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This Is What Actually Happens In Your Brain When You Can’t Sleep

We asked a neuroscientist and brain surgeon for the answers to insomnia.
PHOTO: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/GETTY IMAGES
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Ever spent a night's sleep tossing, turning and staring at the ceiling, then all of a sudden, the birds outside are singing and time to get up again? You’re not alone in your insomnia.

According to the NHS, struggling to fall–or stay– asleep is a common problem for one in three people in the UK. But a lot of what we think we know about sleep, says Dr. Rahul Jandial, M.D., Ph.D, a dual-trained brain surgeon and neuroscientist, is actually wrong. Excellent news.

“Everybody thinks a molecule called melatonin is responsible for your sleep pattern but that’s not true,” he told us. “As a surgeon, I’ve taken out the region of the brain that makes melatonin and people still sleep just fine. Good sleep is actually based on a circadian rhythm: plants, animals, nature, all of us are in tune with it–we live on a planet that has day and night, and our bodies should be in sync with that. Insomnia, or having a hard time sleeping, is because people aren’t.”

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Circadian rhythm is triggered when we see darkness. “The release of those chemicals is actually behind your eye, above an area called the hypothalamus, it’s a different area than the pineal gland and melatonin. It’s not just your brain that goes to sleep either, the genetics of your body change when you fall asleep.”

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The modern world (read: your Instagram addiction) could be partially to blame for your lack of Zs, ditto if you watch Netflix on your laptop in bed with the screen brightness turned right up. “Darkness, both inside your home and out, signals for your brain to fall into the nightly pattern of sleep,” explains Dr. Jandial, who is also the author of the bestselling book Life Lessons From A Brain Surgeon. Dropping the brightness not only on your phone screen, but TV and computer, leading up to bedtime could have a positive impact on you getting a decent kip.

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“Besides tech habits, stress, worry and anxiety also majorly get in the way of sleep–those conditions release chemicals that are the equivalent to coffee or cocaine. It’s easy for these excitatory and stimulatory chemicals to become habitual too.”

Essentially, an anxiety-based inability to sleep, or insomnia (when this happens frequently, despite your best efforts), is a little bit like having too much coffee late in the day; even if it’s pitch black, quiet and you want to sleep, if you’ve got the wrong chemicals buzzing around inside of you it can be a struggle. “That’s the biology of what’s happening when somebody can't drift off,” says the neuroscientist.

The "eight hours a night rule" is kind of a myth too, says Dr. Jandial. “As a surgeon, I used to get called a lot throughout the night. I realized I’d rather have less sleep, say five hours, that’s solid and uninterrupted, than a disturbed eight hours,” he says.

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If you keep falling asleep and waking, falling asleep and waking, you won’t get into the deeper stages of sleep that help you feel rested–meaning that snoozing your alarm clock is a pretty bad idea too. “Why snooze? Why not just let that last hour be totally connected to the sleep that you are in? The alarm isn’t there to tease you out of sleep, if you’re well rested, you’ll get up on your own.”

How to get a good night’s sleep, according to science

The first rule? “Do your best to set the sleep stage: your bed, the night stand, how accessible the light switch is from your bed, all need to be thought about.” If you like to read a book in bed to help you drift off, invest in a low-level lamp, rather than dragging yourself across the room to switch an overhead light off. Going to bed at the same time every night will help your body get into the rhythm, too.

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Don’t have coffee after 12 p.m. either, it can stay in your system for up to eight hours and could hinder your ability to wind down.

If you're struggling to get to sleep, try some white noise. “I’d advise getting an app to provide background noise: when the brain is a little distracted it can help relax those parts of the mind that are jumping all over the place,” says Dr. Jandial, adding that if you time white noise to play for an hour, it’ll distract you from thinking about the other worries in your life, at least during those moments.

“If you’re still awake after 60 minutes, get up and do something for half an hour, like tidying up, then attempt sleep again. It’s important not to fall into a vicious cycle–you have to kind of slide into it, you can’t just flip a switch and nod off.”

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Happy dreaming, kids.

Dr. Rahul Jandial, M.D., Ph.D is a dual-trained brain surgeon and neuroscientist, and author of Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.