Sleeplessness and Pain Cycle
When it comes to health, there are few issues thornier than when one issue exacerbates another, which echoes back onto the first, making the second worse still… it goes on and on. Which brings me to one of the most common negative cycles—it’s experienced by most people, at some point in their lives, yet it’s rarely talked about. In fact, there’s a very good chance you don’t even know it exists. I’m talking about the negative feedback loop between sleeplessness, and pain.
Sure, it’s easy to understand that chronic pain can affect sleep. But very few people know that a lack of sleep can actually increase the intensity of pain. And once you’re caught in the loop, the only way out is to break the chain.
Luckily, today, you can learn how to do exactly that. Because, after all, pain is no fun. And sleep is an essential component of health.
Effects Of Sleepless Nights
You already know that a lack of sleep will lead to fatigue.
It’s the first thing you notice when you haven’t gotten enough shut-eye.
But there are a number of other problems that come about when you don’t get enough sleep.
Your immune system is weakened, for one thing. That’s why it’s so much easier to get sick when you’re chronically tired.
You are more likely to suffer from depression, or simply feel depressed. That’s because a lot of hormonal regulation is done at night while you sleep. And when you don’t get enough sleep, your hormones wind up out of whack. Depression, at its core, is often nothing more than low dopamine and serotonin levels.
You are more irritable. You are more sensitive to things like light, loud noises, and temperature.
Your brain doesn’t function efficiently, often resulting in slower cognition, problems with memory, and problems with logic.
But, here’s the thing that you’re rarely told—lack of sleep also increases your sensitivity to pain.
Why isn’t very well understood. There’s a lot about sleep that we have only a dim understanding of, and the mechanism whereby pain increases when you’re tired is one of those poorly understood things.
However, we definitely know it’s happening.
A study of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers found an exaggerated increase in pain levels when participants didn’t get enough sleep.
A survey of fibromyalgia sufferers also found that lack of sleep made pain worse.
And, while only 3% of the general population has insomnia at any time, 53% of those with lower back pain do.
A Two-Way Street
Of course, the back pain survey illustrates how this issue cuts both ways.
It’s possible that the lack of sleep makes people more susceptible to back pain.
But it’s just as likely that back pain is keeping people awake at night, and jolting them awake in the middle of the night.
It would be great to isolate one issue, and just treat that.
But the truth of the matter is, both issues reinforce the other. Which issue started the chain doesn’t really matter. Both lack of sleep and chronic pain are reinforcing the pattern, once the cycle starts.
The only way out is to break the chain.
Now, lots of doctors prescribe pain meds, or sleeping pills, in this sort of circumstance. Those, after all, can break the chain, and allow healing to begin.
But, often, drugs like these don’t break the chain—they just pause it. And that’s why it’s so easy to become addicted.
Because as soon as you stop taking the drugs, you’re right back where you started—sometimes worse, since your body has adapted to outside chemicals and lost some of its self-soothing abilities.
That’s why, rather than turn first to painkillers or sleep aids, I will always look for safe, natural solutions instead.
Natural Sleep Remedy #1: Benefits Of Melatonin
Melatonin is the hormone most responsible for regulating your sleep patterns. When melatonin is low, you’ll find yourself tired, but not sleepy, when it’s time to go to bed.
Often, the cure is as simple as taking melatonin supplements.
It’s important to remember, counter intuitively, that higher doses of melatonin aren’t necessarily more effective. That’s because melatonin doesn’t simply make you sleepy—it’s responsible for balancing your sleep-wake cycles. Taking more than your body needs can throw those cycles out of rhythm, and do you no good.
So it’s important to start with a low dose—like 1 mg, or even less—and see how your body reacts. Give it a few nights, then you can slowly increase the dosage, until you find the amount that works for you.
For some people, that might be 3 mg. For others, it might be 5. Some will get immediate relief from a single mg.
If you want to really knock insomnia out, combine melatonin with some 5-HTP—100-200 mg (but never more than 900 mg). 5-HTP helps relax your body, as it’s the precursor to serotonin, an important hormone for happiness, balance, and consequently, sleep.
If you find a 5-HTP supplement that includes a little l-theanine, all the better. L-theanine helps calm your “brain chatter” and increases the potency of 5-HTP when it’s taken at the same time.
Natural Sleep Remedy #2: Sleep Hygiene
I’ve talked plenty of times about the best practices for sleep. I won’t bore you by going through all the details again, but I will hit the highlights:
- Avoid caffeine in the evening, and don’t eat anything within two hours of bedtime.
