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Why can't I sleep?

By Chris Newton

For some, sleep is an enjoyable time to get cozy and rest. For others it’s seen as a waste of valuable time and for you, no doubt, it is simply torture. The latter obviously dominates the Fibromyalgia community. What you would give up in the daytime to enjoy a restful night’s sleep.

Neuroscience explains why we sleep and has become detailed in each phase the brain goes through. Knowing the major bullet points for how we sleep and understanding the rules governing receptors, we can hypothesise why people in chronic pain can’t sleep. So let’s dig into it in this article.

Why we sleep

Now I’m going to give you the highlight reel as my articles tend to be long enough as they are! 

On average, healthy brains use about 20% of your energy reserves to run, which is actually quite significant. In terms of calories it equates to around 400 per day. To put this in perspective, at rest the brain uses about 110 calories per pound of weight, where muscles use around 6 calories per pound. During mental activity that number increases and in physical activity both increase not just muscles. 

Two thirds of this energy goes into processing incoming and outgoing nerve impulses. The other third goes into regenerating cells to keep the brain healthy. So the brain works hard and needs to rest in the same way our muscles do. 

As I’ve mentioned before in my articles, the brain spends a great deal of energy filtering signals from receptors to assess threat levels around us. This is done in a part of the brain called the Reticular Formation. As the Brain begins to run out of energy reserves the Reticular Formation shuts you down for the night. By doing this, all of the signals it receives from receptors are filtered out, so the higher brain has no stimulation from them. This is why people can sleep through a thunder storm. 

The Reticular Formation can only do this if there is no perceived threat in the environment. It will try to keep you awake and alert otherwise. It doesn’t really care whether you are locked in a haunted house with an axe murderer and a thousand deadly spiders or a simple pain receptor is over stimulated. It’s all the same to the Reticular Formation. The net result. . . you’re getting a bad night’s sleep!

Receptors and the Reticular Formation 

Most receptors go through the Reticular Formation for assessment in one way or another, but none more directly than pain perception. This sense has direct links in, so threat from injury can be assessed and sent to the right areas of the brain for action. So, when faulty, these receptors continually overload the Reticular Formation and it assumes a threat to the tissue. At this stage, when tissues are healed but pain is still perceived, you will need to compensate in one of three ways – Flight, Fight or Freeze. 

  • Flight – move away from the source of pain
  • Fight – compensate by creating another dysfunction or resist the pain by increasing muscle tone
  • Freeze – become progressively weaker (mono-tasking), then enter Brain Fog.

In FMS, Fight and Freeze states are common place because such a demand is placed on your ability to compensate by the pain you feel. Therefore the high threat situation will not allow the Reticular Formation to shut you down for sleep – it thinks you’re in that haunted house!

We expect you to sleep after treatment

Once we find the route of your receptor dysfunction and clear it, the Reticular Formation will no longer sense the pain threat. You’ve been let out of the haunted house, and therefore, it has a lot of sleep to catch up on. You could say you need to repay your sleep dept to the brain. So after treatment you’ll need to sleep. Possibly for several days. Whilst inconvenient this is the price you paid for the Brain protecting you from threat. However, after the sleep phase you will be able to rebuild your energy and gain back your old life. 

To learn more or have an informal chat about your FMS please contact us for an informal chat or to book an appointment.


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