• Research has found that people with insomnia have different levels of brain activity, even when sleeping. (Tetra images RF/Getty Images)Source: Tetra images RF/Getty Images
New research shows that the brains of insomniacs struggle to turn off different regions (associated with self-awareness and rumination) even when asleep. Is that the reason you can’t sleep?
Evelyn Lewin

10 Nov 2016 - 2:33 PM  UPDATED 10 Nov 2016 - 2:33 PM

For some people, falling asleep is easy. They close their eyes, get nice and comfy, and before they know it, they've drifted off.

Then there are those who find falling asleep more challenging.

They toss and turn; not just physically, but mentally too. Their minds whir and they dwell on worries about their day, their long-term concerns; pretty much everything.

If you're in the latter camp, you're far from alone, with the Better Health Channel stating that around one third of people experience insomnia from time to time.

Now new research shows there may be a biological cause for your symptoms.

While previous thinking assumed that the brain was either 'on' when awake or 'off' when asleep, this research found that people with insomnia have different levels of brain activity even when sleeping.

Published in the journal SLEEP in October 2016, the research analysed 44 patients diagnosed with insomnia and 40 good sleepers.

In insomniacs, the brain regions that didn’t disengage (or ’switch off’) were those related to functions such as self-awareness, mood and rumination.

In other words, insomniacs may be 'wired' differently to others.

Explainer: what is insomnia and what can you do about it?
For an unlucky 3 per cent of Australians, these sleep disturbances may last a lot longer and lead to a diagnosis of insomnia.

Sleep consultant Dr David Cunnington says such findings fit in with the growing idea that the brain doesn’t sleep as a “uniform organ”.

The parts of the brain that don’t switch off in those with insomnia are known as the default mode network. Dr Cunnington explains that this is the part of the brain that’s usually active when a person is focused on the outside world and the brain is at rest, when a person is awake.

He says this ties in with people’s descriptions of their symptoms during sleep when they have insomnia.

“[They will say], ‘I didn’t switch off, I still had awareness, I still had active ruminations’.”

Naturally, these findings beg the question: what comes first? Are the brains of insomniacs wired differently from the outset? Or do people develop insomnia, which then changes the biology of their brain?

Dr Cunnington says the answer is unknown.

He thinks some people may be predisposed to brain changes, while others may develop them after poor sleep.

Chicken and egg questions aside, if people with insomnia have brains that don’t switch off as well as others, does this change how they should be treated?

Not at all, says Dr Cunnington, who emphasises that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) remains the preferred “long-term fix”. 

He says short-term fixes such as sleeping pills can offer temporary relief, but do not address the underlying issue, nor change the brain’s ‘wiring’.

Sleep psychologist Rosemary Clancy agrees.

She says the brain has a ‘default’ level of alertness it will return to even if you use medicine, like sleeping pills, to help suppress it.

“Once the effect of the depressant medication [such as sleeping pills] wears off, the central nervous system ‘rebounds’ with heightened arousal.”

This is why she says it’s imperative to work on the underlying issues - through CBT - rather than use a short-term fix.

If you think such findings are a licence to feel helpless about your sleep, or to concede failure as the situation is beyond your control, you’re on the wrong track, says Clancy.

She says people can lower their brain’s “reactivity” over time via activities such as relaxation or meditation.

(Mind you, she says it’s common for people with insomnia to have made “half-hearted attempts” in the past with such tools, giving up before they’ve proven effective. Hence they harbour a false belief such activities are pointless.)

Dr Cunnington says it’s also important not to feel disheartened about the biological component to this issue.

“Just because your brain is behaving differently when you have insomnia, doesn’t mean it is permanently changed or broken.

“In fact, we think that with appropriate treatment - such as using CBT and changing thinking and behaviour around sleep - you can induce brain changes to produce more normal behaviours.”

In other words, even if your brain is wired differently when you have insomnia, through proper treatment, it can be rewired.

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