ADHD and Sleep

Did you know 

  • folks with ADD and ADHD are more likely to have broken sleep architecture, referring to those nice 90 minute cycles of deeper sleep punctuated by lighter sleep and dreaming? 
  • students with ADD are more likely to have night wakings, delayed sleep onset, even nightmares and sleep walking. And on top of that, what’s more interesting at 10pm than getting to bed? Answer: anything. 
  • and on top of that, folks with ADHD are often using stimulant medication which, for some, may delay sleep onset.

So, for all these reasons, it’s important if you’re living with ADD or ADHD to take your sleep seriously. For most of us, that means getting 6 to 8 hours of good, quality sleep every night. I’d like to recommend that you get to bed before midnight and you get up before 7 or so. And here’s why.

Working with the tide chart of your brain

Your brain has a 24 hour chemical cycle, and you want to honor that chemical cycle because it supports sleep, emotional functioning, and cognitive efficiency.

Here’s a metaphor. The ocean has a 24 hour cycle, and you want to work with it. You could certainly have a dinner party on the shore, but you want to consult the tide chart, plan the party while the water was heading out. Then before the tide came back, you want to make sure the party is over and everything’s put away. In the same way, you want to honor the 24 hour cycle of your brain’s chemistry.

And it looks like this for most of us. Around 9 or 10pm, GABA begins to peak. GABA is a brain chemical associated with relaxation and sleepiness. You could imagine our ancestors sitting around a campfire with a full belly. Around 9pm, they’d start to yawn and stretch, and they’d take advantage of that chemical window to go ahead and have a good night’s sleep. They didn’t have iPads and televisions and electric lights to keep them awake and break through that nice GABA window that supports sleep.

And then around 7 in the morning, serotonin begins to peak. Serotonin is a brain chemical associated with pleasure. It’s associated with a warm, nice feeling, waking up and looking forward to your day. You feel good about your life. You want to take advantage of that little window of warm – just feeling good.

A bit later in the morning, dopamine begins to peak. And dopamine is the chemical associated with reward and motivation. It’s the brain chemical associated with getting things done. If you’ve ever seen a kid successfully reach the next level of a video game, you’ve seen how excited she gets. She pumps her fists, and she says, “Boo-yah!” That boo-yah feeling is dopamine. You’re doing holiday shopping, it’s a crowded parking lot, and you find this sweet spot right in front of the store. “Yes!” That’s dopamine.

And dopamine helps us tackle difficult tasks and boring tasks, or intellectually challenging tasks. For most of us, we have about a 4, maybe 5 hour “dopamine window.” And you want to schedule your most difficult and demanding activities during that window. For most of us, it’s around 8am to noon.

For me it’s around 7am to noon. For you, it may be a little bit later. I can certainly work past noon, but I’m not as effective, certainly not as on fire. Most people who work an 8 hour day, I think, are probably just putting in 4 or 5 hours of really good, efficient work, and the rest of the time is spent talking to colleagues, idling around on the internet, or basically just dragging their feet.

So – my college student client with ADD who’s getting to bed at 3 in the morning then waking up at 10 in the morning is, in fact, getting 7 hours of sleep, but she’s working against that 24 hour brain chemistry cycle. They’re not checking the tide chart of their own brain.

My challenge to you is this – begin to think about your tide cycle. Notice when your brain beings to feel sleepy. Notice whether I’m right about that 4 to 5 hour window of dopamine burst when you’re really at your best in the morning. Then begin to schedule your activities around this 24 hour cycle.

Some practical tips

Here are some recommendations for managing that 24 hour chemical cycle.

Start with a regular bedtime that you honor – be very rigorous about getting to bed at that time. Then, wake up early. When you’re sleeping in, you’re not going to be tired the next night.

Avoid caffeine after about 3pm. Now obviously that’s going to vary. Some of you can have caffeine at 5, 6pm, even later and you sleep well. Others will need to stop using caffeine by noon or even a bit earlier. The point is this: caffeine is a drug. It affects our arousal and cognitive efficiency, and it may impact sleep onset. Pay attention to how it affects you. Stop using it at that point in the day where you know it’s going to interfere with sleep onset.

Another sleep-related tip: no screens in the bedroom. No televisions, no tablets, no smartphones. For two reasons. First, the content of screens is arousing, exciting, interesting, and dopaminergic. You don’t want to have that kind of arousal when you’re trying to get to sleep. The second reason to avoid screens in the bedroom is specific to smartphones and tablets. Many of these devices emit blue light which has the ability to interfere with the ability to fall asleep. It tricks your brain into thinking that it’s high noon.

Likewise, eliminate any stimulating media about 2 hours before bedtime. Video games, most music, television, and internet are all arousing and stimulating, making it difficult to fall asleep.

For parents, I’d recommend that you develop a 3, 4, or even 5-step predictable bedtime routine. Rather than just saying, “Hey, it’s 9 o’clock, let’s get to bed,” you might say, “Okay, in 15 minutes I’m going to need you to put on your pajamas. And then next, we’re going to change the lighting in the bedroom. Overheads off, turn on a nice lamp. Then we’re going to pick a book, or we’re going to tell some stories before we go to bed.” If you’re an adult, you might come up with a bedtime routine for yourself to begin to step down from your daytime arousal to your nighttime sleepiness.

So consider which of these recommendations you’d be willing to try right away. Think about how you can honor your sleep and honor your brain’s 24 hour chemical cycle.

Good night, moon.


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