Over a third of our lives is spent asleep—and for good reason! Getting regular, sufficient, and restful sleep is hugely important for our overall brain-body wellness. Lack of sleep has been associated with a host of concerns, including mood disturbances, reduced stress resilience, cardiovascular disorders, obesity, and more. Research has also found strong correlations between sleep deprivation and difficulty concentrating, slower reaction times, and trouble with storing and recalling memories. While we rest, the brain sorts through all the input from the day, weeds out any information that is deemed unimportant, and further encodes relevant information. Inadequate sleep makes it more difficult for the brain to form and maintain pathways that support not only learning and the creation of new memories, but also other processes necessary for day-to-do functioning.
Anyone with a sleep disorder or sleep difficulties understands the incredible impact chronic sleep deprivation has on every area of our lives. You may have experienced the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your cognitive processing, energy, mood, and bodily functions. This makes it difficult to be our best selves in relationships and in the roles we fill. It’s estimated that nearly 70 million adults in the U.S. have a diagnosable sleep disorder, while millions more are coping with sleep difficulties. Such disorders and difficulties affect everything from the ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get restful sleep. Because so much of our sleep-wake rhythms are controlled by the brain, it’s no surprise that neurotherapy has proven itself an effective, long-lasting approach to addressing sleep concerns!
Getting to the roots
Circadian rhythms refer to the physiological patterns that naturally occur on a 24 hour cycle. These rhythms direct a variety of bodily functions like body temperature, metabolism, hormone release, and sleep-wake cycles. Internal cues (e.g., biological clocks) and environmental cues (e.g., light) help to regulate these patterns, as well as various regions within the brain (e.g., the thalamo-cortical loop).
The hypothalamus is a small structure within the limbic system of our brains that plays a critical role in our circadian rhythms, particularly the sleep-wake cycle. Within the hypothalamus is a cell cluster called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which receives information about light
exposure and helps to translate that information into neuronal and hormonal activity involved in controlling circadian rhythms. The SNC sends signals to the pineal gland and activates the gland’s production of melatonin, aka the sleep hormone.
Neurons in other parts of the hypothalamus also deliver messages to the brainstem, inhibiting activity related to wakefulness and supporting the body’s ability to transition into sleep. Both the hypothalamus and brainstem are involved in the production of GABA, a necessary neurotransmitter for rest and relaxation. Other chemicals, like adenosine, that tell the body it’s time for sleep are released by the basal forebrain. Individuals with sleep disorders often show alterations in activity within the cortical activity described, making it more difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, and/or enter into a deep, rejuvinating sleep. It can impair their waking state, as well, leading to fatigue, grogginess, and brain fog throughout the day.
How we can help
Not all sleep issues are alike, and they can arise from various different underlying roots in the brain. Therefore, the first step would be to complete a comprehensive assessment that includes QEEG brain mapping, LORETA 3D neuroimaging, a psychosocial assessment, and a thorough discussion of symptoms and goals. This allows us to assess for the cortical, neurocognitive, psychological, and physiological patterns most commonly associated with sleep difficulties. From there, both neurofeedback and neurostimulation can be used to help balance out brain activity, improve communication between different regions, balance neurotransmitters, and train the brain toward healthier brain processes that promote quality sleep. We also have remote neurofeedback options that would allow you to train your brain at home right before bed!
Biofeedback, movement therapy, and mindfulness training are also great tools for gaining more control over the nervous system and physiological responses like heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension. Personalized nutritional and wellness coaching can help address any dietary factors related to sleep, while functional medicine testing can help reveal any other contributing factors to your sleep troubles. Neuropeptides and nootropics can also be used to heal the brain from sleep deprivation, boost mental energy, and improve overall brain function. Furthermore, we will provide extensive education and support to help you develop healthy sleep behaviors and hack your circadian rhythms. Whichever services you choose to engage with, we will work collaboratively with you to address your goals from an integrative lens so you can optimize your brain and maximize your potential!
What the research says
Because sleep issues have always plagued humans, it’s no surprise that there is an abundance of research on the cortical and physiological processes related to falling asleep, staying asleep, and getting quality rest. We know that the presence of slower brainwaves is important for priming the mind for rest. It then makes sense that if we can train our brain to produce more optimal neural activity both while awake and while preparing for bed, then we can directly address some of the root causes behind many sleep difficulties. More and more research is being conducted on how various neurotherapies and integrating approaches can support the functioning of this important human need: sleep.
One study conducted in 2011 by Hammer and colleagues, measured the effectiveness of two different forms of neurofeedback in addressing insomnia and related day-time dysfunctions. Twelve adults diagnosed with insomnia were randomly assigned to two different groups: one group working with a sensorimotor (SMR) protocol and the other group working with an individually designed (IND) protocol. Both groups received 15 sessions, each 20 minutes in length, and completed pre and post assessments measuring brain activity and self-reported mental health and insomnia symptom intensity/frequency. Post-assessments demonstrated a significant decrease in the proportion of excessively high-level delta and beta activity. Both treatment groups also reported less sleepiness and hyperarousal connected to their insomnia. Based on the data and self-report measures, all participants were deemed to be “normal sleepers” by the conclusion of the study.
Another study, conducted by Schabus et al., (2014) also looking at working with SMR neurofeedback training, found similar results. The SMR frequency range (12-15 Hz over the sensorimotor cortex) is correlated with a calm alertness, however, it’s also abundant during sleep. In this study, researchers questioned whether training SMR while awake would have any effect on sleep and insomnia-related cognitive performance. Twenty-four subjects with clinical symptoms of primary insomnia participated in either a SMR or a sham-conditioning training protocol. Comparison of pre and post EEG data found an increase of this SMR frequency in the brains of the participants who completed this protocol. This was correlated with patients reporting waking up less during the night and improved cognitive functioning. These results suggest that SMR neurofeedback training could be a beneficial option for addressing insomnia and similar sleep difficulties.
For more research studies on this topic, see our Research page.
Hammer, B. U., Colbert, A. P., Brown, K. A., & Ilioi, E. C. (2011). Neurofeedback for insomnia: A pilot study of Z-score SMR and individualized protocols. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback, 36(4), 251-264.
Schabus, M., Heib, D. P., Lechinger, J., Griessenberger, H., Klimesch, W., Pawlizki, A., … Hoedlmoser, K. (2014). Enhancing sleep quality and memory in insomnia using instrumental sensorimotor rhythm conditioning. Biological Psychology, 95, 126-134.