Chronic inflammation can be a key contributor to insomnia, as well as numerous types of sleep disturbances, like trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Here's how to get a better night's sleep and decrease inflammation in the process.

Lately, it seems like chronic inflammation is to blame for most every ailment. Research continues to suggest that low-grade inflammation plays a key role in the top health conditions affecting Americans today, including heart disease, diabetes, depression, cancer and autoimmune conditions. So, is inflammation also to blame for an inability to get a good night's sleep?

To be honest, my initial thoughts when I was asked to write this article were that this may be taking the inflammation blame game a little too far. I knew that a lack of adequate, good quality sleep could trigger inflammation, as well as exacerbate existing inflammation, through my research over the past few years. But I wasn't so sure of the opposite—inflammation causing sleep issues—could be substantiated.

Woman holding her head because she can't sleep
Credit: Getty Images / torwai

As it turns out, chronic inflammation can be a key contributor to insomnia, as well as numerous types of sleep disturbances. These include things like having trouble going to sleep, waking frequently, not being able to go back to sleep and pretty much anything that impairs the body's ability to get an adequate amount of deep, restful sleep. During an inflammatory response, chemical compounds known as cytokines are secreted, and research suggests they interfere with sleep duration and depth and cause wakefulness. Inflammation can also disrupt circadian rhythms—those prompts used by the body's internal clock to control things like hunger, hormone secretion, body temperature and one's sleep-wake cycle within a 24-hour period. This means that inflammation is, at least in part, to blame for most sleep disruptions.

Here's the good news though: A few tweaks to daily routines—particularly during the day—can make a big difference in easing inflammation-related sleep issues later than night. Check out these six tips for better sleep!

1. Consider talk therapy

Regular talk therapy is helpful when dealing with issues causing stress or worry, so it makes sense that alleviating some of this could help sleep. However, I was surprised to discover that it's one of the most effective strategies for treating ongoing insomnia and sleep disturbances, with several studies suggesting that cognitive behavioral therapy works as good as, or better than, prescription sleep medications. While seeing a therapist or counselor solely for sleep issues may not be the first approach that comes to mind, it may be worth considering. For those already in therapy, discussing sleep issues may be work sharing at your next appointment.

2. Get some light in the morning

The body is supposed to start secreting the sleep hormone melatonin a few hours before your bedtime (that time you naturally start to get tired), and melatonin levels are supposed to peak in the middle of the night to help you stay asleep. However, disruptions to circadian rhythm can alter melatonin secretion, making it not only hard to go to sleep, but also get up in the morning and be alert during the day. Exposure to bright light during the morning after waking can help realign rhythms and the timing of melatonin secretion.

For severe insomnia cases, light therapy in a clinical setting may be prescribed (in which you sit under bright lights for a period each day). But you reap similar benefits for other sleep issues by getting an hour of two of natural light each morning by either going outside or sitting by a window. Direct sun exposure isn't necessary, just natural light. Make sure to apply sunscreen if decide to get more direct light.

3. Engage in physical activity or active meditation

Physical activity is another treatment for inflammatory-related insomnia and sleep disturbances, and this doesn't require breaking a sweat! Most all forms of movement, ranging from moderate to high-intensity exercise, to daily activity within your routine, to participating in moving meditation such as yoga and Tai Chi, can lead to improvements in sleep duration and quality by promoting relaxation and decreasing anxiety. Some research suggests that exercise requiring moderate to heavy exertion may further promote deep sleep by trigger a reduction in body temperature at night. However, yoga, Tai Chi and others that involving mind and the body may be the best for inflammation-related sleep issues as it appears to modulate immune activity, potentially reigning in the body's inflammatory response.

4. Stick with routine

Most of us function better when we follow a routine or daily schedule, but this is especially true for the body's sleep-wake cycle. Going to bed and waking at vastly different times within a week can lead to contribute to inflammatory and encourage insomnia and sleep issues. Consequently, most sleep experts advise establishing a healthy bedtime routine, which includes going to bed around the same time each night. Regular mealtimes are also important for sleep. A study examining the sleep of 6,000 workers from 29 companies between 2017 and 2019 found that a strong association between irregular mealtimes and sleep disturbances.

5. Skip the nightcap

A cocktail, beer or glass of wine often relaxes you since alcohol is a sedative. Consequently, it's not uncommon for people to have a drink or two, in part to make falling asleep easier. However, alcohol causes sleep to be less restful right around when the time the body is supposed to be entering that deep restorative deep sleep state. In fact, a drink before bed is a greater risk factor for poor sleep than heavy caffeine intake during the day. It's important to know the more you consume, the more restless your sleep, and the greater the potential for inflammation.

6. Create a healthy sleep environment

Making your bedroom conducive to sleep is important for all, but particularly those with sleep issues. This means making sure your bedroom is comfortable, dark, cool and free from technology, and most sleep experts suggest avoiding doing other things like work in your bedroom or bed. If you are struggling to fall asleep, move to a different place briefly before coming back to bed to try again.

Carolyn is known for her ability to not only simplify the science behind healthy eating, but also make it quick & delicious. Her work is regularly featured in publications like EatingWell, Real Simple, Parents, Health, and Allrecipes. In 2019, she released Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, a cookbook that teaches readers how to use the healing powers of food in quick, family-friendly recipes. Her next cookbook, One Pot Meals That Heal, is scheduled for release in Spring 2022.