If you have ADHD and you struggle to fall asleep, you’re not crazy, you’re not being bad and most of all, you’re not alone. Several studies have revealed that people with ADHD are more likely to have irregular circadian rhythms. What’s a circadian rhythm? According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, “circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in your environment.”
Are You Out of Sync?
Circadian rhythms are the changes that happen in your body that make you sleepy at night (when it gets dark) and make you want to wake up in the morning as it grows light. As many as 70% of adults with ADHD complain they have difficulty falling asleep, wake up tired (or not at all without enormous effort) and feel out-of-sync with the rest of the world.
If you work independently and don’t need to follow the same schedule as the rest of the population (perhaps you live on a desert island?!), this may not be a problem. (Sounds pretty lonely though!) However, if you must interact with family, friends, peers, customers or anyone else who’s not on the same schedule as you while they’re awake, this can cause problems.
It’s Not Just “Beauty Sleep”
Falling asleep at 1 or 2 AM may not be a problem if you’re a freelancer who answers to no one in real time and you can wake up at 9:30 or 10 AM, but if you have a day job or if customers expect you to answer the phone between 9 AM and 5 PM, you’ll have to cut your sleep short to make it to the office on time. The resulting lack of sleep will affect your ability to focus, your capacity to deal with and manage stress and the functioning of your working memory.
If you’re “tired” of struggling (wink! wink!) luckily, studies show that you can adjust your circadian cycles with a few relatively simple techniques. As someone who has struggled all my life with insomnia, I have tried many of these strategies myself. Here are a few that have the biggest impact.
Humans are like plants; our internal clock is usually set with daylight. When daylight hits your eyes, your brain signals your body to increase your body temperature and starts secreting hormones, like cortisol, to modify the electrical activity in the brain. In the evening, when the light begins to dim, this triggers the production of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. In ADHDers, however, melatonin production is often delayed.
- Manage Your Light
If you struggle to fall asleep, start dimming the lights at home as early as right after supper. Stay away from blue-light-emitting sources, like computer screens at least 3 to 4 hours before you need to fall asleep.
Many of my clients with ADHD report dramatically better sleep quality with earlier sleep onset when they engage in cardiovascular exercise (not at bedtime, but during the day!). Cardiovascular exercise is any activity that makes your heart beat faster for at least 20 minutes, such as jogging, taking a brisk walk, moderate biking, aerobics, cross-country skiing, hockey, basketball, skating, etc. Pick one or more sports you enjoy and do at least 20 minutes each day. You’ll find your sleep will come more easily.
- Top Up on Melatonin
Studies have shown that supplementing melatonin with light management can advance sleep onset. You can find melatonin supplements at some pharmacies and certainly at health food stores. They work even better when you use them in combination with light management.
- Zone into Sleep with Sound Waves
Research shows that the brain is frequency-following, that is, you can train it to fall into a certain brainwave pattern by listening to sounds in that frequency. Our brain regulates our state of wakefulness by changing the amplitude and frequency of brain waves. To fall asleep, we produce Delta waves in lengths of 0.5 to 4 Hz. Some sounds induce our brain to fall into Delta waves. I use the sounds of the ocean and find that it really works for me. My youngest daughter, Kyrie, and ADHDer, had problems falling asleep until we started playing ocean sounds, along with improving her sleep hygiene, at bedtime.
- Change Your Mind
Many ADHDers find their thoughts churn at bedtime, which keeps them from falling asleep. By thinking about what happened today or what will happen tomorrow, you’re activating certain hormones that keep you awake. Changing what’s going on in your mind might be as simple as reading stories – not work-related stuff – before bed. If you struggle to put a novel down, read short stories like the ones you’d find in Readers’ Digest.
- Do a Mind Dump
If you’re still plagued by concerns over what you have to do, dump all those thoughts in a notebook that you place next to your bed. “Dumping” will help you avoid staying awake because you’re afraid you’ll forget.
ADHDers need to be vigilant about taking care to engage in good sleep hygiene. Lack of sleep DOES NOT CAUSE ADHD; however, lack of sleep can make your symptoms worse, so taking care of your brain and its creative genius by sleeping enough can help reduce your struggles. Everyone, whether or not they have ADHD, needs 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep per night; less sleep than that and you’re not able to tap into your brain’s potential.
If you find that one of these strategies has helped you, or if you have your own approach that works wonders, please share it in the Comments section below.
And have a lifetime of great night’s sleep!
By Linda Walker, PCC, B. Admin. Linda is a certified ADHD Coach who helps adults with ADHD overcome the special challenges of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) they encounter at home and in the workplace. She is the creator of The Maximum Productivity Makeover for Creative Geniuses, a training program for adults with ADHD and the author of With Time to Spare. Coach Linda Walker
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