Sleep Onset Insomnia

by Greg Newson October 31, 2017

Sleep Onset Insomnia

For many of us, trying to fall asleep can be a daunting, stressful and apprehensive task. Especially if you're lying there staring at the ceiling for countless hours, instead of experiencing that all important restorative sleep. Unfortunately emotional or stressful daily events can rob your body of vital nutrients and hard wire your brain for wakefulness. Once the insomnia cycle of 'I can't fall asleep' begins, it can be a arduous task to break, and for some people lasts for many years.

What is Sleep Onset Insomnia?

Typically sufferers of sleep onset insomnia, AKA the 'I can't fall asleep' syndrome, after getting into bed and snuggling down are unable to fall asleep within the first 10 to 15 minutes. This unwanted ability, of staying awake long after the rest of the household has ventured into the land of nod, can result in significant distress with physical and financial consequences.

I can't fall asleep, why?

One of the main reasons you may suffer from sleep onset insomnia is a deficiency in one or both of the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), melatonin or GABA. Besides GABA and melatonin there are some equally important factors that can play havoc with you experiencing a night filled with heavenly slumber.


Melatonin is produced in your pineal gland and controls your sleep-wake-cycle. An increase in melatonin induces drowsiness which results in a restful nights sleep. Melatonin is also a powerful antioxidant with immune enhancing and anti-aging effects. This is why after a good nights sleep you look and feel healthy, fresh and alive. 

Melatonin results from the breakdown of an essential amino acid called tryptophan, which is converted to your feel good brain chemical serotonin, and then into melatonin (see chart below). Tryptophan is also essential for the manufacture of vitamin B3 (Niacin). If a person has a higher requirement for vitamin B3 (certain health disorders) or as a result of a poor diet, poor nutritional status or poor digestion, then the majority of tryptophan will be shunted down the 'manufacture vitamin B3 pathway'. This leaves very little for the production of poor old serotonin and melatonin and results in the 'I can't fall asleep' syndrome and possibly depression, carbohydrate cravings and anger outbursts.


GABA is your main relaxing and tranquillising neurotransmitter and is responsible for the production of alpha brain waves. Alpha brain waves play a major role in calming and relaxing you and are at their highest levels during meditation and just before you fall sleep. Beta brain waves on the other hand are responsible for concentration, attention and alertness. People who suffer from the 'I can't fall asleep' syndrome generally have elevated beta and lower alpha brain waves while trying to fall asleep.

Any nervous system stimulant can cause excitability, which has the potential to worsen insomnia.

Caffeine and Theophylline

Caffeine is one such stimulant and is found in 60 different species of plant where it acts as a natural pesticide, paralysing and killing various insects. In society, caffeine is found in popular beverages such as coffee, tea, yerba mate, cocoa beverages, chocolate, energy drinks, some soft drinks as well as chocolate. Caffeine has been found to interfere with melatonin production and block the activity of GABA and adenosine (another sleep molecule) 1.

Theophylline is a stimulant found in cocoa beans (chocolate) and tea, which has actions similar to caffeine. It blocks adenosine receptor activity and causes a depletion of vitamin B6 which is required for the manufacture of GABA, serotonin and melatonin. A lack of vitamin B6 contributes to many health conditions such as depression, allergies, anxiety and cancer.

Amphetamines and Cocaine

Now I'd like to believe that amphetamines and cocaine weren't readily accepted and used in society, but that would be like suggesting the world was flat. Unfortunately the use or abuse of these chemicals can disturb sleep and contribute to sleep onset insomnia due to their stimulating affects on the nervous system. These chemicals keep you awake by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. They have been shown to generally increase the time it takes to get you into your first REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is your deepest sleep of the night.


Stress can be a major factor behind sleep onset insomnia. Stress is not only caused by too much worry and mental tension, but also by emotional issues, physical ailments and environmental issues. Excessive or long term stress increases a substance called cortisol. Unfortunately elevated cortisol will cause insomnia by decreasing levels of available tryptophan, serotonin and melatonin. As we know these are essential in preventing the 'I can't fall asleep' syndrome. 

Food, Diet and Food Allergies

The Roman poet Lucretius famously said that 'one man's food is another man's poison' and we all know this to be true as we don't all thrive on the same foods. Allergies or sensitivities to foods can have adverse effects on your body. For some people certain foods contribute to the 'I can't fall asleep' syndrome by causing gastrointestinal upsets such as bloating, abdominal pain, indigestion or flatulence. For other people, allergies contribute to sleep onset insomnia by causing itchy skin, hyperactivity, migrianes, ringing in the ears, sinus, breathing difficulties or a racing mind. 

That being said, it is our diet more than anything else, that dictates our future health. Unfortunately most people's diets these days has moved away from a fresh wholesome diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, grass feed meats etc to that of a more processed, man-made, chemical laden diet. This not only increases sensitivities or allergies to food, but also increases nutritional deficiencies which in turn affect's every living cell in your body, including the production of GABA, serotonin and melatonin. For example sugar, an unnecessary sweetener, depletes your body of vitamin B6 which then lowers GABA, serotonin and melatonin. Another unwanted side effect of a poor diet or food allergies is stress. As mentioned stress elevates cortisol which robs you of that blissful nights sleep. 

If you look at it this way your car needs the right fuel to function properly and you don't see too many petrol or gasoline cars running around on diesel fuel. The same goes for your body, it needs a wholesome, life give, nurturing diet to function properly too. 

It's interesting to also point out that to produce GABA an important enzyme called glutamate decarboxylase is needed. People with sensitivities to gluten produce immune substances called gliadin antibodies. Sadly these gliadin antibodies inhibit glutamate decarboxylase's ability to work effectively, resulting in less GABA production and a worse nights sleep 3.

