Mental Effects of Chronic Insomnia (+ how to stop it)

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Chronic insomnia impairs your cognitive and mental capacity and overall health. Learn 16 proven ways to improve your ability to fall and stay asleep.

Insomnia is extremely common, affecting roughly 50% of all adults.

But if you’ve experienced sleeplessness for more than a month, your situation is considered chronic insomnia

If you struggle with insomnia, you know just how critical sleep really is.

It’s impossible to be mentally sharp and productive without good sleep.

But knowing this only adds to the pressure you feel every night when your head hits the pillow.

Here are the best strategies and remedies to help you get to sleep and stay asleep.

Why You Need Sleep

You may be tempted to disregard your need for sleep, telling yourself that you don’t really need much or that’s just the way you are.

But chronic insomnia is an insidious problem that is linked to a “who’s who” of diseases, including anxiety disorders, dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, substance abuse, and an overall increased risk of mortality.

It makes you more likely to get into a car accident; it makes doctors more likely to commit medical errors

Inadequate sleep even disrupts your genes.

A single week of insufficient sleep can alter the activity of over 700 genes! 

Even one bad night can affect your memory, concentration, coordination, mood, judgment, and ability to handle typical stress the following day.

According to UCLA’s Itzhak Fried, MD, PhD, losing one night of sleep affects mental performance as much as being legally drunk. 

And when insomnia is chronic or severe, it undermines the long-term health and function of the brain.

It’s during restorative sleep that the brain washes away toxins and metabolic debris, repairs and reorganizes itself, and creates new brain cells

It’s also during sleep that your brain consolidates the day’s memories to ensure that you remember what you learned the previous day. 

NEED A MENTAL PERFORMANCE LIFT?

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16 Ways to Stop Chronic Insomnia

Most of us think of insomnia as a nighttime problem, but in fact, it’s a 24-hour-a-day problem

With insomnia, the brain is like a light switch that gets stuck in the on position. 

Your ability to get to sleep does not depend just on what you do the last few minutes, or even the final few hours, before you go to bed.

It depends on your entire lifestyle, what you do day in and day out.

Here are 16 things you can do reduce or eliminate chronic insomnia for good.

1. Take Control of Stress

If you do only one thing for your insomnia, it should be learning to deal with stress.

Being stressed during the day is the number one reason people can’t sleep at night.

The stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are produced on an as-needed basis during stressful situations.

But when you’re chronically stressed, another stress hormone, cortisol, streams through your system all day long.

A high cortisol level breeds insomnia and is generally dangerous to your health.

Besides contributing to insomnia, chronically elevated cortisol is a factor in anxiety, mood swings, forgetfulness, brain fog, concentration problems, and weight gain. 

Mind-body stress reduction techniques like meditation, yoga, and tai chi are proven insomnia busters

Other relaxation techniques suggested in an American Academy of Sleep Medicine report include:

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2. Reduce Caffeine Consumption

America literally runs on caffeine and, in most towns, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a coffee shop.

But just because caffeine is the world’s most popular and readily available mind-altering substance doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

Caffeine contributes to insomnia, stress, anxiety, and many stress-related conditions. 

Caffeine is responsible for 4 official psychiatric disorders, including caffeine-induced sleep disorder

Of course, there’s lots of caffeine in coffee, energy drinks, and sodas, but unfortunately it’s also hidden in places you might not suspect — prescription drugs, over-the-counter painkillers, non-cola drinks, vitamin waters, brain tonics, and even in vitamins and herbal supplements. 

The average half-life of caffeine is around 5 hours, but it can hang around in your system for up to 10 hours

So if you drink caffeinated drinks, drink them early and experiment with your cutoff time.

It might be surprisingly early. (My personal cutoff time is 2 pm.)

If you aren’t ready to completely give up caffeine, consider switching to green tea.

It contains about one-fourth the caffeine of coffee as well as the relaxing compounds l-theanine and EGCG that offset caffeine’s stimulating effects.

3. Skip the Alcoholic Nightcap

There is substantial evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is good for overall health, including brain health and function.

Moderate amounts of alcohol, especially red wine, can improve your memory, protect your brain as you age, and even help you live longer

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But you need to put at least three hours between your last drink and bedtime.

An alcoholic nightcap might make you feel relaxed, but it won’t help you sleep.

Alcohol causes nighttime brain arousals, up to 25 per night. 

You might not remember them since they are short, but these mini-awakenings will prevent you from getting the restorative sleep you need.

" According to UCLA’s Itzhak Fried, MD, PhD, losing one night of sleep affects mental performance as much as being legally drunk.

Another unhealthy habit that causes similar nighttime awakenings is smoking.

Smokers spend more time in light sleep and significantly less time in restorative deep sleep than non-smokers. 

