The Insomnia Bug

      108 Comments on The Insomnia Bug

I read a study over the weekend that I planned to pick apart today, but I don’t have the mental energy to write about it.  I’m prone to occasional bouts of insomnia, and the past few nights I’ve been thoroughly bouted.  Friday night I slept perhaps a half-hour.  I went to bed, took what amounted to a brief nap, then popped awake.  That’s usually how it starts.  I tried to convince my brain I was still sleeping by lying still with my eyes closed.  My brain didn’t fall for it.

So I went downstairs and worked on a programming project until about 10:00 a.m.  Then I finally fell asleep and stayed asleep until mid-afternoon.  Saturday night I fell asleep around midnight and slept until noon.  Last night I tried to sleep, couldn’t, and gave up.  I crawled back into bed at 6:00 this morning and woke up five hours later.

This has happened on and off for decades.  I’ve tried without success to spot a pattern, but apparently there isn’t one.  I’ve had insomnia on low-fat diets, low-carb diets, and when not dieting at all.  It’s happened when I haven’t had a drink for months, and it’s happened after a night of drinking beer or wine.  (That’s the worst:  feeling loopy and wide awake at the same time.)  I’ve gone to bed hungry and had insomnia.  I’ve gone to bed feeling full and had insomnia.  I’ve stopped drinking caffeine in the afternoon, but it hasn’t helped … which shouldn’t have surprised me, because I once I gave up caffeine completely and that didn’t help either.

All I know is that on some nights, my brain refuses to shut down.  Sometimes I’m thinking about a specific problem — programming challenges when I’m in the middle of a project are pretty much a guaranteed sleepless night.  You’d be surprised how often the eureka! moment comes at 3:00 a.m.  When it does, I don’t really have any choice except to go downstairs and try the solution.  If it works, then I usually sleep.

But on other nights, I’m relaxed, happy, not feeling any pressure, yet my mind seems to be a conveyor belt of random thoughts.  I watch them go by almost as a neutral observer.  “Hmm, that one’s interesting.  I haven’t thought about Doug Watkins since fourth grade.  I wonder what kind of guy he turned out to be.  That was cool when his mom took us to the dolphin show.  Amazing.  Too bad his parents had that awful poodle.  That reminds me, the girls don’t want a boxer anymore.  What was that breed they said they liked?  I’m not getting a dog without a fenced-in back yard, though.  Hey, when was the last time the van had an oil change?  Was it Christmas?  We really should clean out the garage so we can park the van in there on hot days.”

Usually this goes on for a night or two, and then I’m over it.  However, in my mid-twenties, I once went five days without sleeping, save for brief naps.  Towards the end of that week, I was walking home from a diner two blocks from my apartment — I was too tired to cook — and stopped at the corner of Clark and Fullerton, a busy intersection in Chicago.  I looked to my right and saw a WALK sign, then responded by stepping off the curb onto Fullerton.  Someone behind me grabbed my belt or jacket and yanked me backwards just as a car zoomed past.  The car missed me by perhaps 12 inches.  I turned around and mumbled “thank you.”  To this day I can’t tell you anything about who saved me … male, female, young, old, nothing.  My brain had stopped processing information.

If there’s such a thing as an natural night-owl, I’m one of them.  I know paleo types believe in waking up with the sun and falling asleep well before midnight, but that’s never seemed to fit with my natural body clock.  I do most of my creative thinking at night.  Always have.  If I’m tired during the day, I start to feel better when the sun goes down.

I was perfectly happy with my sleep schedule during my days as a traveling comedian, when I rarely went to bed before 3:00 a.m.  If I finished a show at midnight and was within 200 miles of Chicago, I’d just drive home.  Once I drove from Nebraska to Chicago after realzing I wasn’t going to sleep.

This could be a bit genetic.  I’ve had a few bipolar relatives on my dad’s  side of the family.  Perhaps I caught a touch, but just enough to be occasionally unipolar.  I get wired up at times and can’t sleep, but fortunately I don’t get the depressions afterwards.  I just go back to being more or less normal.

