After a night of insomnia, the morning can feel extremely frustrating, stressful, and hopeless—especially if your insomnia is chronic.
Most bouts of insomnia last for a finite period, according to sleep psychologist Meg Danforth, PhD. “But about 6 to 10 percent of adults suffer from insomnia disorder, meaning that they have chronic difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early and being unable to get back to sleep,” says Danforth.
Insomnia is considered chronic when it occurs at least three times per week for more than three months and acute when it lasts anywhere between one night to a few weeks.
How Insomnia Affects Your Body, Mind, and Emotions
“There is not one organ in your body or process in the brain that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep,” says sleep coach and certified yoga therapist Monica Le Baron. “Therefore, sleep deprivation affects us more than we think, whether we’re aware of it or not.”
Not only will your energy levels be affected negatively, but any stress in the body can be intensified after nights of insomnia, according to Le Baron. “Whatever is going on in the body is amplified, like shoulder tension, headaches or chronic pain.”
Plus, insomnia can throw hormones out of whack, including two hormones necessary for regulating hunger and fullness cues—ghrelin and leptin—which can disrupt your connection to your body and impact the amount of food you consume.
“Ghrelin acts within the brain to stimulate hunger, whereas leptin helps to signal satisfaction and fullness,” says registered dietitian Catherine Beck MS, RD, LDN. “Inadequate sleep has been shown to increase ghrelin levels while also lowering leptin levels, which in turn can lead to intensified feelings of hunger throughout the day, as well as difficulty feeling full and/or satisfied.”
According to Beck, insomnia can also impact your food choices: “The brain senses a state of low energy and therefore signals cravings for quick energy in the form of simple sugars that digest quickly.” While simple sugars are totally okay to eat, they can create issues if they make up most of your intake. “This can potentially lead to imbalanced meals and snacks that do not contain all necessary nutrients and do not provide sustained energy,” Beck says.
Mentally, Le Baron says she notices her insomniac clients have decreased focus and motivation and experience more stress.
Danforth says insomnia can also cause increased anxiety and intense worry about sleep. It can also put people at greater risk for mental health disorders, like depression and substance abuse, she says. “They are more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event. They miss more work, require more healthcare, and have lower quality of life compared with good sleepers,” says Danforth. “They are also at higher risk for suicide.”
After a night of insomnia, it can be harder than usual to emotionally regulate and deal with the stress of life. “My clients report being emotionally more irritable,” says Le Baron. “They get triggered easier and feel more frustrated and guilty for not being able to accomplish everything on their to-do list.”
What to Do After a Night of Insomnia
1. Pick a mindfulness practice. Since insomnia often causes hard feelings like frustration or hopelessness, try a self-compassion practice. It can mean listening to a guided recording, speaking kindly to yourself, or simply remembering that you are not alone in your struggle.
Yoga nidra is another practice to consider, and the one that Le Baron recommends. “Yoga nidra is very refreshing, and only 10 minutes of this yogic gem can feel like an hour of rest to feel more refreshed, energized and happy through the day,” she says. “The best part is that you just have to press play and listen to receive the benefits.”
Le Baron also recommends a journaling practice: “It’s one of those tools that help to release [overwhelm] and stress and find clarity on the root cause of their sleep struggles.”
2. Consider gentle movement. Depending on how your body feels, low-intensity movement like walking or gentle yoga can help, according to both Le Baron and Beck.
But intense exercise is not recommended, because insomnia prevents the body from rejuvenating itself the way it needs to support high-intensity activity.
“When our body does not rest adequately, it is unable to perform essential steps to repair and replenish our muscles, organs, and glycogen (energy) stores,” says Beck. “The stress hormone cortisol is likely to remain elevated for longer periods of time.”
3. Eat enough and keep it simple. Nourishing yourself is one thing you can control after an uncontrollable night of insomnia.
Consider eating within one hour of waking to stabilize cortisol levels and energize your body. Then, eat consistently throughout the day. Beck recommends including all three macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein) at each meal.
“As a breakfast example, you could prepare quick cooking oats with soy (or dairy), and top them with berries and nuts,” says Beck. Plus, Beck shares that excluding carbs in particular can further disrupt the sleep cycle: “Carbohydrates are required to produce melatonin, a chemical responsible for sleep regulation.”
If you experience regular insomnia, include some easily prepared foods on your grocery list, and give yourself permission to lean into convenience and simplicity, especially after hard nights.
Some options include: instant oats, yogurt, fruit (dried, frozen, or fresh), granola or cereal, nuts and nut butters, microwavable rice, beans, pre-cooked or frozen veggies, cheese or hummus and crackers, bagels and cream cheese, frozen meals and granola bars.
Sometimes, even take-out can be a lifesaver.
4. Give yourself permission to slow down. Insomnia can often be a sign that you need to slow down. After a hard night, prioritize the things that absolutely need to get done that day, and let go of unnecessary tasks or meetings. “If you have a restless night, you can be more mindful of the activities you do the next day,” Le Baron says. “Instead of hassling to get through the day, give yourself permission to rest or do other activities that require less of you.”
5. Hydrate and consider other fluids. Research shows an association between insomnia and dehydration due to the disruption of a specific hormone’s production. “In later, deeper stages of sleep, the body produces a hormone called vasopressin that promotes water retention,” says Beck. “When sleep is lacking, this process is disrupted, which can contribute to dehydration.” Beck recommends consuming at least 60 to 80 ounces (or about 7.5 to 10 cups) of fluids throughout the day.
While drinking extra caffeine after a bad night is appealing, it could lead to increased anxiety and keep you in a pattern of insomnia. “I would recommend avoiding large amounts of caffeine for energy and utilizing food as a more sustained and nourishing energy source,” says Beck. “If you can’t bear the thought of missing out on your morning joe, try and limit consumption to 8-12 ounces [or one to two cups] before 2 p.m.”
Explore these four nutrition tips to manage anxiety.