- Avoid lighted screens—phones, tablets, or tv—within three hours of bedtime. The blue light that’s emitted by screens tells your body it’s daytime, and messes with your circadian rhythm.
- Use your bedroom for sleep, and sleep alone. Over time, you’ll have a Pavlovian response to getting into bed—you’ll immediately be sleepy, if all you do there is sleep.
- Invest in blackout curtains, so no light gets into your bedroom. A completely dark room will do wonders for your sleep.
Natural Sleep Remedy #3: Phosphatidylserine (PS) For Sleep
You probably have heard of cortisol—the stress hormone.
Unfortunately, we live in a time when lots of people live stressful lives, which means a large population with chronically elevated cortisol.
Chronically elevated cortisol leads to damaging inflammation, it can lead to obesity, blood sugar imbalances, lowered immunity and cardiovascular disease.
But short-term, it can be just as damaging in a different way. With your body on high alert, it becomes nearly impossible to sleep when your cortisol levels are high.
That’s where phosphatidylserine—or PS—comes in. PS is a naturally-occurring compound found in every single cell in your body.
And one of PS’s greatest strengths is its ability to block the damaging effects of cortisol.
It isn’t naturally present in large enough amounts to make a difference if you’re feeling a lot of stress. But by taking supplements of PS—between 100-500 mg—you can calm down the cortisol that’s coursing through your veins.
This is especially potent if you find that your mind is overactive when you’re trying to get to sleep. Chances are, you’re worrying—and you’re worrying because you’re stressed.
Of course, as I’ve already mentioned, you could be having trouble sleeping because of pain. So it’s important to address that issue as well.
Natural Pain Remedy #1: Topical Solutions
Everyone will have their favorite natural pain creams.
For my patients, I’ve seen the best results with DMSO creams, applied topically.
But some people react best to topical magnesium. Still others prefer capsicum or arnica. And there are a number of essential oils that can do the trick—including lavender, rose, chamomile, peppermint, and wintergreen.
Again, everybody is different—experiment to find out what works best for you. But, if you’ve got problems with pain that isn’t deep in your bones, one of these topical solutions should do the trick.
In fact, there are plenty of solutions that combine a few treatments in one. Save time and money, and try those out, rather than experimenting one by one.
Natural Pain Remedy #2: White Willow Bark
White willow bark contains salicylic acid—basically it’s aspirin. It’s slightly different—it’s more a precursor. But it’s close enough to aspirin that it does all the same things, with equal effectiveness.
For that reason, you shouldn’t overdo white willow bark. Just like aspirin, it can cause blood thinning, and can damage your kidneys or liver if you take too much. Never take more than 240 mg a day.
Also note—white willow bark works better on some types of pain than others. It’s been shown wildly effective treating lower back pain, for instance. However, it barely touches arthritis.
Natural Pain Remedy #3: Benefits of Capsaicin.
The same compound that gives hot peppers their kick also serves as a potent pain reliever.
Don’t worry—you don’t have to scorch your mouth to get capsaicin. Indeed, it would be a true challenge to eat enough peppers to get a pain-relieving effect from the capsaicin.
Capsaicin is available as a topical cream—just be careful handling it. Get any in your eyes, or other mucus membrane, and you’re going to have a rotten time. Aside from that, it’s perfectly safe, and remarkably effective as a pain reliever.
In fact, capsaicin stimulates so many pleasant hormones, that it often can produce a dreamy euphoria—which not only helps with pain, but also with sleep.
The pain-sleep spiral is not something you want to get caught up in. To break the cycle, you’ve got to attack either the sleep problem or the pain one. Or, preferably, both.
But do it in a safe, non-addictive manner. Use these all-natural solutions before you try anything more radical. They are, in most cases, at least as effective as pharmaceuticals.
And they come without any of the downsides.
- Staff. How Phosphatidylserine Blocks Cortisol For Insomnia, Sleep and Weight Loss. Nootriment. Accessed Jun 2, 2017.
- Irwin, Michael et al. Sleep Loss Exacerbates Fatigue, Depression, and Pain in Rheumatoid Arthritis. Sleep. Published Apr 1, 2012; 35(4):537-543. Accessed Jun 2, 2017.
- Ingraham, Paul. Insomnia Until It Hurts. Pain Science. Published Feb 11, 2017. Accessed Jun 2, 2017.
Last Updated: August 3, 2021
Originally Published: June 28, 2017