Can ADHD cause insomnia? Actually, it’s worse than just sleep problems

ADHD gets blamed for a variety of mental health concerns. But, can ADHD cause Insomnia and other sleep issues?

First, a little backstory on ADHD for the uninitiated.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve either struggled with ADHD yourself or know someone who has. And you definitely are aware of exactly how frustrating it can be.

As it turns out, “Can ADHD cause insomnia?” does not have such a cut-and-dry answer. We’ll get to more details of that soon, but first…

I want to give some basic details to people who are still learning about our struggles.

So, for you “normie” Moms, Dads, Boyfriends and Girlfriends, this part is for you. The ADHDers can skip to the next section if they haven’t already.

Adhd partners

Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a complex issue, which means that many people misunderstand it.

ADHD is most commonly characterized by persistent inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity patterns. However, it gets much more complex than that, and depending on the type of ADD a person has, their symptoms may show up differently.

The prevalence of ADHD ranges between 2% and 7%, depending on the diagnostic criteria used, age group studied, and population sampled.

The most recent estimates suggest that approximately 4 million adults in the United States meet the full DSM-5 criteria for ADHD. I have it on good authority that the actual number of people dealing with it is much higher.

One of the most common symptoms of ADHD, of course, is having trouble focusing. When people with ADHD try to focus on a specific activity, they often end up feeling frustrated and stressed. But to what degree?

They may also struggle to complete tasks without interruptions. These problems can lead to poor grades in school, lower productivity at work, and, once again, more stress.

But … Can ADHD Cause Insomnia?

The case seems pretty strong, but with a few twists.

Growing evidence demonstrates that ADHD may in fact contribute to poor sleep outcomes. Several studies have found common links between ADHD, insomnia, and excessive daytime sleepiness.

More than half of individuals diagnosed with ADHD report having difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep.

These results are consistent even after controlling for comorbid psychiatric disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder which can cause resistance to bedtimes for children and teens.

Further, ADHD severity has a direct correlation to poorer subjective nighttime sleep (e.g., shorter total hours asleep, less restful) and poor daytime functioning (i.e., lower self-reported energy levels, greater number of missed school/work days).

The exact reasons for the underlying association between ADHD and sleep remain unclear. Several potential factors may explain it, although which is the cause, and which is the result.?

can adhd cause insomnia

Which Came First? ADHD or Sleeplessness?

There are a few interesting facts that raise more questions.

First, ADHD is frequently accompanied by coexisting conditions such as anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression are also known to interfere with sleep.

Second, we know ADHD is associated with increased arousal levels, which should disrupt sleep, but it gets more confusing.

As it turns out, poor sleep may make ADHD symptoms worse. Additionally, poor sleep causes symptoms in non-ADHD patients, that look like ADHD symptoms.

Lack of concentration, irritability and lack of patience can be both symptoms of ADHD and too little sleep.

What’s even more complex is that when combined, the two factors can cause a negative feedback loop.

For example, insufficient sleep will likely cause you to have trouble concentrating.  Trouble concentrating will increase your stress levels.  Increased stress leads to difficulty sleeping, and the cycle repeats.

Finally, to throw one more variable into the mix, stimulant medications used to treat ADHD are well known to exacerbate sleep problems.

There is clear evidence that ADHD contributes heavily to Insomnia and sleeplessness. Sadly, restless nights may not be your biggest concern.

What Could Possibly be Worse than Insomnia?

Sleep deprivation is a common problem for most people across all ages and demographics, and particularly for people with ADHD.

The average person spends as much as a third of their life asleep. Yet most of us are unaware of the importance of sleep. Instead, we assume we sleep adequately because we feel fine during the day.

Sleep is an essential component of human health and well-being.  Ongoing research is still discovering how deep this link goes. The research consistently finds that more sleep equals better health. And less sleep… well, the results tend to look worse with every study.

