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Neurotransmitters in Sleep and Identifying Where You May Have Imbalances

It seems like such a simple thing to do.  Just close your eyes and go to sleep.  But yet 20-50% of people (depending on demographics and age groups) experience less than 7 hours of sleep a night on a regular basis with 10% classified as chronic insomnia.  This should not be taken lightly as sleeping disorders can be linked to a number of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression which just demonstrates how our body clocks regulate multiple aspects of our health.

In this article we explore what happens during the different stages of sleep, how brain neurotransmitters change during the night, and simple steps we can take to improve our sleep quality.


Sleep Cycles

Sleep can be divided into 5 stages.  Stage 1 – 4 is your non-REM sleep where you progressively move from alpha to theta to delta brainwaves, your breathing slows down, and you go deeper and deeper into sleep, until you reach stage 5 which is REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.  REM sleep occurs about 90 minutes after you fall asleep and lasts about 10 minutes.  This is my favorite part of sleeping because this is where you dream.

During Stage 1 Non-REM sleep you start feeling drowsy, struggle to keep your eyes open and brain waves move from active alpha waves to slower theta waves.  You may experience sudden muscle jerks even though your muscles are relaxed, and even hallucinations where you drift in-and-out of sleep.

Stage 2 Non-REM sleep accounts for about 50% of total sleep in adults where theta brain waves dominate.  You are no longer aware of what’s happening around you.

We spend most of the early part of the night in stage 3 Non-REM sleep (delta waves fluctuate between 20% to more than 50%) where brain temperature, breathing rate, heart rate and blood pressure are at their lowest levels.  This is where the body heals, restores and grows.  It is very hard to wake someone up during this phase and they will tend to feel very disorientated.  Children experience longer periods of stage 3 sleep where night terrors, sleep-walking, sleep-talking, bedwetting and information processing are most likely to occur.  You can also dream during stage 3 of non-REM sleep but these dreams are usually not that vivid or memorable.

REM Sleep is the deep sleep where you notice the eyeballs moving under the eyelids if you were watching someone sleep.  Initially REM sleep only lasts for 10 minutes but increases as the night goes on.  Newborn babies spend about 9 hours a day in REM sleep where complex learning takes place.  During this stage muscles are paralyzed to protect you from acting out the vivid dreams you experience.  What is fascinating is that the brain is more active and consumes more oxygen during this stage than when you are awake!


REM Rebound

This was an interesting study done by William Dement more than 50 years ago.  It was found that when you deprive yourself of REM sleep for long enough (sleep deprivation) and the need for REM increases, it gets easier to get into REM sleep and you stay there for longer.  This is the reason why when you haven’t slept well for a while and you take a sleeping tablet you sleep ‘like the dead’ and maybe even dream a lot too.

Alcohol suppresses REM sleep (maybe due to lowered oxygen) in the beginning of the night and so creates a rebound effect 4-5 hours afterwards.  Stage 1 (drowsy in-and-out of consciousness sleep) is also longer which is why you toss and turn but then struggle to wake up in the morning.


The Role of Neurotransmitters in Sleep

Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that regulate our moods and sleep cycles.  Sleep patterns can often tell us a lot about which neurotransmitters are out of balance.  There is quite a bit of detail involved with this and if you are interested you can read more at Sleep and Neurotransmitters.


Circadian Rhythm

This is your inner timekeeping.  It regulates body temperature, hormones, neurotransmitters and weight loss, and in turn is affected by stress, blue light from electronic equipment (tablets, phones, TV’s, computer screens), traveling through different time zones and sunlight.  This is probably one of the biggest factors in sleep problems due to our modern living habits and one of the hardest things to ‘fix’ because ‘fixing’ it interferes with those modern living habits that we’ve become so used to.


How To Get a Good Night’s Sleep

  • Set a regular bedtime routine or go to bed the same time every night.  You need about 7 – 8 hours sleep and can organise that any way you want, as long as you got those hours in with uninterrupted good quality sleep.
  • Get out into the sunlight.  Our brains don’t know when it’s night or day anymore.  Start dimming the lights and turning electronic equipment off an hour or so before you intend going to bed.
  • Eat something containing tryptophan before you go to bed.
  • Make sure your blood sugar is balanced and that this is not a factor.
  • Avoid anything high glutamate before bed such as vegemite toast.
  • Avoid eating large meals before bed.
  • Make sure your thyroid is healthy – this means not just testing TSH but ALL thyroid hormones.


If you need guidance in the treatment of this or any other condition, please make an appointment with one of our practitioners.

This article is for information purposes only.  Please refer to our Medical Disclaimer policy for more information.  The opinions expressed here represents the author’s and not necessarily those of Realize Health.  In addition, thoughts and opinions change from time to time due to updates in research and as a necessary consequence of having an open mind.  Views expressed in out-of-date posts may not be the same to those we hold today.

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Elizma Lambert

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