I suppose the upside is that I’m capable of working around the clock if I have to.  While editing Fat Head, I was facing a deadline to deliver a sample cut to a distributor, and my computer decided to torture me by crashing several times per day.  (This was before I bought a Mac Pro with Final Cut, so you Apple fans can relax.)  I ended up working for three days and nights, leaving my office only for coffee and food, plus two quick trips home for a shower.  I delivered the hard drives to FedEx a half-hour before the last deadline, then went home and slept for 18 hours.

At times like this, I’m hugely grateful to be self-employed.  When I had office jobs, I had to just suck it up and go to work without sleep.  If the boss says working hours are 9:00 to 5:00, that’s what they are.  Now clients hire me to write programs and deliver them some weeks later.  They don’t know when I work and don’t care, as long as the software is finished on time.  So if I pop awake at 2:00 a.m. and know I’m going to be awake all night, I just go downstairs and work.  If I end up sleeping away most of the next day, no big deal.  My wife suspects I may be part vampire, but she’s understanding.

Anyway, I’m going to relax tonight, stay away from the programming so I don’t discover any problems that need solving, and try to fall asleep by midnight.  Wish me pleasant dreams.


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108 thoughts on “The Insomnia Bug

  1. john hunter

    Did you catch the BBC (BBC America) program, “The Man That Never Slept” It was about fatal insomnia. I happened to catch it one night when i couldn’t sleep. It seems ironically cruel that they play this show late at night. Gives you plenty to think about when you still can’t get to sleep after the shows over.

    Hope you do catch some good z’s soon.

    I haven’t seen that one. HBO had a good documentary about an insomniac who can only sleep during the day. I related to him … he confessed that he likes being awake when the world is asleep. So do I. There’s nothing like writing in the middle of the night, not a peep in the world outside.

  2. Richard Tamesis, M.D.

    Have you tried taking melatonin at least an hour prior to going to bed? You may have to adjust the dose to suit your needs.

    Trytophan seems to help. I fall asleep more quickly now. It just doesn’t work all the time.

  3. Jonathan

    Time for some ECT or a lobotomy to make you normal. 😉

    Please, no lobotomy. I’m afraid I’d start believing what politicians say.

  4. Matt Stone

    This came up in the comments section on my blog today coincidentally: http://180degreehealth.blogspot.com/2010/08/clarence-bass.html

    Although I never had problems sleeping except when on a low-carb diet, I have noticed that the quality of my sleep is almost entirely dependent on the amount of protein I consume during the evening meal. This would make sense on some level, as protein intake patterns a rise in glucagon and cortisol to perfection, both of which have a tendency to keep you alert and awake.

    Protein also inhibits tryptophan crossing the blood-brain barrier. My two cents would be to have a dinner with no meat whatsoever. Whatever carbs you do eat, dinnertime is the time to do it. Starch or fruit in the evening doesn’t just put me to sleep, it puts me into a coma. You can see that theme with some of the other commentors in the post I linked to. Worth a try. Definitely would increase the odds of a good night’s sleep if ya axe me.

    I may experiment again, but I was just as prone to insomnia during my vegetarian days, when starch was the basis of my diet.

  5. Ellen

    Tom, I have the same pattern but less intense. I just have nights where I cannot go to sleep, no matter how tired I am. I’ve recently discovered that if I take the amino acid taurine and another called GABA, it seems to help at times. These two amino acids are precursors for serotonin, a relaxation neurotransmitter in the brain. Just a thought..

    I’ll pick those up next time I visit the vitamin shop. I take tryptophan now, and it does seem to help.

    Some nights I’m tired but can’t sleep. But other nights, I literally don’t get tired. I feel wide awake despite no sleep.

  6. k_the_c

    Flex time is awesome. 9-5 is a dying paradigm. Takes a good manager to know what the useful metrics are. Bad managers will default to face time.

    Flex time is awesome indeed. We’re really only tied to the clock by our girls — school, dance lessons, etc. I work my own hours, my wife sometimes does her web design work after the girls are asleep, we record all the shows we like on TV and watch them later, etc.

    One of my office jobs was a computer trainer, so of course I had to be there for class hours. Those were some looooong days if I hadn’t slept.

  7. john hunter

    Did you catch the BBC (BBC America) program, “The Man That Never Slept” It was about fatal insomnia. I happened to catch it one night when i couldn’t sleep. It seems ironically cruel that they play this show late at night. Gives you plenty to think about when you still can’t get to sleep after the shows over.

