Sleep problems are a common modern ailment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that ⅓ of Americans are sleeping less than the recommended amount, and studies show that about half of kids experience a sleep disorder at some point. But when you have ADHD, getting the rest you need every night can be even more challenging.
The link between ADHD and sleep
If you’ve ever woken up with a pounding headache, killer heartburn, and a rotten mood to top it all off, you know that sleep deprivation messes with every aspect of your health. In people with ADHD, poor sleep can exacerbate symptoms of restlessness, mood swings, forgetfulness, and more.
An estimated 30 to 70% of individuals with ADHD experience some kind of sleeping difficulty. Trouble falling and staying asleep are the most typical, but insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome are also common issues associated with ADHD.
Experts aren’t exactly sure what causes the ADHD brain to be more susceptible to sleep disturbances. One theory is that many of the areas that regulate sleep overlap with the regions that control attention, making it more likely for people with inattention to experience sleeplessness as well. Experts also think that structural abnormalities within the brain may play a role.
Behavioral symptoms of ADHD seem to contribute to sleeping problems as well. Many people with ADHD find themselves too wound up from the day to fall asleep. And excessive fidgeting and racing thoughts, which are sometimes more prevalent, only add to the problem.
This suggests a bidirectional relationship between ADHD and sleeping problems, with ADHD symptoms making it more difficult to get enough sleep, and sleep deprivation worsening ADHD symptoms during the day.
How to Sleep with ADHD
It can be frustrating to not be able to fall asleep even when you are completely exhausted. Because you feel tired, your ADHD symptoms may worsen, pulling you into an unhealthy cycle that can be hard to break.
But, by improving your sleep hygiene — aka the habits that help you get a consistently better night’s sleep — you can start to get a hold of your nighttime routine and embark on a path towards a healthier slumber.
Before going to bed
If it seems like your brain kicks into turbo-charged mode as soon as your head touches the pillow, you need to start winding down a few hours before your actual bedtime. Help prepare your body for sleep by practicing one or more of these strategies 2 to 3 hours before going to bed:
- Eat a healthy, balanced dinner. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and sugar
- Drink a warm cup of tea, but avoid infusions with caffeine, like green or black tea
- Take a warm shower
- Do some light stretching. Stretching before bed relaxes your muscles and keeps you from going to bed with sleep-disrupting cramps and aches
- Use essential oils, like lavender or sage, which have been shown to promote restful sleep
- Cut off electronics at least an hour before going to bed. The glow that your phone and tablet emits disrupt the natural secretion of melatonin and increases the amount of time it takes to fall asleep
When it’s time to go to bed
If you think that bedtimes are just for kids, think again. Having an established bedtime routine, which includes going to bed at roughly the same time every night, helps you fall asleep faster and function better during the day. Your bedtime routine must be unique to your and your nighttime preferences. Use these tips to build yours:
- Put on soothing music. Many people find that relaxing music helps them sleep better. Create a bedtime playlist with relaxing songs or calming sounds, or consider investing in a white noise machine
- Avoid bright lights. Let your body know it’s time to wind down by dimming the lights and shutting off electronic devices
- Meditate. Meditation is a potent tool for calming an overactive ADHD brain. If you are new to meditation, try an app or a podcast
- Create the optimum sleep environment by ensuring your room is at a pleasant temperature and there aren’t any noises that can disturb your sleep. Also, make a habit of drawing the curtains before going to sleep to eliminate all outside light
- Declutter your room. Have you heard the saying “clutter desk, cluttered mind? Well, the same goes for your bedroom. Even if you have every intention of going to sleep, when you are in a messy environment, your brain can’t “tune out” and relax. Studies show that people with cluttered bedrooms take longer to fall asleep than those with tidy rooms
- Avoid daytime naps
If you wake up in the middle of the night
There are two things you need to avoid if you wake up in the middle of the night: watching the clock and reaching out for a sleeping pill. Watching the clock will only get you more anxious and wound up, delaying your efforts to doze off again. And sleeping pills, which may interfere with some ADHD medications, should only be used as a last resort, and only when prescribed by your doctor.
Try these tips for going back to sleep:
- Try breathing exercises
- Listen to your bedtime playlist
- Move to a different room
- Adjust the temperature
Consider sleeping aids
When all else fails, a natural supplement may help you get some much-needed shut-eye. These science-backed vitamins and extracts have also been shown to improve symptoms of ADHD:
Magnesium: people with ADHD seem to have lower levels of magnesium, which is an essential mineral for brain health. In a study of 50 children diagnosed with ADHD, researchers found that those who took a magnesium supplement for six months showed a significant decrease in hyperactive behaviors. Other studies have shown that magnesium can improve insomnia and reduce sleep onset latency, which is the time it takes you to fall asleep.
Omega-3 fatty acids: found in fish, nuts, and dietary supplements, omega-3 fatty acids help reduce the symptoms of ADHD that may make it difficult to fall asleep at night, like restlessness and impulsivity.
Valerian: research shows that valerian extract can improve sleep quality and reduce the amount of time needed to fall asleep. It people with ADHD, valerian root has been shown to improve symptoms of hyperactivity and promote relaxation.
Zinc: decreased zinc levels in children have been linked to trouble concentrating, reduced learning abilities, and ADHD. Research suggests that used in combination with amphetamines, zinc may help reduce the dosage needed to treat kids with ADHD.
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