Insomniacs usually complain of poor concentration, low motivation and decreased interest in activities. These problems can lead to depression and anxiety.

Adults with attention deficit disorder, compounded with lack of sleep, may experience mood swings and become irritable and impatient with others. This can seriously affect relationships, pushing some into isolation and even deeper depression.

Without adequate rest, we cannot function properly. As a result, our immune system suffers, and we may develop chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

too tired to drive

Chronic sleep deprivation also affects memory, judgment, and decision-making and, predictably, slows down reaction times, which can have disastrous results. Studies show that not sleeping well can lead to making driving mistakes that are more deadly than drunk driving.

Between tattered relationships, chronic depression, heart disease, and a potential head-on collision thrown in for good measure, I’d say it’s clear things can get worse than just sleepless nights.

With all that in mind, we should consider what can be done to try and improve our situation. Luckily, there are some steps we can take that have had good results.

What Keeps Me Awake?

People who suffer from insomnia often blame themselves for their condition. However, many factors contribute, so it’s worth looking at each of these individually and trying to make changes wherever possible.

For example, stress, caffeine, alcohol, medications and medical conditions can disrupt standard sleep patterns. Some of these have obvious fixes, but we have some tips for the others ahead.

Additionally, many people also suffer from sleep apnea. As you might be aware, this disorder occurs when airflow becomes obstructed during sleep. As a result, sleep apnea patients often feel exhausted upon awakening. We’ll have some more info on this in a bit.

The prevalence of insomnia is a bigger problem today than ever, primarily because we live in an age where our lives revolve around technology. As a result, we spend more time staring at screens than sleeping.

Constant stimulation and excess light at all hours make us tired and stressed. When we finally fall asleep, we often wake up groggy and sluggish.

Plus, many of us don’t get enough exercise or eat well. All these things create a vicious cycle of fatigue, low energy, and poor sleeping habits.

The big question is, do these issues affect people with ADHD more than others?

The Importance of Sleep for People with ADHD

As mentioned, the symptoms of sleep deprivation resemble many of the symptoms of ADHD and, in many cases, will magnify the severity of ADHD symptoms. So, it only makes sense that sleep becomes even more critical when trying to mitigate the symptoms of ADHD

But there’s another reason for sleeping well, directly impacting those with ADHD.

Sleep helps us grow, learn and develop. It allows us to consolidate memories and store them for future reference.

girl struggling with confusion

Sleep deprivation makes us more likely to act impulsively. We become more impatient and lose our ability to control our reactions. This means we make poorer decisions than usual and often do things we regret later.

This is also why we often find it hard to stick to healthy eating plans and exercise routines when we’re tired. We need more fuel when we are tired, and our brains crave instant gratification, so we reward ourselves with unhealthy foods.

Our brains are wired to look for quick fixes to problems; when we are tired, we are much more susceptible to these impulses.

Studies show that even when well-rested, we are far more likely to make bad choices under pressure. So the more tired we are, the less likely we are to make rational decisions.

Studies have found that people who slept fewer hours per night had higher levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – in their blood. Cortisol is known to play a role in memory formation and emotional regulation.

Another study by researchers at the University of Chicago showed that people who slept less than six hours per night performed worse on cognitive function tests than those who got seven or eight hours of shut-eye.

Plainly speaking, it seems that anything that impairs brain functionality will have a significant effect on those of us who deal with ADHD symptoms regularly. So what can we do?

Learn How to Get More Sleep to Ease ADHD Symptoms Naturally

We know that lack of sleep can enhance ADHD symptoms. It stands to reason, then, that increasing the hours we sleep each night will help to lessen the severity of ADHD symptoms, but how do we do that naturally?

To ease ADHD symptoms through more sleep (naturally), we need to find out why sleep issues happen in the first place. So let’s look at some of the causes for too little sleep as discussed earlier.