Most smokers will tell you that they find smoking relaxing, but nicotine is actually a stimulant.

4. Snack Wisely

The usual advice is to not eat a few hours before going to bed, but some people (including moi) can’t sleep if they are hungry.

If you must snack, try to do it at least 2-3 hours before you go to bed.

The best evening snacks should include some healthy carbs and a little protein.

Conversely, going to bed when you’re too full can lead to heartburn and indigestion which are not conducive to a good night’s sleep either.

5. Reduce Liquid Consumption in the Evening

Having to get up in the night to go to the bathroom is a common problem.

Approximately two-thirds of adults over 55 report this disturbance, called nocturia, at least a few nights per week. 

Minimize your fluid intake after dinner, especially avoiding alcohol and caffeine which exacerbate the urge to urinate.

6. Exercise — But Not in the Evening

Physical exercise is important for health and sleep, but don’t do it too close to bedtime.

One of the metabolic triggers that helps prepare the body for sleep is a slight lowering of body temperature.

But exercise elevates body temperature for a few hours, so exercising in the evening contributes to insomnia.

Ideally, it’s best to not exercise within 4 hours of going to bed

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7. Keep Regular Hours

Go to sleep and awaken the same time every day as much as possible.

An erratic schedule leads to disrupted sleeping patterns.

Some people, such as shift workers or travelers who change time zones, can’t avoid irregular hours.

In these cases, melatonin supplements can help regulate their internal clock.

Melatonin is the body’s natural sleep hormone that regulates circadian rhythm, but it is not a sleep initiator.

8. Minimize Screen Time and Blue Light Exposure

The blue light emitted by electronic devices of all kinds reduces the body’s production of melatonin. 

Two hours of computer tablet use before going to bed can reduce melatonin levels by 22%

Tablets are even worse than big screen TVs or computer monitors because they emit shorter wavelength radiation and are held closer to the eyes. 

You can reduce sleep disruption from your electronics by minimizing blue light exposure.

You can wear blue light-blocking glasses, install a blue light filter app, or use f.lux, a software program that automatically changes the quality and quantity of light emitted by your computer, tablet, or smartphone screen to sync with the time of day.

Spend the last few hours of the day engaged in unplugged activities like reading books or magazines, knitting, drawing, writing, listening to relaxing music, or journaling.

All of these can help you relax and fall asleep faster than using electronics.

9. Make Your Bedroom a Sleep Cave

As much as possible, make your bedroom like a cave — dark, quiet, cool, and electronics-free.

Keep It Dark

Light disrupts sleep by halting melatonin production, so make your bedroom as dark as possible.

Install some light-blocking shades if outdoor light makes your bedroom too bright.

You may find that even after you turn out the lights, all your electronics light up your bedroom like a Christmas tree.

A cheap and easy fix is to put a piece of black electrical tape over lights that must stay on, such as your smoke detector, air filter, or surge protector.

A more elegant solution is to use blackout dots, such as LightDims, made especially for this purpose.

Consider replacing your smartphone alarm app or digital alarm clock with an old-fashioned clock that emits no light.

NEED A MENTAL PERFORMANCE LIFT?

woman watering flower springing from her head

Does this sound like you?

Fuzzy thinking, foggy focus, forgetfulness?

Lack of energy and drive?

Struggle to learn and make decisions?

A quality brain supplement can make a big difference.

See our MIND LAB PRO review.

Dr. Pat | Be Brain Fit

Remove or Turn Off Smartphones

Get all the non-essential electronics out of the bedroom, or at least turn them all off.

Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted by smartphones delay your ability to reach the deeper stages of sleep.

It’s estimated that 65% of people sleep with their phones very close to them; this figure rises to 90% among 18 to 29-year-olds. 

Numerous studies have found that even low levels of cell phone radiation disrupt the body’s production of melatonin.

The use of electronic devices at night, including mobile phones, is one of the main reasons for the epidemic of insomnia and sleep disorders.

Researchers have found links between smartphone usage and insomnia, stress, and depression. 

Keep Your Room Cool and Quiet

The last factor in turning your bedroom into a sleep cave is temperature.

According to the Sleep Foundation, the perfect temperature for sleeping is 65 degrees F (18.3 C) since your body temperature dips slightly in preparation for sleep. 

It’s not always possible to keep your bedroom this cool.

It’s not always possible to make your bedroom sufficiently quiet either.

In that case, get a good pair of ear plugs, or mask background noise with constant background sound produced by an electric fan, air purifier, or white noise machine.

10. Make Sure Your Mattress Is Right for You

One commonly overlooked source of poor-quality sleep is your mattress.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends replacing your mattress every 7-10 years.

