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Bad chemistry: study links primary insomnia to low levels of a brain chemical

Filed in
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Insomnia

Sleep Education Archive  |  Nov 11, 2008
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Insomnia can make you feel like your mind is racing out of control. A revealing new study explains why your brain may be unable to put the brakes on your thoughts. It links the problem to low levels of a brain chemical.

The chemical is called gamma-aminobutyric acid. GABA is the most common inhibitory transmitter in the brain. It is the brain’s “brake fluid.” GABA decreases or stops the transmission of nerve impulses.

A new study shows that GABA levels are reduced by 30 percent in adults with chronic primary insomnia. The study was published in the Nov. 1 issue of the journal Sleep.

“GABA is reduced in the brain of individuals with insomnia, suggesting overactivity is present,” said principal investigator Dr. John Winkelman.

He explained that low GABA levels create an imbalance of brain activity. This “may lead to an inability to shut down waking signals in the brain,” he said.

If your GABA levels are low, then your mind can’t slow down. It may race forward at full speed even when it is time to sleep.

An overactive mind is a key feature of psychophysiological insomnia. At bedtime you are unable to stop thinking and worrying. Your body may be ready for sleep, but your mind remains alert. This state of “hyperarousal” can make it hard for you to fall asleep.

Most people with insomnia have “secondary” insomnia. It occurs along with another medical problem, mental illness or sleep disorder. It also may result from the use of a medication or substance.

In contrast primary insomnia is unrelated to another health problem. Winkelman estimates that about 25 percent of people with insomnia have primary insomnia. The study only links low GABA levels to long-lasting, primary insomnia.

All participants in the study had been suffering from primary insomnia for more than six months. The average duration of their symptoms was about 10 years.

Winkelman said the GABA connection affirms that primary insomnia is a legitimate disorder.

“Recognition that insomnia has manifestations in the brain may increase the legitimacy of those who have insomnia and report substantial daytime consequences,” he said.

He explained that insomnia can affect your energy, concentration and mood. It also increases your risk of depression.

One solution for the problem of primary insomnia is the use of a hypnotic medication. The short-term use of a sleeping pill can help break the cycle of sleepless nights. The study notes that many of the most effective sleeping pills increase activity at the GABA neurons.

Another treatment option is cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT helps you learn how to correct attitudes and habits that hinder your sleep. Winkelman said that many of these bad habits develop as people try to cope with chronic insomnia.

Help for insomnia is available at sleep disorders centers that are accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.


