12/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Good News for People with Insomnia

It's one o'clock in the morning and you're exhausted. The alarm will herald a new day in fewer than five hours and you're staring into the dark room (maybe listening to your spouse sleeping soundly). You can't fall sleep. You've done everything you're supposed to do in order to enter dreamland easily, such as relax before bedtime, cast away negative thoughts, and avoid work, caffeine, and stimulating activities like being on the computer. But now you're at your wit's end trying to figure out the problem. Why can't I fall asleep?

Well, insomnia just got a brighter light shined on it.

A new study in the journal Sleep reports that some people have abnormal brain activities that keep them hyperalert. The specific culprit is a neurochemical called GABA (for you science geeks, that's short for gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is reduced by nearly 30 percent in people who have been suffering from insomnia for more than six months.

Mind you, we're talking about primary insomnia, which, as opposed to secondary, means that you're having sleep problems that are not directly associated with any other health condition or problem such as asthma, depression, arthritis, pain, alcohol use, etc. Of the 10 percent of adults who suffer from insomnia, 25 percent of those are considered to have the "primary" variety.

Because this kind of insomnia is also a risk factor for mood and anxiety disorders, the study also raises the possibility that sleep habits could be a factor in people with these health issues and who have GABA deficiencies. It doesn't take a genius to link sleep habits to problems with chronic blue moods and feelings of intense anxiety. The current craziness going on between Wall Street and Main Street has me wondering how many more people are walking around with low GABA activity, and low quality sleep.

So where's the good news in all this? Insomnia may have real physiological reasons behind it, and because many of the hypnotic medications that are most effective in treating insomnia do, in fact, increase activity in the brain at the GABA neurons, there's hope for people who fall into this category.

If you're one of them, it still helps to follow the usual recommendations for getting a good night's rest. But when you have tried everything, this gives you one more thing to consider. It could be all in your head -- literally.

This sleep article is also available at Dr. Breus's blog, The Insomnia Blog.

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