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A Biochemical Important to Sleep

If you expect this post to be about melatonin, then you are in for a surprise. I’m going to talk about adenosine, a molecule you may never have heard of. If you struggle with insomnia, then adenosine is definitely your friend in the struggle for sleep.

Adenosine is actually a waste product of regular cellular metabolism, as cells utilize adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the energy currency of cells and as it is used and broken down, adenosine is left over. Adenosine accumulates over the course of the day. When enough A1 adenosine receptors in the brain are full of adenosine, the result is sleepiness. The more adenosine that accumulates, the sleepier you get—with an exception.

There is another common chemical, and it blocks adenosine receptors. Those of you who view sleep as the enemy of productivity likely utilize this chemical in your quest to stave off sleep. Which chemical am I referring to? Caffeine. Caffeine sneaks into the receptors, preventing adenosine from plugging in. This is how caffeine disrupts sleep and causes us to feel energetic even when we actually have a physiological need for sleep.

Adenosine is broken down by the body throughout the day but during the day our cellular processes create more adenosine than is broken down, allowing it to slowly accumulate over the course of the day. At night, when the body is at rest, the enzyme which breaks down adenosine is able to deplete the accumulated supply. By morning, the levels of adenosine in the brain have been largely depleted, helping to set the conditions for you to awaken and begin your day.

This is a simplistic overview of adenosine and I want to be clear that there are multiple other neurochemicals and hormones (such as melatonin) which are involved in regulating our sleep-wake cycles. The reason I am highlighting adenosine, however, is that you can have some impact on how much you accumulate throughout the course of the day. Activity is the key as, remember, adenosine is the byproduct of cellular energy processes. If you engage in more activities which require energy, then you will create more adenosine accumulation in your brain. So taking an easy walk around the block is going to generate more adenosine than sitting on your couch watching TV and walking around two blocks is going to do more than walking around one block.

Sometimes it feels like we are prisoners of the insomnia. We can’t predict which nights we’ll sleep reasonably well and which nights we lie there watching the clock cycle through the hours. So it may be exciting and empowering to know that this is one tool you have in your fight for better sleep. If you suffer from insomnia, you can make modest efforts to be more active to help build adenosine for the coming night. This might be through going to the gym to exercise or it might be doing little things to increase your activity during the day, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking at the far end of the parking lot and walking.

On the flip side, you also now understand why it’s important to be careful about how much caffeine you consume and how late in the day you consume it. You can bolster the effectiveness of your adenosine-building efforts by avoiding caffeine for at least 7 hours before you want to go to sleep. (People metabolize caffeine at different rates, so you might be able to get away with consuming caffeine 5 hours before bedtime or you might be someone who can’t have it 9 hours before bedtime. You have to do experiments to determine what your own individual tolerance is. Note that we build tolerance to caffeine so occasional use of caffeine will lead to different results than chronic use of caffeine).

We all know exercise and activity is good for us and many of us are not getting enough of it during the day. If you suffer from insomnia, this might be the motivation you need to start making the effort to be more active. Please know that I’m not saying that you can cure chronic insomnia with activity (chronic insomnia involves hyperarousal and it’s not always easy to overcome that through activity alone) but you can definitely tilt the odds of sleep in your favor.

If you suffer from insomnia, let’s schedule an appointment to talk about how I can help you quickly break your insomnia and get the sleep you deserve. Give me a call at (816) 226-4678.

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