  1. 1 Kat 27 Feb
    I have ADD A and have found a mild dose of Vyvance with one pregabalin helps my mind stop racing and lets me sleep after over 40 years of chronic insomnia where I was sometimes up for 48 hours straight 
  2. 2 Charlotte 28 Oct
    I have had insomnia for 20 yrs. I am 69 yrs. I just read an article about white matter and the thalamus. Apparently the white matter of some of the insomniacs that goes to the thalamus is weaker or not transmitting properly. I hope some of you can find answers somewhere.  I am getting exhausted after 20 yrs of trying to fix it. 
  3. 3 Sheila Storms 13 Oct
    Can I find out if my GABA level is low with a blood test?  Or how do I find out, please.  
    Thank you for this article.  
  4. 4 sean 01 Oct
    I had extreme insomnia when I turned 20 I am now 23 and its taking a toll in my life I would do anything to sleep normally. My social life is gone I just sit around praying for sleep every night. I hope someone makes a breakthrough medicine to help with sleep this is really bad.. My mind just never stops. 
  5. 5 Jule 07 Sep
    ever since I was little (5 years old) it has taken me over an hour to fall asleep every night. I can’t fall asleep faster and it is causing me to get to little sleep. Sometimes (a couple times a month) I wake up continually in the morning and falling back asleep then waking up again. Recently, I’ve been waken up by a bad pain in my leg that took me a few minutes to shake. It would just wake me up and then I’d almost cry from how bad the pain is. This has only happened 3-4. I’ve also always been a kicker while asleep. Any suggestions of what’s up or how I can fix it (especially the falling asleep one).
  6. 6 ken 03 Aug
    lost hearing in my right ear and developed tinnitus(ringing in the head ) which caused chronic insomnia. Its been 6 months now and my Brain wont let me sleep,not even tired. Was given clonazapam - it let me sleep for 4 hrs but the side affects were horrible- brain couldnt concentrate ,  Depression set in - took a few different meds- bad side affects. Now I am on ambien and sleep 5 hrs- but I want my brain back .    any suggestions?
  7. 7 Carroll Dunston 14 Jul
    I have lost up to a week at a time of sleep and been hospitalized several times. This began in infancy (according to my mother). I've had overnight sleep studies (no sleep apnea), evaluations by sleep medicine docs, CBT, and therapy. I have never used alcohol and not even morning caffeine until mid 40's. I am now 77 and suffering from cognitive decline. Have administered an online global group. No help except multiple medications in last 3 decades.
  8. 8 Nasser Tom Pooladian 19 Mar
    My insomnia started when an incompetent cardiologist and incompetent doctors who shouldn’t be practicing Blood Pressure (BP) control medicine decided to place useless stents that I didn’t need on my heart toward the control of high BP. With the stents my BP went up 30 points from what it was and started insomnia due to overload of medications Lipitor and Plavix. I am off Plavix but I take low dose of Lipitor. This is almost two years ago and I still struggle with sleeping and I hate it. The BP is under control with very careful dieting and minimum medications. I think this has to do with change in my blood chemistry, blood flow, change in arteries and structure. My high BP simply was due to dieting and stress. These idiots (the doctors that I dealt) loaded me with medications that they don’t have clue of what they are and what they are used for that made my condition far worse. So far have not find a good solution for the insomnia but I pray and read and experiment hopefully I will find something.
  9. 9 JD 01 Dec
    Severe, persistent insomnia for almost a year that started abruptly during a single course of Amoxicillin. Doctors dismiss this as coincidence despite my having no risk factors, no history of insomnia whatsoever, and there being no other apparent cause after extensive medical investigations.
    Starting to think that the negative effects of some antibiotics are being hugely under-estimated by a medical establishment that would rather focus on their benefits. The classic 'we don't want to hear about this because it might make our lives more complicated' attitude. 
  10. 10 Tom 20 Jun
    Thomas did you get a diagnosis and some help with sleep. I had an adverse neurological reaction to taking metronidazole. It has destroyed me. It gave me difuse brain disorder nerve pain all over my body too include my hesd and the inability to sleep. I have been on every sleeping pill known to man and they either dont work work very temporarily, I suffer grestely. I cant seem to get them to do a spect scan for blood flow. It is really sad as this is like a very skow painful death. Let me know if you found an answer on here then we can speak if I find one. Best wishes
  11. 11 Thomas Wade 14 Jun
    I was born with bad insomnia, and over the decades, it has become a seious, and detrmental problem. The one thing that used to work, just a ew months was Klonopin 3`mg. I took it at 9 o clock, another a half hour later. At10:oo Oclock took another 2mg tab, and at 11:00 took another one. 6mgs total. finally fell asleep, but I dont't think it had anything to do with it. Woke up 3 hours later, wide awake.took 4mgs more. Nothing, 1 hour later took another 2mgs. NOTHING. What is wrong with me. Do I need to see a nerologist? Do I have an inbalance in my brain. They just preformed a special Ct of the brain with blood flow and contrast. All ok. I am at the end of my ropes.WHAT SHOULD I DO. It is totally destroying my life.
  12. 12 Martyn Black 24 Nov
    Having trouble getting to sleep waking up within 3/4 hours of sleep following taking the antibiotic ciprofloxacin......
  13. 13 Iris Sandoval 30 Sep
    Have trouble getting to sleep or waking up within 3 or 4hrs of sleep.