Retraining Your Brain for Improved Sleep: Part 1 – Understanding The Wake-Sleep System

by Oct 3, 2016

Why Do People Get Poor Sleep?

Let me first say, I’m writing this article because I had insomnia. I no longer suffer from it. And I want to help others conquer their sleep problems, because let’s face it, Not getting enough sleep makes our waking life much more miserable. ?So you aren’t sleeping well? Let’s talk about that. First off, you’re not alone; Some stats:

  • 30% of the general population experiences sleep disruption 1
  • 10% of the general population has associated symptoms with daytime functional impairment 1
  • 15 to 20% have a short-term insomnia disorder which lasts less than three months 2
  • 10% have a chronic insomnia disorder, which occurs at least three times per week for at least three months 2

So why do people get poor sleep?

  • Trouble falling sleep
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Waking up too early in the morning
  • Feeling consistently overtired in the morning

If you’ve experienced any of these, chances are you’ve also worried about sleep loss, tried to “force sleep”, are stressed out, or have spent too much time in bed and therefore associated your bed with being awake and not being able to sleep. I’ll talk more about stimulus control and how to succeed in making your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep later on.

During the day, most people with insomnia feel one or more of the following:

  • Low motivation or energy
  • Poor attention, concentration, or memory recall
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Irritability
  • Gross and fine motor coordination disruption
  • Errors in judgment
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Worry about sleep

Occasional instances of insomnia are normal and often come up during stressful events. But if insomnia is lasting for longer than a month, you’ve got chronic insomnia.

How Do People Attempt to Solve Their Sleep Problems?

Individiuals often try to find quick fixes to their sleep problems. Common attempts to regain a good night’s sleep include:

  • Taking Estazolam, Lunesta, Restoril, Ambien CR; All of which aid in helping a person fall and stay asleep, and all of which can lead to dependence
  • Taking Melatonin (Not a magic bullet for sleep)
  • Taking other Benzodyazapines, Alcohol, Cannabis, or other substances to “pass out”
  • Utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapeutic (CBT) techniques (not a quick fix :P)

All of these strategies for improving sleep attempt to treat the symptoms and not the causes of insomnia except for one. You guessed it, good ole’ tried and true CBT FTW! Plus, side effects of taking sleeping pills include:

  • Reduced deep sleep and dream sleep, leading to lighter sleep
  • A hangover-type feeling the next morning that may affect your ability to function even worse than a poor night’s sleep
  • Becoming dependent, which can lead to withdrawal symptoms if the person stops dosing suddenly
  • Tolerance; larger doses may be needed to successfully get to sleep at night
  • The pill loses its effectiveness when used nearly every night
  • Symptoms come back once the person stops taking pills

If you’re going to continue using sleeping pills, use the smallest possible dose and instead of taking one every night, take one only after two (2) consecutive bad nights of sleep. Never increase your dosage or usage without consulting your doctor or pharmacist. Using sleeping pills along with CBT techniques will help you slowly reduce your dependency on sleeping pills.

What Can Be Learned Can Be Unlearned

Insomnia comes from learned thoughts and habits that can be unlearned. You can begin right now today to change stressful negative thoughts about sleep, change habits that interfere with sleep, improve relaxation skills, and make lifestyle changes that will help you get a good night’s rest, consistently. Three out of four people with insomnia experience significant improvement after using these techniques without the side effects of sleeping pills or other substances, and, the improvements are long lasting after the six weeks of “sleep retraining”.
?Part of improving sleep involves understanding how your body and brain work. The brain has a Wake System (WS) which is most powerful for ~16 hours a day, and a Sleep System (SS) which is most powerful for the remaining ~8 hours of the day. The longer we use our WS during the day, the greater the need for sleep, and therefore, the better we sleep.

The Importance of Body Temperature

When sunlight enters the eye, melatonin (a hormone naturally produced in the brain) levels go down, causing our body temperature to rise. We are most alert in the late morning and early evening when body temperature is highest. At night, as less and less light enters the eye, melatonin levels go up, and body temperature falls causing a person to feel less alert, even drowsy. No matter the reason for your getting poor sleep, chances are you’ve inadvertently trained your WS to be too strong, and your SS to be too weak. The solution? Strengthen your SS and weaken you WS. More on how to do this later. Let’s continue the education piece.

The brain undergoes 5 different stages of sleep. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of these.
Stage 1, Beta wave (14-40Hz)
Waking consciousness – Good for daytime alertness, logic, and critical reasoning; Bad for nighttime stress, anxiety, and restlessness.

Stage 2, Alpha wave (7.5-14Hz)
Deep relaxation – Good for daydreaming, meditation, imagination, visualization, memory, learning, and concentration; The gateway to your subconscious and intuition, you may be asleep and not realize it.

Stage 3, Theta wave (4-7.5Hz – DEEP SLEEP*)
Sleeping wave – Good for restorative sleep, creativity, emotional connection, and relaxation.

Stage 4 Delta wave (0.5-4Hz – DEEP SLEEP*)
Slow wave sleep – Experienced in deep dreamless sleep; Associated with the deepest levels of relaxation and restorative, healing sleep; Very hard to wake up from.

*NOTE: Stages 3 and 4 are the most important stages of sleep. If we do not get enough sleep, the brain will “make up” deep sleep first. Loss of deep sleep has the most effect on daytime functioning.

Stage 5 Mixed frequency waves
REM or Dream sleep – Rapid Eye Movement, dreams, and significant physiological activity; Processing and saving newly learned information into memory; We are more likely to wake up from this stage and feel more alert. Brain wave activity resembles being awake. Like deep sleep, REM sleep is very important. The brain will try to recover half of the lost REM sleep as opposed to all of the lost deep sleep.

During one sleep cycle (~90min), our brain goes through each of these stages. A typical individual will experience several sleep cycles in one night. Looking at the above graphic, we can see why waking up is more likely to happen in the second half of the night, when the brain is in the lighter stages of sleep. We can also see that if we wake up in the middle of the night, it is probably just before or just after our brain is in REM sleep. Most deep sleep occurs in the first half of the night, while most dream sleep occurs in the second half.

Now then, without this article getting too long, I’ll end here by inviting you to begin taking data on your own sleep habits. Simply writing down the information can have a significant impact on behavior change. Download My Sleep Diary, and enter the information each and every morning (somewhere other than your bedroom).


Clock watching will only increase stress. This diary is an estimate. When entering in a time or number of hours, please estimate to the closest half hour (Ex: 11:30PM, 4 hours 30 minutes). Please help yourself to some Quick Sleep Tips, and then continue on to Part 2 – Good Habits Consistently.

Related Articles
Retraining Your Brain for Improved Sleep: Part 2 – Good Habits Consistently
How We Become Stuck in Dysfunctional Habits: A Guide to Getting Unstuck
Every Bite You Take: Nutrition and Mental Health
Other Resources

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to Your Couples Therapist Blog.

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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