Your mattress may be younger or older, but here are some signs it may be time to replace it:

  • You see signs of mattress wear, such as a depression where you sleep.
  • You toss and turn because you can’t get comfortable.
  • You wake up groggy, sore, or stiff.
  • You experience significant brain fog, lessened ability to focus, and low energy during the day.
  • Your allergies or asthma have gotten worse (due to dust mites and other allergens).
  • You sleep better when you’re away from home.

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11. When You Can’t Sleep, Get Up

If you can’t get to sleep, get up and read or listen to some relaxing music until you feel sleepy.

Weather permitting, step outside and gaze at the stars or listen to the sounds of the night.

Make a list of things to be grateful for or get the tasks you’re thinking about written down so you can stop thinking about them.

12. Get Daylight Exposure in the Morning

Spend time outside during the day, especially first thing in the morning.

Sun exposure helps the body’s internal biological clock reset itself. 

Getting exposure to a little morning sunlight is linked to better quality of sleep. 

13. Try Natural Sleep Remedies

If you’ve struggled with chronic insomnia, you’ve probably already figured out that few natural sleep supplements work as well as you’d hoped.

Two of the most popular sleep aids are 5-HTP and melatonin, but both have their drawbacks and are not intended for long-term use. 

(We’ll explain more about melatonin below.)

Herbal Remedies

On the other hand, relaxing herbal remedies such as valerian, lemon balm, chamomile, and passionflower have a long history of safe and effective use for insomnia and stress reduction. 

It’s no coincidence that these traditional herbal remedies increase brain levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid).

GABA is a neurotransmitter required to shut down brain activity.

Many prescription sleeping pills and anti-anxiety drugs work by increasing GABA levels or helping the brain utilize GABA more efficiently. 

Scientists have discovered that people with insomnia have 30% less GABA in their brains than normal sleepers. 

Magnesium Supplements

Consider taking a magnesium supplement.

This mineral is often missing from even healthy modern diets and only 25% of Americans consume the recommended daily amount.

Magnesium binds to and stimulates GABA receptors in the brain. 

If you feel “tired but wired” or often have nocturnal leg cramps, magnesium supplementation might be the answer.

Relaxing Essential Oils

Lastly, try using relaxing essential oils.

A full 92% of study participants who inhaled essential oil blends to help them sleep found them helpful and said they would continue to use them. 

Their favorite essential oils were bergamot, sandalwood, frankincense, mandarin, and lavender.

If you are new to essential oils, you won’t go wrong with lavender.

It’s the most popular, safe, and versatile essential oil of all.

14. Try Brainwave Entrainment Audio

Your brain cells generate electricity to communicate with each other.

This electrical activity forms patterns known as brain waves.

Most of us tend to think of sleep as simply not being awake, but sleep has its own distinct brainwave pattern.

By listening to sounds of a certain frequency, your brain waves will synchronize with that frequency.

There are five main brainwave states — alpha, beta, delta, theta, and gamma.

The delta state is associated with deep, dreamless, restorative sleep.

Look for brainwave entrainment (aka binaural beats) audio downloads designed to put you in the delta state, the same brainwave state as deep sleep.

15. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a first-line treatment for chronic insomnia. 

When your sleep is poor more nights than not, you may have developed habits that inadvertently make sleep problems worse like going to bed too early, staying in bed when you can’t sleep, drinking alcohol, and counterproductive napping. 

The role of CBT is to help you recognize and change these behaviors

16. Avoid Medications That Disrupt Sleep

Many common prescription medications, including antidepressants, ADHD drugs, corticosteroids, antihistamines, statins, thyroid hormones, and high blood pressure medications, can be disruptive to sleep. 

Some over-the-counter drugs can cause insomnia, especially if they contain alcohol or caffeine.

These includes remedies for cough, colds, and headaches and nicotine replacement products.

If you take any prescription medications you suspect are causing your insomnia, it may be time to have a discussion with your doctor.

The Worst Pills for Severe Insomnia

When sleep won’t come, it’s hard to resist the lure of taking a pill that will get you sleeping faster.

But unfortunately, some of the most popular sleep aids are a long-term disaster for your health and for your insomnia.

If you ever take melatonin supplements or prescription sleeping pills, this is must-know information!

The Problem With Melatonin Supplements

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that’s created in the brain’s pea-sized pineal gland.

When the sun goes down and it gets dark, the pineal gland starts producing melatonin.

Melatonin doesn’t induce sleep directly, but it controls your circadian rhythm, telling your body when to start winding down for sleep.

In most countries, melatonin is available only by prescription because it is a powerful hormone.

But in the US (and in Canada), melatonin is sold as a “natural” sleep aid.

Melatonin used to be extracted from the pineal glands of animals (usually cows), but now it’s synthesized in a laboratory.