    Hope you do catch some good z’s soon.

    I haven’t seen that one. HBO had a good documentary about an insomniac who can only sleep during the day. I related to him … he confessed that he likes being awake when the world is asleep. So do I. There’s nothing like writing in the middle of the night, not a peep in the world outside.

  8. Richard Tamesis, M.D.

    Have you tried taking melatonin at least an hour prior to going to bed? You may have to adjust the dose to suit your needs.

    Trytophan seems to help. I fall asleep more quickly now. It just doesn’t work all the time.

  9. Jonathan

    Time for some ECT or a lobotomy to make you normal. 😉

    Please, no lobotomy. I’m afraid I’d start believing what politicians say.

  10. Neil Fraser-Smith

    Just pretend you are in Australia. It’s only 4.40PM here.

    Now that you mention it, as I was working away in the week hours of Sunday morning, it was on a project for an attorney in Australia. I told my wife I should get a job with an Australian company and telecommute.

  11. Matt Stone

    This came up in the comments section on my blog today coincidentally: http://180degreehealth.blogspot.com/2010/08/clarence-bass.html

    Although I never had problems sleeping except when on a low-carb diet, I have noticed that the quality of my sleep is almost entirely dependent on the amount of protein I consume during the evening meal. This would make sense on some level, as protein intake patterns a rise in glucagon and cortisol to perfection, both of which have a tendency to keep you alert and awake.

    Protein also inhibits tryptophan crossing the blood-brain barrier. My two cents would be to have a dinner with no meat whatsoever. Whatever carbs you do eat, dinnertime is the time to do it. Starch or fruit in the evening doesn’t just put me to sleep, it puts me into a coma. You can see that theme with some of the other commentors in the post I linked to. Worth a try. Definitely would increase the odds of a good night’s sleep if ya axe me.

    I may experiment again, but I was just as prone to insomnia during my vegetarian days, when starch was the basis of my diet.

  12. Ellen

    Tom, I have the same pattern but less intense. I just have nights where I cannot go to sleep, no matter how tired I am. I’ve recently discovered that if I take the amino acid taurine and another called GABA, it seems to help at times. These two amino acids are precursors for serotonin, a relaxation neurotransmitter in the brain. Just a thought..

    I’ll pick those up next time I visit the vitamin shop. I take tryptophan now, and it does seem to help.

    Some nights I’m tired but can’t sleep. But other nights, I literally don’t get tired. I feel wide awake despite no sleep.

  13. k_the_c

    Flex time is awesome. 9-5 is a dying paradigm. Takes a good manager to know what the useful metrics are. Bad managers will default to face time.

    Flex time is awesome indeed. We’re really only tied to the clock by our girls — school, dance lessons, etc. I work my own hours, my wife sometimes does her web design work after the girls are asleep, we record all the shows we like on TV and watch them later, etc.

    One of my office jobs was a computer trainer, so of course I had to be there for class hours. Those were some looooong days if I hadn’t slept.

  14. PHK

    sounds like you have DSPS (delayed sleep phase syndrome?). I dont’ think you are insominiac.

    i have no trouble falling asleep but i just don’t get sleepy until after 1:30AM (at least). but unlike you, i have a regular job.

    paleo-diet has helps many of my health problems. but this is one area that makes it worse cause i have more energy now.

    why fight nature? just accept where your circadium clock wants to be.

    regards

    I agree. I typically go to bed after 1:00 AM and then get a full night’s sleep. When the insomnia comes around, I go to bed at 1:00 or 2:00, stare at the ceiling, give up at 3:00, go downstairs and get back to work.

  15. qualia

    have u tried some supplements for this? try popping some magnesium orotate or glycinate + some GABA pills like 1h before you want to go to bed. this calms everyone down at least a bit. if still not strong enough, ad 100-200mg 5-HTP plus 5-10mg time released melatonin. works best if you haven’t eaten at least for 3h before going to bed. also be sure to avoid everything with glutamate (MSG) and aspartame in it. no one can sleep properly on this stuff.

    I should’ve mentioned that in the post. I take magnesium and tryptophan. I believe they help, but now and then the insomnia wins.

