You’re not alone if you have been stressed lately and haven’t slept properly. Many people find adequate sleep challenging due to stressors like work, finances, health issues, poor sleeping habits, or other life transitions.
According to the American Psychological Association, 43% of adults1 reported that stress has caused them to lie awake at night in the past month. But you don’t need to let stress wreak havoc on your sleep! Powerful brain chemicals can help you achieve refreshing and restorative sleep.
Understanding the chemicals responsible for sleep is helpful when trying to improve your sleep quality. Stay tuned to learn more in-depth about the chemicals that make you sleep.
Unraveling the Sleep-Inducing Brain Chemicals
A commonly known sleep chemical, melatonin, is a hormone responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles or circadian rhythms.
A small gland in the brain, the pineal gland, regulates melatonin production. When it’s nighttime, the pineal gland increases its melatonin production, signaling to your body that it’s time to prepare for sleep. When morning light appears, melatonin production decreases, signaling to your body that it’s time to wake up.2
Adenosine is a naturally occurring compound in the body that regulates sleep.
As you engage in wakeful activities throughout the day, adenosine accumulates in the brain. This accumulation creates a sense of sleepiness, also known as “sleep pressure.” This sleep pressure encourages you to fall asleep.
The longer you stay awake, the more adenosine builds up, intensifying the desire for sleep.3
However, consuming caffeine from coffee, tea, or soda can affect your sleep as they bind to adenosine receptors in the brain. This process blocks adenosine’s calming and sleep-inducing effects and delays the feeling of sleepiness.
Sleep-Inducing Chemicals in Action: The Sleep-Wake Cycle
Everyone experiences jet lag when flying from one part of the world to another across time zones!
Melatonin supplements can address sleep issues related to falling asleep and disruptions to your circadian rhythm. They work to help adjust the timing of the sleep-wake cycle by providing an external source of melatonin.
Beyond Melatonin and Adenosine: Other Sleep-Inducing Brain Chemicals
The Effect of Serotonin on Sleep
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates various physiological processes, including sleep and mood. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit signals within the nervous system. They are essential for communication between nerve cells and the functioning of the brain and the rest of your body.
Serotonin is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter because it influences mood and emotional well-being. Serotonin is also involved in the regulation of sleep-wake cycles. It helps to modulate different stages of sleep, including rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.
Imbalances in serotonin levels can contribute to sleep disorders, such as insomnia, or sleep disturbances in mental health, such as anxiety and depression.4
The Effect of GABA on Sleep
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter known for its calming and relaxing effects on your brain and body.
GABA helps to quiet down overactive neurons, making it easier to transition from wakefulness to sleep. It creates a relaxed state and regulates sleep cycles to promote more restful sleep.5
The Circadian Rhythm: Synchronizing Sleep Chemicals
The interaction between sleep chemicals (neurotransmitters and hormones) and the circadian clock is a complex process that manages your sleep-wake cycles.
Your circadian clock regulates various physiological processes daily, including the sleep-wake cycle.
Various neurotransmitters also interact with the circadian clock to regulate sleep. For example, serotonin, which influences mood and sleep, is synthesized more significantly during daylight hours. As your day progresses, serotonin is converted into melatonin to aid the transition to sleep.
The Power of Sleep Chemicals in Sleep Disorders
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or having non-restful sleep. High stress and anxiety levels can disrupt the body’s ability to produce necessary sleep chemicals.
Sleep concerns and disorders include6:
- Melatonin production tends to decrease with age, which may contribute to insomnia among older adults.
- Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep.
- Restless Leg Syndrome involves uncomfortable sensations in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them.
- Sleep apnea involves repeated disruptions in breathing during sleep, leading to fragmented sleep and daytime sleepiness. This disorder disrupts sleep; adenosine accumulation suffers, and the homeostatic sleep drive does not function normally.
Sleep Chemicals and Aging: Implications for Sleep Quality
As individuals age, there are notable changes in melatonin production and sleep patterns. Both natural aging processes and external factors often influence these changes7:
- Melatonin production tends to decrease with age. This decline in melatonin levels can lead to changes in sleep patterns, including difficulty falling and staying asleep.
- Older adults often experience a “phase advance” in their circadian rhythm, meaning they become sleepy earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning. This pattern is also called “advanced sleep phase syndrome.”
Adenosine’s role in sleep regulation remains vital throughout life, but there can be changes in how it influences sleep patterns in older adults due to changes in sleep structure.
Managing sleep in older adults involves understanding these age-related changes and implementing strategies to optimize sleep quality:
- Establish a consistent sleep-wake routine to help reinforce your circadian rhythm and improve sleep patterns.
- Set up a comfortable and dark environment to support your ability to fall asleep and reduce nighttime awakenings.
- Reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake, especially in the afternoon and evening, to help minimize disruptions to sleep.
- Engage in regular physical activity to positively impact sleep quality and overall health.
- Consult a healthcare professional to address any underlying medical issues or medication-related factors.