Caffeine and insomnia

A common cause of distraction and sleeplessness is caffeine. Caffeine stimulates our brain and gives us energy. However, caffeine doesn’t give us any extra mental capacity. It really just keeps us awake longer.

Coffee is excellent for keeping us going throughout the day. Still, it’s only helpful to be focused when we actually WANT to be awake. Limiting caffeine, particularly in the afternoon and evening, is a great first step.

Food to avoid when trying to sleep

Another unpleasant cause we may experience is indigestion and bloat if we overeat. Eating too much makes us feel bloated, uncomfortable, and unwell.

This will make us feel miserable and distract us even further.

Simple things we can do include being mindful of food amount and drinking plenty of water. Water helps flush toxins out of our system, which supports digestion, and helps keep us hydrated and energized. Drinking six to eight glasses of water each day is recommended.

As a general rule, try not to eat two to three hours before bedtime and try not to drink anything an hour before bedtime to limit needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Exercise for ADHD and Sleeplessness

Exercise is a well-established way to relieve stress, improve mood and boost energy levels throughout the day. It’s been proven that regular exercise reduces anxiety and depression symptoms and increases sleep quality.

But here’s the kicker – it also helps you fall asleep faster. Exercise increases blood flow throughout the body, stimulating melatonin production, a hormone that regulates our circadian rhythms.

Natural melatonin promotes restful sleep because it suppresses the brain activity associated with wakefulness. So, more exercise means better sleep.

The best part? There’s no downside to exercising regularly. Studies show that even moderate amounts of physical activity (like walking) improve health, quality of life, and sleep.

ADHD Medications and Sleep

If you’re taking ADHD medications, you’ve probably already read the warnings on the bottle, and you’re aware that taking these medications in the afternoons or evenings will undoubtedly impact your sleep.

People will often take medications later because they deal with several other factors dragging them down during the day. Incorporating a holistic view of your rest and applying some of these techniques should have a positive effect, allowing you to restrict your medications.

As much as these issues contribute to sleeplessness, they are not the largest contributing factor keeping most of us awake.

The impact of stress on our sleep

One of the biggest causes of sleeplessness is stress.

We’ve all been there. We’re stressed, and our brain isn’t working correctly. Our minds are racing, and we’re unable to concentrate.

up late instead of sleeping

Our body releases adrenaline when stressed, making us more alert and ready for action. But adrenaline also makes us feel anxious and agitated.

After the anxiety is created by the adrenaline release, the body responds by sending cortisol (the stress hormone) making us feel tired and sluggish. We can’t function well when we’re both stressed and exhausted. 

We need wind-down time at night, without screens and new input. Keeping a specific sleep schedule and a bedtime routine is especially beneficial for adults with ADHD to keep from getting distracted, overstimulated, and stressed out before bed.

Brain hacking to reduce stress and get more sleep.

You can hack your brain to solve problems. To create ideas. To find answers. To figure out how to get what you want, even more sleep.

Brain hacking manipulates your mind through meditation, biofeedback, neurofeedback, hypnosis, guided imagery, and other techniques.

Gaining control over one’s thoughts, emotions, behavior, and physical state helps to achieve mental and psychologcal well-being.

The most common forms of brain hacking include meditation, biofeedback, self-hypnosis and guided imagery. All of which can help sleep patterns, reduce stress, and increase the natural ability to fall asleep.

Meditation

If you’ve been struggling with sleep issues, meditation could help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. In addition to helping you relax, meditation helps clear your mind, making it easier to drift off to sleep.

As you continue meditating, you’ll probably notice that your mind begins to slow down during waking times as well, becoming easier to interact with. Your thoughts may become quieter and more manageable. Regular meditation is an evidence-based approach to treating ADHD; one of the benefits being better rest.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback involves monitoring physiological functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, muscle tension and respiration, and then adjusting these variables to achieve desired results.

Using modern sleep trackers is an excellent way to alert yourself to where your stress levels are throughout the day and at night. Just seeing these numbers will be a reminder to slow down and take a breath. Eventually, this process becomes second nature.

Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback is another form of biofeedback where feedback is given directly from the nervous system. This technique is used to train people to regulate their brain waves. This is another area worth considering, and there is a lot of information out there. I’ll give you some more information about this below.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis is another method that may be beneficial to helping you fall and stay asleep.

Hypnosis is typically achieved through verbal suggestions, eye contact, hand gestures, and body language. You will usually need to consult a professional hypnotist to see if it will work for you.

Self-hypnosis

Self-hypnosis means putting yourself into a hypnotic trance state, often without external stimuli. Guided imagery involves using visualization techniques to induce altered states of consciousness.

This method is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll provide some additional information toward the end of this article.

Steps You Can Take to Reduce Stress and Insomnia

If you’re stressed out (the default state for many of us with ADHD), chances are it’s affecting your sleep.

All you need is sleep

The best way to deal with stress on your own, is to recognize its source and learn to manage it. When we do this, we can relax and sleep better.

Here are four tips to help you reduce stress throughout the day and help you sleep better.

  1. Be aware of your thoughts. Thoughts create feelings. So if you find yourself thinking negatively, ask yourself why. What am I afraid of? Why am I feeling this way?
  2. Writing in a journal at night to clear the thoughts left over from the day is an excellent way to help the mind let go.
  3. Focus on positive emotions. Positive emotions such as happiness, joy, and love increase serotonin levels, helping us to sleep better.
  4. The most important thing to do when trying to sleep is to relax.

How to Relax Before Bed for Better Sleep

If you frequently lay awake in bed thinking about tomorrow or worrying about falling asleep, you’re probably contributing to your insomnia.

Commit to relaxation techniques before bed every evening as part of your nighttime routine.

One of the easiest things you can do to reduce stress before bed is to focus on relaxing for five minutes each night before your scheduled bedtime. That’s right, just five minutes. Five minutes of relaxation is often more effective than any pill.

You might feel silly sitting alone in your room staring out the window, but it works. It’s been proven repeatedly that focusing on relaxing for even a few minutes helps you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

There’s nothing magical about it, either. Close your eyes, put your mind somewhere peaceful, and breathe deeply. Just focus on the breath. Don’t worry about counting sheep or imagining yourself floating on a cloud. Just let go and enjoy the moment. If your mind wanders, it can help to count backward from ten, each breath as one count, focusing on the breath. 

Afterward, open your eyes and repeat the same exercise whenever you wake up during the night. This simple trick will help you sleep better and improve your overall health, but there is even more we can do.

Developing a Positive Sleep Mindset

For us to feel better, we must do better. So much of our life is spent trying to improve ourselves, and yet there is nothing wrong with being human. We are designed to evolve, grow, and learn.

Problems arise when we become obsessed with improving ourselves. When we spend too much time thinking about how to change, we frequently compound the issue we’re trying to address. This is true for sleeplessness as well.

Recognize that sleep is a natural healthy state that allows us to recharge, renew, and refresh. Our bodies need sleep to function correctly. Without it, we lose focus, memory, energy and motivation.

In addition, sleep helps us recover from stress, maintain a healthy weight, and prevent disease.

There is no doubt that sleeping well is essential. Get comfortable with the idea that you deserve more sleep, and allow yourself to relax at night.

Prioritize sleep in your life appropriately, and practice a few of the methods mentioned above every day to improve your sleep.

Give yourself permission to embrace the benefits of sleep for your health and future.

More Resources for Exploring Alternative Ways to Manage Your Sleep.

To learn more about sleep apnea, see: Cureaus.com – ADHD and Sleep Apnea

To learn more about Neurofeedback, see: Drake Institute – neurofeedback for insomnia

And finally, to learn more about how hypnosis can help you with your sleep, visit: sleep.com – sleep hypnosis.

Specifically for those with a love/hate relationship with your ADHD.

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