  16. Neil Fraser-Smith

    Just pretend you are in Australia. It’s only 4.40PM here.

    Now that you mention it, as I was working away in the week hours of Sunday morning, it was on a project for an attorney in Australia. I told my wife I should get a job with an Australian company and telecommute.

  17. Bruce

    I am lucky to not have the insomnia problem that you have, but, usually once a week I have the laying in bed and over thinking some problem. It could be a big or small problem. My mind will twist away on it for two to three or more hours. I usually get out of bed after that, take 3 Advil. Watch some rerun on TV for a half hour and that seems to do the trick. I can go back to bed and fall asleep within 15 minutes. Even luckier for me, I am now retired. When I got up for work at 3:45 every day for 30 years, a night like that was miserable.

    Two things seem to cause it for me. Sugar in the late afternoon, and Chinese food for dinner. I try to avoid both.

    I’ve tried to spot a dietary pattern, but I don’t think there is one for my insomnia. I know beer at night makes it hard for me to sleep, but I rarely drink the stuff anymore.

  18. Dave Wilson

    I’m very similar, although I did notice that the further into ketosis I am the harder it is for me to turn off my brain. Coincidentally, I’m a former programmer as well.

    I’ve found that melatonin (quick release + slow release) helps. On nights where I work out, I have also tried adding a glass of raw milk with whey protein before I go to bed and it does wonders. I just budget in the carbs into my daily allowance.

    Yesterday I took a nap for about an hour when I put the kids down for their nap, and I couldn’t do more than 5 hours last night before I had to get up this morning, even though I didn’t have to get up for two more hours.

    Trytophan seem to help me. Just not every time. I’d heard about ketosis as factor, but I’m just as prone to it after a pizza as after a steak.

  19. Olga

    Hi Tom:

    I used to have the same problem. I did a tonne of reading and came to the conclusion that I was zinc deficient, likely due to years of low fat, low protein, high carb eating (Dave Dixon posted a link on twitter yesterday to a study linking high carb diets to zinc deficiency. Here’s the link: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/326/7386/409). Zinc may not be the cause of all insomnia, but it was the problem in my case, along with a high saturated fat, high protein, low carb diet, of course. Thanks for this very informative web site.

    Can’t hurt to try. I also take L-tryptophan, which seems to have helped. It’s just not quite foolproof.

  20. PHK

    sounds like you have DSPS (delayed sleep phase syndrome?). I dont’ think you are insominiac.

    i have no trouble falling asleep but i just don’t get sleepy until after 1:30AM (at least). but unlike you, i have a regular job.

    paleo-diet has helps many of my health problems. but this is one area that makes it worse cause i have more energy now.

    why fight nature? just accept where your circadium clock wants to be.

    regards

    I agree. I typically go to bed after 1:00 AM and then get a full night’s sleep. When the insomnia comes around, I go to bed at 1:00 or 2:00, stare at the ceiling, give up at 3:00, go downstairs and get back to work.

  21. D. Sterner

    What were the sleep habits of cave-peeps? I read an account of modern hunter gatherers that woke up and went on a baboon hunt at 2 or 3am. Most pre-industrial societies are big on naps (afternoon siesta anyone?). Tired? Sleep. Not tired? Not sleep. Me think good idea.

    Several intesting threads on sleep over at PaleoHacks. Here’s one:
    http://paleohacks.com/questions/2509/anyone-getting-less-sleep-on-a-paleo-diet

    Interesting. I’d probably enjoy a culture with an afternoon siesta as well.

  22. qualia

    have u tried some supplements for this? try popping some magnesium orotate or glycinate + some GABA pills like 1h before you want to go to bed. this calms everyone down at least a bit. if still not strong enough, ad 100-200mg 5-HTP plus 5-10mg time released melatonin. works best if you haven’t eaten at least for 3h before going to bed. also be sure to avoid everything with glutamate (MSG) and aspartame in it. no one can sleep properly on this stuff.

    I should’ve mentioned that in the post. I take magnesium and tryptophan. I believe they help, but now and then the insomnia wins.

  23. Gerard Pinzone

    You’ve described me to a tee. I could be tired all day, but come 11 PM, I start to wake up and get energized. I sometimes wish I had a way to stop time during the day so I could rest and allow my body to catch up with the clock.

