Exercise is no quick cure for insomnia

Sleep. In my view it’s under rated. I think it’s one of the most important things we do. We obsess on the quality of our food and finances. Few of us obsess on the quality of our sleep. When I studied Bio Psychology I was introduced to the basics we know about sleep. It was fascinating. Particularly the complex processes involved to restore our bodies to optimum health.

A new study implies that while exercise is commonly prescribed for insomniacs it takes about four months to kick in. Part of me is surprised the other part is not. Mainly for the reasons covered in the article. I don’t generally have trouble sleeping but sometimes I do. Apparently most of the research on exercise and sleep has been on people who sleep just fine. So, like me, exercise has a near immediate effect. I’ve gone through periods of activity and periods of laziness so many times that the pattern is very clear.

It follows exactly what I learnt in bio psychology. About 5 hours into sleep your brain has pretty much recovered. No matter what pressure it’s been under it doesn’t take so long to be ready again. The body on the other hand is different. Depending on how much restoration is required the amount of sleep can vary. Sometimes 8 or 9 hours is required. That’s a big difference. The reasons why can get very complex, involving human growth hormone and mechanisms of healing etc. The point here is that this is how sleep normally works.

Of course, if it gets disrupted the story can be very different. For now we won’t go into what happens. Suffice to say the brain may not get completely restored let alone the body, obviously leading to problems and injuries. Instead we’ll consider briefly why it gets disrupted. The main reason I find is that you get stimulated some how. Anything from caffeine to adrenaline is going to stop or limit your sleep.

Caffeine is obvious but Adrenaline!!! how? I hear you ask!!! I’m just thinking of those times you don’t get to sleep on time. Either you stayed up late or something kept you up. A sudden thought or often a worry. Have you ever noticed your heart rate go up a few beats during those times. That’s a sign you have triggered adrenaline and fight or flight. When this happens to me I know I’m in for a long night. I can’t get to sleep for love nor money. No matter how active I have been during the day.

In my view the importance of this process on your overall health is not generally appreciated. Stress, particularly worry or even being excited all the time leads to bad sleep. Bad sleep for long periods means poor recovery. This is obvious. The problem is that poor sleep reduces your motivation to exercise and makes exercise feel harder when you do it. This reflects the patients common complaints that in the short term exercise didn’t seem to help and it was getting harder the less sleep people had.

My guess at why it takes a while for exercise to help is that without exercise your body gets lazy in fixing itself. All sorts of bodily processes do not work as they should. This in itself will disrupt the most important process of restoration which is sleep itself. By exercising regularly you get your body back in the swing of fixing itself but there will be a backlog of work to do. The size of the backlog will probably reflect how long it takes for your body to start sleeping normally again and the insomnia subsides. That is my theory anyway.

Overall the study shows that people with sleep disturbances have to be persistent with exercise.

“People have to realize that even if they don’t want to exercise, that’s the time they need to dig in their heels and get themselves out there,” Baron said. “Write a note on your mirror that says ‘Just Do It!’ It will help in the long run.”

What I like about the research is that it fits exactly what I see with myself and with others. It explains a little why people with insomnia aren’t instantly helped by exercise but that in the end they will be. Unfortunately it was just one study. We know that more proof is needed so you decide what you think. Post a comment and let me know your thoughts.

Edit: 22 August 2013

This study also appeared in the New York Times as How exercise can help us sleep better
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