Proper sleep plays a big role in the way we experience life. In today’s society, which often forces us to sleep less than we need to, many of us have personally experienced the negative effects of sleep deprivation. In addition to the uncomfortable feeling of drowsiness, insufficient or disturbed sleep can significantly impair our ability to think clearly, make sound judgments, remember information, regulate our emotions, and enjoy life.
When it comes to addressing insomnia, neurofeedback therapy can be remarkably powerful. By undergoing neurofeedback training, you can regulate your brainwaves and promote more optimal functioning, all without relying on external stimuli, medications, or possibly invasive interventions.
In this article, we will understand the importance of sleep in our day-to-day, we will tackle the most important factors influencing the quality of our sleep, and go through the many benefits of neurofeedback therapy and the role it can play in addressing insomnia.
How Important Is a Good Night’s Sleep?
Pretty darn important, if you ask us. But don’t take our word for it – according to Johns Hopkins sleep expert and neurologist Mark Wu, sleep is a “period during which the brain is engaged in a number of activities necessary to life—which are closely linked to quality of life.” We tend to usually disregard our body and the functions it performs for us as second nature. However, each night when we sleep our brain clears all of the toxins that built up during the day and absorbs all the nutrients necessary for functioning well the next day. For this reason, it can be rather startling to learn of the life-altering impact of a good night’s sleep.
The US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke describes the two fundamental categories of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep, which consists of three distinct stages. Each type is associated with specific brain waves and neuronal activity. Throughout a typical night, you cycle through all stages of non-REM and REM sleep multiple times, with REM periods progressively lengthening and deepening towards the morning hours.
Stage 1 non-REM sleep marks the transition from wakefulness to sleep. This brief phase (it usually lasts only for a few minutes) consists of relatively light sleep, with slower heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements, while muscles relax with occasional twitches. Meanwhile, brain waves start to decelerate from patterns observed during your waking hours.
Stage 2 non-REM sleep follows as the precursory to deeper sleep. During this stage, your heartbeat and breathing further slow down, and muscles continue to relax. Body temperature decreases, and eye movements cease. Brain wave activity slows down overall but is occasionally interrupted by brief bursts of electrical activity. NIH experts explain that stage 2 sleep constitutes a significant portion of your sleep cycles.
Stage 3 non-REM sleep, also known as deep sleep, is vital for feeling refreshed in the morning. It occurs for longer durations during the first half of the night. In case you ever needed a reminder to get your beauty sleep – this is it. Going to bed at earlier hours maximizes your chances of getting properly rested thanks to the restorative powers of deep sleep.
Lastly, there’s REM sleep. It typically occurs approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. During this stage, eyes rapidly move from side to side behind closed eyelids. Brain wave activity becomes more similar to wakefulness in terms of mixed frequency patterns. Breathing becomes faster and irregular, while heart rate and blood pressure increase, nearing waking levels.
The cool part about REM sleep? It’s your ticket to dreamland. While not all dreams take place during this stage, the majority – and the ones described as more vivid and emotional – usually do.
Understanding the many stages of sleep can offer us a glimpse into how difficult it can be to safeguard its quality. The U.S. Office for Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, names the following benefits of a good night’s sleep:
- Better immunity;
- Better weight management;
- Lowered risk for serious health problems, like diabetes and heart disease;
- Reduced stress and mood improvement;
- Better cognitive processes.
Sources of Sleep Disturbances and Insomnia
In spite of a growing level of awareness worldwide about the importance of sleep, many of us still have trouble keeping a healthy sleep schedule. According to National Institute of Health data cited by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, over 40 million Americans experience chronic sleep disorders, while an additional 20 million encounter occasional sleeping difficulties.
Sleep problems can arise from a variety of factors, each with its own influence. Medical conditions like ulcers or asthma can interfere with our ability to get a good night’s rest. Environmental factors can have a great impact as well – substance abuse or working schedules such as night shifts can throw off “biological clocks,” leading to difficulties in forming a proper sleep routine. However, genetics can also play a role in sleep disorders.
Johns Hopkins medical researchers identified a gene involved in the circadian regulation of sleep timing. When they removed the gene named “wide awake” from fruit flies, the flies had issues falling and staying asleep. A similar sleep gene is stated to exist in both humans and mice. Scientists continue to study this gene hoping to better clarify how processes within our cells affect our ability to sleep.