    I guess we’d both make good night watchmen.

  24. Jan

    Hitting peri-menopause did it for me – I’ll sleep just fine for weeks (occasionally, if I’m fortunate, months) and then boom! Insomnia. For DAYS. (Right now, it’s been well over a week.) Like you, this has been a problem no matter what I eat/drink – it happened when I ate a lot of grains/starches and drank a lot of alcohol, and it’s happening now, when I eat no grains/starches and drink very little alcohol. It sucks like a bucket of ticks.

    I know I have more to say about the subject, but…I’m too damn tired to.

    I imagine all of us who are prone to it have looked for the magic pattern. I understand why people come to depend on drugs, although I’m determined to avoid that. After my shoulder surgery, I was on vicodin for weeks and slept like a rock. I missed the instant sleep, but couldn’t stand feeling fuzzy all day.

  25. Amy Dungan

    I have the same problem Tom. I’m a natural night owl and I struggle to sleep on a normal schedule. I usually don’t sleep well until after 1 am or so and then I may or may not sleep solid until around 7, when John gets up. It’s never predictable. Many times I can’t get my thoughts to stop and I end up falling asleep from sheer exhaustion later. I’ve tried lots of remedies, but so far nothing works.

    I’m going to go with the great minds thinking alike theory here. I presume John is a morning person. One of us always seems to marry one of them.

  26. Bruce

    I am lucky to not have the insomnia problem that you have, but, usually once a week I have the laying in bed and over thinking some problem. It could be a big or small problem. My mind will twist away on it for two to three or more hours. I usually get out of bed after that, take 3 Advil. Watch some rerun on TV for a half hour and that seems to do the trick. I can go back to bed and fall asleep within 15 minutes. Even luckier for me, I am now retired. When I got up for work at 3:45 every day for 30 years, a night like that was miserable.

    Two things seem to cause it for me. Sugar in the late afternoon, and Chinese food for dinner. I try to avoid both.

    I’ve tried to spot a dietary pattern, but I don’t think there is one for my insomnia. I know beer at night makes it hard for me to sleep, but I rarely drink the stuff anymore.

  27. Dave Wilson

    I’m very similar, although I did notice that the further into ketosis I am the harder it is for me to turn off my brain. Coincidentally, I’m a former programmer as well.

    I’ve found that melatonin (quick release + slow release) helps. On nights where I work out, I have also tried adding a glass of raw milk with whey protein before I go to bed and it does wonders. I just budget in the carbs into my daily allowance.

    Yesterday I took a nap for about an hour when I put the kids down for their nap, and I couldn’t do more than 5 hours last night before I had to get up this morning, even though I didn’t have to get up for two more hours.

    Trytophan seem to help me. Just not every time. I’d heard about ketosis as factor, but I’m just as prone to it after a pizza as after a steak.

  28. Kelly

    Have you tried any slightly less legal herbal supplements? I have 2 friends and 1 sibling with diagnosed bi-polar disorders and that is the only “supplement” that works to help them sleep. I understand you are a family man and this might not work for you but I know it has helped many people tackle a sleepless night.

    Nothing less than legal. Although I have disagreements with the drug laws, I certainly can’t risk violating them with a family to support.

  29. Olga

    Hi Tom:

    I used to have the same problem. I did a tonne of reading and came to the conclusion that I was zinc deficient, likely due to years of low fat, low protein, high carb eating (Dave Dixon posted a link on twitter yesterday to a study linking high carb diets to zinc deficiency. Here’s the link: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/326/7386/409). Zinc may not be the cause of all insomnia, but it was the problem in my case, along with a high saturated fat, high protein, low carb diet, of course. Thanks for this very informative web site.

    Can’t hurt to try. I also take L-tryptophan, which seems to have helped. It’s just not quite foolproof.

  30. D. Sterner

    What were the sleep habits of cave-peeps? I read an account of modern hunter gatherers that woke up and went on a baboon hunt at 2 or 3am. Most pre-industrial societies are big on naps (afternoon siesta anyone?). Tired? Sleep. Not tired? Not sleep. Me think good idea.