Visual Stimulation

Watching TV or working on a computer before going to bed can also play a role in sleep onset insomnia. TV and computers reduce the amount of melatonin produced (the light from their screens to the retina in your eye inhibits melatonin production), they also increase evening cortisol levels and activate your sympathetic nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that keeps you hyped up and on the go and this in turn can further elevate cortisol levels, thus perpetuating the vicious 'I can't fall asleep' cycle.

Electrical Applicances

All electrical appliances produce an electromagnetic field which is stronger than the one produced by your brain. It is believed that this electromagnetic field produced by bedroom appliances, such as your alarm clock or TV, can interfere with brain frequencies and neurotransmitter production thus resulting in a poor nights sleep.

Health Conditions

Illness or physical aliments such as pyroluria, restless legs syndrome, candida, constipation, fibromyalgia, hyperthyroidism, chronic pain, digestive disturbances, PMS, depression, anxiety and excessive stress can all contribute to the 'I can't fall asleep' syndrome. Poor digestive function and leaky gut syndrome also play a role in reducing circulating serotonin levels, which in turn reduces the amount of melatonin you have available.

How to get a good nights sleep?

Lets look at some of the simple things you can do now to help get that good nights sleep. Firstly remove all electrical appliances and mobile (cell) phones from your bedroom. Try meditation or some other form of relaxation to help reduce stress. Exercise daily, have a set bedtime and switch off the TV and computer 30 minutes before bedtime. During the day and even before bedtime play relaxing or easy listening music to help reduce your stress levels and calm your mind. For some people reading a book before going to sleep can help. Of most importance, improve your diet by reducing sugar, caffeine, chocolate and alcohol. 

It's always the little things, that when combined, make a large difference to your overall sleeping patterns.

How to naturally increase GABA?

To effectively increase GABA levels certain nutrients are essential, in particular the amino acid glutamine. Glutamine is converted to glutamic acid, which in turn is converted to GABA. For this process to go smoothly other essential nutrients; vitamin B6, zinc and the amino acid taurine are required. A deficiency in one or more of these nutrients will inhibit the conversion of glutamine to GABA, resulting in the 'I can't fall asleep' syndrome or sleep maintenance insomnia. We use the nutritional supplements Be-Calm and GabRelax in our clinic to increase patients GABA levels. Nutrients such as Kava kava, theronine, glycine, passionflower, chamomile and valerian all contribute to improving the effectiveness or strength of GABA.

GABA and Glutamic Acid Pathway Flow Chart

How to naturally increase Melatonin and Serotonin?

As melatonin is manufactured in your body from the neurotransmitter serotonin it is important to firstly look at why serotonin levels may be low. As mentioned previously elevated cortisol, poor diet, poor digestion and leaky gut syndrome all contribute to low serotonin levels. As you can see from the diagram below various nutrients are needed for the manufacture of serotonin and ultimately melatonin. Without these nutrients it becomes very difficult for your body to orchestrate a good night's sleep.

Serotonin and Melatonin Pathway Flow Chart

How to lower cortisol levels?

Exercise, meditation, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, music, reading and taking time out all help reduce your 'over-production of cortisol. Herbs can play a significant role in reducing elevated cortisol levels especially St John's Wort, Withania, Gingko Biloba and Korean Ginseng which are all contained in our herbal blend, Cortisol Calm, as well as Magnolia, Zizyphus 4 and Horny Goat Weed. 

Sleep Test

The good news is there are medical tests now available that can accurately measure the individual neurotransmitters mentioned above; GABA, Serotonin, Melatonin and elevated Cortisol. This is an easy way of determining if these neurotransmitters or stress are contributing to your 'I can't fall asleep' syndrome. A comprehensive Sleep Profile Test is also available allowing for a more comprehensive assesment to finally get to the bottom of your insomnia issue. 

These Test Kits are available for purchase from our website for your convenience, to collect the urine or saliva sample required at home, and send off to our pathology laboratory for testing. 


Serotonin Test

Melatonin Test

Sleep Test

For more information

Visit our website pages on Low GABA Levels or read our blog post on how to Increase GABA Naturally.
Visit our our website pages on Pyroluria for information on what could be inhibiting zinc and vitamin B6 from doing their job within your body.
Visit our health blog on Sleep Maintenance Insomnia
Visit our health blog on I Can't Sleep At Night

Featured products to increase GABA, Serotonin, Melatonin & lower Cortisol


Be-Calm Powder

SAD Powder

Cortisol Calm Tonic

GabRelax Tonic


  1. Winston, A P., Hardwick, E. and Jaberi, N. Neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine APT November 2005 11:432-439; doi:10.1192/apt.11.6.432
  2. Hattersley, J. G.  Enough vitamin B6 reduces heart attacks by 70%. Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients.  August-September 2004.
  3. Hadjivassi, R., et al. (2004). Gluten sensitivity: from gut to brain. Trends in Immunology, 11: 578-82.
  4. Rountree, R. (2012). Roundoc Rx: Insomnia: The Impact on Health and Interventions to Improve Sleep. Alternative & Complementary Therapies, 18(3), 116-121. doi:10.1089/act.2012.18306

The information provided here is of a general nature intended for educational purposes only. We make no claims to diagnose, treat, prevent, alleviate or cure illnesses or diseases with any information or product stated. With any health issue we suggest you consult your healthcare professional before undertaking any health treatment.

Greg Newson
Greg Newson


Greg Newson is a qualified Naturopath, Herbalist, Nutritionist and Health Enthusiast who is passionate about wellness and dedicated in educating people of the enormous potential of natural medicine.

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