Opinions of Sleep Experts About Melatonin Supplements

A surprising number of sleep experts are not in favor of melatonin supplements.

Here’s what a few of them have to say:

Michael Breus, PhD

Dr. Michael Breus is a clinical psychologist and renowned expert on sleep disorders.

He finds melatonin supplements useful for all things that deal with the timing of your need to sleep, such as circadian rhythm disorders and shift work sleep disorders, but not for insomnia since it is a sleep and body clock regulator, not a sleep initiator.

He also expresses concern that while the ideal effective dosage of melatonin is 0.3 to 1.0 mg, supplements generally contain much more, usually 5 to 20 mg. 

Brent Bauer, MD

Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic, warns that melatonin is not intended for long-term use and should not be taken continuously for longer than two months. 

He points out that melatonin supplements are not without side effects.

Bauer lists the most common side effects as daytime drowsiness, headaches, and dizziness.

Less common side effects are mild anxiety, irritability, mental confusion, and temporary feelings of depression.

Datis Kharrazian, PhD, DHSc

Dr. Datis Kharrazian is an award-winning Harvard researcher and author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?.

He finds that supplemental melatonin can throw off the body’s sensitive circadian rhythm.

He prefers to address the root causes of insomnia, such as a high cortisol level, insulin sensitivity, and eating excessive carbohydrates.

The bottom line on melatonin is that it is important for sleep, but increasing your body’s own melatonin by optimizing light exposure is a more effective long-term strategy than taking supplements.

The Serious Hazards of Prescription Sleeping Pills

If you talk to your doctor about your chronic insomnia, it’s very likely she’ll offer to write you a prescription for sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, or Sonata.

But these drugs actually block restorative sleep and harm your memory, and should be avoided at all costs.

Prescription Sleeping Pills Block the Benefits of Sleep

Kirk Parsley, MD, is a physician, former Navy SEAL, and sleep expert for the US Navy.

He made a startling discovery when studying people under the influence of popular sleep drugs like Ambien and Lunesta.

These drugs destroy normal sleep architecture, meaning that you don’t cycle through the typical four stages of sleep.

Instead, they render you unconscious just as if you were in a coma or passed out from alcohol.

These prescription medications reduce REM (rapid eye movement) sleep by about 80%.

It’s during REM sleep when the neuroprotective benefits of sleep occur. 

Dr. Parsley reveals more of his favorite sleep hacks in the podcast interview A Navy SEAL Physician Reveals How Hard-Charging, High-Achievers Can Fall Asleep Fast.

You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript. (Fast forward to the 5-minute mark for the beginning of the interview.)

Sleep Drugs Cause Memory Loss

Prescription sleeping pills are also notorious for causing memory loss and bizarre nocturnal behaviors.

Some users report walking, eating, and even driving — all while asleep! 

Others experience night terrors and hallucinations.

Even occasional sleeping pill use increases the overall risk of death from all causes by almost fourfold. 

Sticking with over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids is no guarantee of safety either.

Most non-prescription sleep medications contain antihistamines which reduce the quality of your sleep and can cause side effects, including memory loss, daytime sleepiness, and mental confusion. 

These effects can be experienced with even short-term use.

Memory loss from OTC remedies is noticeable in as little as 60 days. 

A large study found that seniors who take OTC antihistamines like Benadryl are at increased risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s

When You Should Talk to Your Doctor About Insomnia

If your insomnia is severe, you may want to visit your doctor for a check-up.

One of the most common causes of chronic insomnia is an underlying health condition.

Insomnia is an unfortunate side effect of many physical and mental health ailments, including diabetes, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, heart disease, and neurological disorders. 

Or you may have a diagnosable sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or narcolepsy, that warrants further investigation.

This discussion with your doctor should cover lifestyle adjustments that can help your condition.

These include a change of diet, nutritional support, stress management, and physical exercise.

This would be a good time to talk to him about any prescription medications you take as well.

Make sure you are taking the right dosage and consider any possible interactions.

See if a change in medication is in order.

Chronic Insomnia: Take the Next Step

Chronic insomnia is not just frustrating and annoying, it’s also detrimental to your mental health and overall well-being.

Insomnia is not the result of just what you do in the last hours before bedtime, it’s a logical outcome of your daily lifestyle.

Too much stress, stimulation, and the wrong kind of light at the wrong times are major contributors to severe insomnia.

The typical medical solution is prescription sleeping pills, but they are a health disaster.

They don’t really put you to sleep, but actually render you unconscious, bypassing all the restorative benefits of sleep.

Instead, make the appropriate adjustments to your daily habits.

Doing these things will help make a big improvement in your ability to fall and stay asleep.