Depression and Anxiety
Psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety, can also disrupt sleep by causing restlessness and insomnia.
In a recent Johns Hopkins study, healthy women and men whose sleep was interrupted throughout the night registered a 31% reduction in positive moods the following day. Scientists found that sleep interruptions interfere with deep, restorative slow-wave sleep. Thus, ongoing insomnia could increase a person’s risk of depression, the specialist added, by weakening their emotional resilience—the buffer of positive emotions that helps people deal with stress and the challenges of life.
During teenage years and beyond, people suffering from ADHD commonly have sleep-related challenges added to their list of symptoms, including shortened sleep increments, difficulty falling and staying asleep, along with an increased likelihood of developing sleep disorders. Children with ADHD reportedly often experience nightmares and, in adults, sleep problems related to ADHD can result in forgetfulness and difficulties with concentration during the day.
Certain medications can interfere with sleep patterns, with some found to cause insomnia or disrupted sleep as a side effect, further contributing to sleep difficulties.
Lastly, as individuals age, sleep disorders become more prevalent. It is estimated that around half of all adults over the age of 65 experience some form of sleep problem. However, it remains uncertain whether these sleep issues are a natural part of the aging process or if they are influenced by the medications commonly used by older individuals.
Improving sleep quality and insomnia symptoms with neurofeedback
Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback that trains the brain to self-regulate and function more efficiently. By observing brainwave activity in real-time and using positive feedback loops of sounds and visual stimuli, we encourage the brain to change dysfunctional neural patterns. This, in turn, influences how we experience life and improves symptoms of various cognitive and behavioral disorders.
In addition to relieving insomnia symptoms, neurofeedback has been proven effective in managing the symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, depression, traumatic brain injuries, headaches and migraines, chronic pain, PTSD, stroke recovery, autism spectrum issues, stress, fears and phobias, tantrums, trauma, emotional disturbances, and mood disorders.
How does neurofeedback help regulate sleep patterns?
Understanding subconscious self-regulatory mechanisms has provided valuable insights into the field of neurofeedback, particularly in relation to infra-low frequency (ILF) neurofeedback, as researchers found in 2022. Notable instances of this phenomenon in more recent times can be traced back to 1970, when scientists conducted research on cats and illustrated the potentiation of sleep spindles through classical conditioning. This resulted in the emergence of a waking EEG pattern known as the sensorimotor rhythm (SMR), localized in the sensorimotor cortex.
More recent experiments further revealed extended periods of consolidated sleep characterized by reduced motor activity, contrasting the typically fragmented quiet sleep by employing neurofeedback treatments:
- Roth et al. also identified the SMR pattern as being associated with the inhibition of conditioned motor responses.
- A randomized, controlled study (Hoedlmoser et al., 2008, cited by Croydon, 2011) proved that only 10 neurofeedback sessions focused on reinforcing the sensorimotor rhythm in the brain resulted in an increase in sleep spindles and reduced sleep latency. Because memory consolidation occurs during sleep, this study also documented improved memory in the subjects.
- Individualized neurofeedback was also shown in control group studies to have long-lasting effects on insomnia patients in the 1980s and a more recent randomized control group study (Cortoos, De Valck, Arns, Breteler, & Cluydts, 2010) of primary insomnia patients found an average of 18 sessions of home neurofeedback training administered over the Internet produced a significant improvement in the time required to fall asleep and a significant improvement in total sleep time as measured in a sleep lab compared with a control group.
As we learn more about the impact of healthy sleep on our bodies and waking minds, turning every stone to achieve better rest becomes all but essential. To this end, neurofeedback has proven to be instrumental in relieving insomnia symptoms.
Get Started with Neurofeedback
At Tennessee Neurofeedback, we help people suffering from a wide array of sleep disturbances to achieve a better balance in their sleep patterns and circadian rhythms. Our personalized protocols promote optimal communication between brain hemispheres, enabling us to regulate sleep patterns and improve overall well-being.
To learn how we can help you finally get a well-deserved good night’s rest, schedule an appointment and come meet our team of board-certified neurotherapists!