GABA and neuropeptide Y; hence altering the brains mood chemistry to help to increase relaxation and reduce tension (Lee 2009b; Samuels 2008; Zhou 2008).

Acupuncture can be safely combined with conventional medical treatments for insomnia, such as benzodiazepines, helping to reduce their side effects and enhance their beneficial effects (Cao et al 2009).”


YouTube – Vitamin D, deep sleep, and gut bacteria Dr Gominak

NIH – How sleep clears the brain

Science Daily – Sleep loss causes brain Vulnerability to toxic elements

Science Daily – A breath of fresh air: Scientists reveal how the brain generates respiratory rhythm

Articles – EFT for insomnia