Harnessing Sleep Chemicals for Better Sleep Hygiene
Did you know there are natural ways to boost melatonin production? Here are a few tips:
- Ensure your sleep environment is dark and free from bright lights, including those emitted by electronic devices, for optimal melatonin production.
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at similar times each day to reinforce your body’s internal clock.
- Some foods, like cherries, grapes, and tomatoes, contain small amounts of melatonin. Including them in your diet, especially in the evening, may help support melatonin production.
- Minimize exposure to bright artificial light, especially blue light, in the evening to avoid suppressing melatonin production. Consider using dim lighting or blue-light-blocking glasses to reduce blue light exposure.
There are also natural methods for helping adenosine work with your natural rhythms for improved sleep:
- Establish and maintain a consistent sleep schedule to allow adenosine to accumulate gradually during the day, promoting sleepiness at night.
- Regular aerobic exercise increases adenosine levels in the brain, potentially promoting better sleep.
- Limit caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening, to avoid interfering with adenosine’s sleep-promoting effects.
Here are some natural ways to boost GABA and serotonin production8:
- Eat certain foods to support the production of serotonin and GABA. Some examples are turkey, dairy, nuts, and seeds. These foods are rich in tryptophan, which can help increase serotonin levels. Foods like whole grains and lean protein are rich in glutamate, which supports GABA production.
- Engage in regular exercise, which boosts serotonin levels and improves your mood. Moderate exercise like brisk walking, jogging, or yoga is ideal.
- Using practices such as meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation can promote GABA production and overall relaxation.
- Sunlight exposure, especially in the morning, can help regulate serotonin levels and support a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
Targeted Interventions: Sleep Chemicals in Sleep Disorders Treatment
Sometimes, you want a plan that helps you improve sleep when stress is higher than usual or when traveling. The following are specific interventions you can use and their effects.
- Melatonin supplements can help you reset your circadian rhythm and reduce the effects of jet lag, especially when traveling across multiple time zones. Taking melatonin at the target bedtime in the new time zone can help shift the internal clock and hasten the adjustment to local time.9
- Adenosine receptor modulators are substances that influence adenosine receptors in the brain. They can play a role in managing sleep disorders and concerns by affecting the accumulation of adenosine and influencing sleep-wake regulation. Here are a few examples of adenosine receptor modulators:
- Caffeine temporarily blocks adenosine receptors, leading to increased alertness and reduced feelings of sleepiness.
- Suvorexant is a medication that blocks specific brain receptors to promote sleep by reducing wakefulness. This medication increases alertness and arousal. Be sure to check with your doctor to see if this medication could benefit your specific sleep needs.
- Theophylline is a medication sometimes used to treat conditions like asthma that can impact sleep-wake patterns. Consult your doctor to learn more about theophylline.
Powerful brain chemicals and keeping them in check are necessary to reinforce healthy sleep habits and promote restful and restorative slumber. The intricate dance between sleep chemicals such as melatonin and adenosine is complicated but something you can have more control over as you work toward improved sleep.
External factors, like light exposure and caffeine consumption, play a significant role in regulating melatonin release. Minimizing artificial light exposure from electronic devices at night can be a helpful approach to managing sleep-wake cycles.
If you have persistent sleep concerns that are not improving with habit change, consult your doctor. They can rule out any significant medical problems interfering with your ability to enjoy a restful sleep. You deserve the care needed to determine how best to support your sleep!
1. American Psychological Association. Stress and Sleep. https://www.apa.org. Published 2013. Accessed August 7, 2023. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep
2. NIH. Melatonin: What You Need To Know. NCCIH. Published January 2021. Accessed August 7, 2023. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/melatonin-what-you-need-to-know#:~:text=Melatonin%20is%20a%20hormone%20that
3. Sheth S, Brito R, Mukherjea D, Rybak L, Ramkumar V. Adenosine Receptors: Expression, Function and Regulation. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2014;15(2):2024-2052. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms15022024
4. Berger M, Gray JA, Roth BL. The expanded biology of serotonin. Annual Review of Medicine. 2009;60(1):355-366. doi:https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.med.60.042307.110802
5. Allen MJ, Sabir S, Sandeep Sharma. GABA Receptor. Nih.gov. Published July 26, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526124/#:~:text=Gamma%2Daminobutyric%20acid%20(GABA)
6. Torres F. What Are Sleep Disorders? www.psychiatry.org. Published August 2020. Accessed August 7, 2023. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/sleep-disorders/what-are-sleep-disorders#:~:text=There%20are%20several%20different%20types
7. Li J, Vitiello MV, Gooneratne NS. Sleep in normal aging. Sleep Medicine Clinics. 2018;13(1):1-11. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsmc.2017.09.001
8. Lee XY, Tan JS, Cheng LH. Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Enrichment in Plant-Based Food – A Mini Review. Food Reviews International. Published online July 6, 2022:1-22. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/87559129.2022.2097257
9. Melatonin for jet lag. Harvard Health. Published August 6, 2015. Accessed August 9, 2023. https://www.health.harvard.edu/sleep/melatonin-for-jet-lag