Do you struggle with getting enough sleep? If you do, it’s not surprising. As not getting enough sleep is a common challenge for ADHD adults. Maybe you have problems falling asleep, not being able to wake up in the morning or waking up too early. Alternatively, you may have some other related sleep issue.
Getting sufficient sleep is obviously an important factor in being healthy and functioning well in your daily life. Because you know when you are sleep deprived you may become more easily stressed and frustrated. And this affects your relationships, as well as your ability to do your important work.
In addition, lack of sleep exacerbates your ADHD symptoms. This means your ability to regulate your emotions, focus and attend is even further compromised by a sleep deficiency. I know this is no surprise to you. So, if you are looking for ways to manage your ADHD, dealing with your sleep issues is a critical component.
Common Sleep Challenges for Adults with ADHD
The most common concern I hear is not being able to fall asleep at a “reasonable” hour. Others may be able to fall asleep but then wake up at various times throughout the night. Difficulty getting up in the morning is also a widespread challenge. And some find it both difficult to fall asleep and to get up in the morning.
Obviously, if you are not getting enough sleep, you may be tired during the day. But, even with enough sleep, you may also experience daytime sleepiness because you are not stimulated enough. That is, when you are not actively engaged in what you are doing, your nervous system disengages. And you may literally fall asleep. This is also called the primary disorder of vigilance.
Also, your sleep challenges may be related to a sleep disorder, such as teeth grinding, sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. In fact, adults with ADHD experience these and other sleep disorders in greater numbers than the general population. And uncovering and treating any underlying medical condition is a critical first step.
Are ADHD Adults Hardwired to Have Sleep Challenges?
As you think about addressing your sleep challenges it is helpful to know that part of the problem may be your wiring. As psychologist and ADHD expert Dr. Roberto Olivardia notes biology is one factor that can contribute to predisposing people with ADHD to have sleep problems.
For example, adults with ADHD have a deficit of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. And serotonin is also implicated in sleep challenges. So, the lack of serotonin contributes both to your sleep and ADHD challenges.
Another example Dr. Olivardia points to is many with ADHD have circadian abnormalities. Most people start to feel tired at around 10:00 pm. But, if you have abnormal circadian rhythms you may get your second wind around 10:00 pm. And not feel tired till 2 am. I hear this a lot from clients. So, I’m not surprised if this sounds familiar to you.
If you are interested, you can find more theories pointing to the relationship between biology and sleep challenges for ADHD adults. I share the above two examples so you can see how you may be hardwired because of your biology to have sleep challenges.
As is true for many ADHD adults you may think your sleep challenges are due to lack of willpower. So, hopefully, knowing your wiring may be partly to blame can help you see this is not true. And this understanding can help you appreciate how difficult it is to address your sleep challenges.
I hope you won’t give up trying, though!
Behavioral and Psychological Factors Contribute to Sleep Challenges
In addition to biology, there are behavioral and psychological factors that are likely contributing to your sleep challenges. And being able to identify some of these will also help you create the right set of workarounds. So, let’s take a look.
One reason you may resist going to sleep is that you relish the time at night to do whatever you want. And what better time than the middle of the night. After all, there are no expectations you should be tending to work or home tasks. So, you can give in to whatever whim strikes you.
Alternatively, resistance to going to sleep at a reasonable hour may kick in because you want to work. After all, everyone else is sleeping and there are fewer distractions. So, it might be easier to get work done. And, while you know sleep is important, in the moment it may not seem like a very productive activity.
In addition, your inability to quiet your mind due to your ADHD or other comorbid conditions, such as anxiety, can make it hard to go to sleep. As thoughts and worries about the past or future may be racing about in your head.
While biological, behavioral and psychological factors can definitely make it hard to get enough sleep, there is good news. With effort and support, you can address these by creating new habits, really.
What ADHD Adults Can Do To Get A Better Night’s Sleep
Before embarking on this journey it is important to remember that sometimes you will have to change up the strategies. Because the approach that works one day may not work another. So, you will need plenty of options in your toolbox to be able to pull out the right tool at the right time.
Below are just a few of the options.
Drinking, eating, exercising, the timing of when you take your ADD meds, when you go to bed, what you do before bedtime — all factors that impact your ability to go to sleep. Making changes in these and other areas may help you sleep better.
But first you need to remember how they play out each day. Not easy when your memory is not all that reliable, right? So that you don’t have to rely on your memory print out and try this sleep log or sleep diary from the Sleep Foundation. Collecting this information will help you decide what changes you want to make to be able to get more sleep.
You can also collect information by using a sleep tracking app to record your sleep patterns. Sleep Cycle and Sleep Better are two popular options. This can help you see how you are actually sleeping. And, if you find anything concerning, you may want to see your primary care doctor to discuss your findings.
Consult With Your Primary Care Doctor
Your sleep deficit may be due to a sleep disorder, such as teeth grinding, sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. And, so you are not fighting an uphill battle, you will want to treat any underlying condition before creating your own plan. Otherwise, you may become even more frustrated, right?
If there is a concern about a disorder, your doctor might suggest doing a sleep study for further evaluation when warranted. The key is to uncover as much information as possible through your own data collection and further studies, if necessary.
Once you have either ruled out or identified any disorders you can move on to the next step of creating the right environment to help you sleep.
Create Your Own Sleep Plan
If going to sleep is your primary challenge, you may decide to make a drastic change. But trying to go to sleep at 11 pm when you’ve been going to sleep at 2 am is unlikely to work. If you tried this, how’s it worked out for you? Not very well I bet. Instead, go to sleep 15 -20 minutes earlier each week. In addition, try some of the following strategies.
Some of the strategies fall in the category of “don’t do this.”
- The blue light that emanates from electronics can activate the brain and make it hard to fall asleep. So, you want to power down your electronics at least 30 minutes before bed.
- Avoid eating large or spicy meals 2-3 hours before bed, as the digestive process can interfere with sleep. Have a small snack, if you are hungry.
- While drinking alcohol may help you fall asleep, it interferes with the quality of your sleep. So, not drinking too much is important to get a good night sleep. Moderation is the key.
- Resist becoming engaged in any activity whether for work or pleasure that can stimulate your brain. As you know the stimulation can make it hard for you to go to sleep.
- Of course, avoid naps, if they prevent you from going to sleep at night.
Then integrate other habits to promote sleep:
- Use your bed only for sleep and sex so you strengthen its association with sleep.
- Create a soothing bedtime ritual. This may include taking a warm bath, reading, drinking warm milk or tea and listening to a sound machine or calming music.
- Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day as much as possible. Doing this will help you regulate your body’s clock and make it easier to fall and stay asleep.
- While you may be tired in the morning it is important to get up at the same time each day, so you are tired enough to go to sleep. Otherwise, the “night owl cycle” will continue.
For adults with ADHD, some of the typical advice doesn’t always hold true. So, you may need to experiment before you can figure out what will work best for you.
- Exercising at some point during the day can help you get a good night’s sleep. And you may have heard that it is not good to exercise too late at night. But it may work just fine for you as long as you do so at least 2 hours before going to sleep.
- Likewise, if drinking caffeine too late in the day, after 2 -3 pm, keeps you up, then you want to have a strict cut off time. But you may find a bit of caffeine is okay, as it acts as a stimulant and can help you go to sleep.
- If you are taking a stimulant medication, you may find taking it too late in the day interferes with your ability to fall asleep. But some find taking a small dose helps them go to sleep, as it can quiet your mind. Of course, you should check with your prescriber before deciding.
How Are You Going To Get a Better Night’s Sleep
A lot of options I know. What is one step you can take this week so you can get more sleep?