    Several intesting threads on sleep over at PaleoHacks. Here’s one:
    http://paleohacks.com/questions/2509/anyone-getting-less-sleep-on-a-paleo-diet

    Interesting. I’d probably enjoy a culture with an afternoon siesta as well.

  31. Jo

    I take 5-http and magnesium as well, and it seems to give me a better sleep but as you say it is not reliable. I tried intermittent fasting (IF) a week ago and noticed I slept better. Not sure why or if it was just coincidence.

    I am still in 9-5 land, but trying to become self employed as we speak!

  32. Jo

    ps

    Was just thinking, many Europeans have a siesta and then work long into the night. I think I would choose this way of resting. A snooze after lunch then start work about 3 or 4 and work till late. Even today it is not unusual for shops and banks to close for lunch for several hours. Although frustrating for those of us not used to it, I think they have the right idea.

    It sounds very civilized to me.

  33. Gerard Pinzone

    You’ve described me to a tee. I could be tired all day, but come 11 PM, I start to wake up and get energized. I sometimes wish I had a way to stop time during the day so I could rest and allow my body to catch up with the clock.

    I guess we’d both make good night watchmen.

  34. Jan

    Hitting peri-menopause did it for me – I’ll sleep just fine for weeks (occasionally, if I’m fortunate, months) and then boom! Insomnia. For DAYS. (Right now, it’s been well over a week.) Like you, this has been a problem no matter what I eat/drink – it happened when I ate a lot of grains/starches and drank a lot of alcohol, and it’s happening now, when I eat no grains/starches and drink very little alcohol. It sucks like a bucket of ticks.

    I know I have more to say about the subject, but…I’m too damn tired to.

    I imagine all of us who are prone to it have looked for the magic pattern. I understand why people come to depend on drugs, although I’m determined to avoid that. After my shoulder surgery, I was on vicodin for weeks and slept like a rock. I missed the instant sleep, but couldn’t stand feeling fuzzy all day.

  35. Amy Dungan

    I have the same problem Tom. I’m a natural night owl and I struggle to sleep on a normal schedule. I usually don’t sleep well until after 1 am or so and then I may or may not sleep solid until around 7, when John gets up. It’s never predictable. Many times I can’t get my thoughts to stop and I end up falling asleep from sheer exhaustion later. I’ve tried lots of remedies, but so far nothing works.

    I’m going to go with the great minds thinking alike theory here. I presume John is a morning person. One of us always seems to marry one of them.

  36. Kelly

    Have you tried any slightly less legal herbal supplements? I have 2 friends and 1 sibling with diagnosed bi-polar disorders and that is the only “supplement” that works to help them sleep. I understand you are a family man and this might not work for you but I know it has helped many people tackle a sleepless night.

    Nothing less than legal. Although I have disagreements with the drug laws, I certainly can’t risk violating them with a family to support.

  37. qualia

    ah, btw, also be sure to turn down screen brightness of your monitors when working late. the bright light from screens that don’t automatically adjust to the environmental lighting can stay waaay too bright if you don’t turn them down manually at night!

    Good idea. They are bright.

  38. Jo

    I take 5-http and magnesium as well, and it seems to give me a better sleep but as you say it is not reliable. I tried intermittent fasting (IF) a week ago and noticed I slept better. Not sure why or if it was just coincidence.

    I am still in 9-5 land, but trying to become self employed as we speak!

  39. Jo

    ps

    Was just thinking, many Europeans have a siesta and then work long into the night. I think I would choose this way of resting. A snooze after lunch then start work about 3 or 4 and work till late. Even today it is not unusual for shops and banks to close for lunch for several hours. Although frustrating for those of us not used to it, I think they have the right idea.

    It sounds very civilized to me.

  40. Lori

    I have a similar problem: I feel wide awake at 10 p.m. Usually, if I just get in bed and turn the lights out, I fall asleep within a few minutes.

    A few things that help during a patch of insomnia: turning off the computer at least an hour before bed and not watching any disturbing shows during the evening. I often see the suggestion to go to bed at the same time every night, but since I like to go out during the week (those are the good dance nights), that’s not an option for me.

    Since starting a low-carb diet, I sleep much more soundly, and need a lot less sleep, but still like to stay up late.

    When I was still a big starch-eater, I used to get restless legs at night. At least that’s gone.

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