Q: After really intense workouts, I have trouble sleeping. Why is this and what can I do about it?
A: The inability to get proper sleep can be caused by any number of factors. The most basic of these is stress, which includes the physical stress of intense training. Learning how to cope with exercise-induced stress through supplementation and other strategies will help you overcome this type of insomnia.
“When you train, you stimulate the production of cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal glands of your kidneys,” says David Ryan, DC, medical director for the Arnold Fitness Weekend. “When cortisol hits your bloodstream, you enter a catabolic state and muscle protein breaks down. Then, your blood sugar rises and fatty acids enter your bloodstream. This causes a hormonal chain reaction that affects insulin and adrenaline,” Ryan explains. “When adrenaline climbs to a certain level, it overrides serotonin, the hormone that allows you to rest properly.”
One of the best things you can do–short of visiting a general practitioner or sleep specialist–is to take supplements, coupled with a few other alternative-minded home remedies. “The supplement melatonin can naturally help you get more sleep,” says Tim Scheett, PhD, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi (Hattiesburg). “Melatonin is a hormone secreted by a gland in the brain, and it’s produced in the body from tryptophan, an amino acid.”
Scheett recommends taking melatonin only occasionally. “Research has demonstrated that taking melatonin on a [daily] basis may inhibit many of its reported benefits. You may find it less effective if you take it frequently.” For best results, take 0.3-10 mg a couple of hours before sleeping on nights when you think you may be most prone to bouts of insomnia. Start with the lowest dose possible (0.3 mg)–this way you can increase the dosage as your sensitivity decreases. You can also try 800 mg of phosphatidylserine to keep cortisol levels at bay.
Understanding which specific training protocols set off your insomnia is also a good idea. Pay attention to which workouts affect you most. For instance, if it’s your heavy leg-training day, consider splitting that workout over two days. Train quads separately from other muscle groups for only about 12 total sets to see if that improves your ability to sleep. Then 2-3 days later, train hamstrings and calves with upper body-parts. Giving yourself rest days after particularly grueling workouts not only allows for better recovery but may also help break the insomnia cycle when you next perform an intense training day.
In addition, consider trying yoga, stretching, massage, soaking in warm (but not hot) bath water or a hot tub, or any other form of relaxation in the hours preceding bedtime. If none of these home remedies are successful, or if you have sleep problems that are more complex than those described here, seek professional help from a medical professional and/or sleep specialist.