Unusual exercise-induced insomnia

Posted , 46 users are following.

TL;DR: I have exercise-induced insomnia for which no one has been able to explain or provide a solution.

I used to exercise regularly. I would wake up every weekday at 6am, bike to the gym, and exercise for about an hour before work. I would usually jog or do some other cardio for 20-30 minutes, then do weight training for the rest of the hour. I had help from a personal trainer, so I knew what I was doing.

I felt great, and I was in the best shape of my life. I kept this up for about 3 years, before something strange happened: I would wake up around 2 or 3am, unable to fall back asleep. I was 33 at the time, and I know sleep patterns can begin to change around this age.

At first, I noticed that I slept much deeper on days I didn't exercise (e.g. weekends). Then I began waking up in the middle of the night, but would usually go right back to sleep. It got worse. Eventually, I would wake about 4 hours after falling asleep with a feeling like an intense adrenaline rush or panic. It would last about an hour, and I would have poor, restless sleep the rest of the night.

I did not have trouble falling asleep. I was in bed at 9:30pm every night, then would read a bit with lights out by 10pm. I would fall asleep within 10 minutes.

When this started happening, I adjusted my routine. I worked out during lunch, or in the evening. No change.

I tried doing more or less cardio vs weight training. No change.

Today, if I exercise at any point during the day, I will only get four hours of good quality sleep.

I've been to several doctors, sleep specialists, and neurologists. I've had multiple take home sleep studies, as well as one on-site at a medical institution. The only thing they've been able to confirm is that I do indeed wake after 4 hours if I have exercised, but no one can tell me why. Many doctors don't even believe my story -- they think it must be psychological stress that I insist on tying to a physical cause.

I have found that walking, low-intensity biking, and hiking are all acceptable forms of exercise that do not trigger my insomnia. I can hike 10 miles and be fine. But if the hike is over very steep terrain, or if I were to jog for 10 minutes, then I have insomnia. So the intensity is definitely a factor.

The sleep studies did reveal that I have very mild sleep apnea. My doctors have told me that normally it would not warrant treatment, but it could be related. However, the usual recommendation for such a mild form is simlply "get more exercise".

My current pet theory is this: following a day of excerise, one's muscles will repair themselves during sleep, usually around 3 or 4 hours into the night. This process requires oxygen from the blood, so if my sleep apnea lowers my blood oxygen levels, then the repair process might cause it to dip below some threshold; my body panics, sending adrenaline through my body to wake me up to address whatever is happening. However, my sleep studies showed my blood oxygenation stayed over 90% the entire night.

I'm currently trying out a CPAP treatment. I'm still adjusting to it, but so far it hasn't made any difference. There's no real reason to think that it will, but I'm willing to try anything at this point.

When I tell this story, most doctors look at me like I have three heads, so I thought I would seek the collective wisdom of the Internet.

Cheers!

2 likes, 147 replies

Report / Delete

147 Replies

Next
  • Posted

    Wow, that's an interesting story.  I have heard of intense exercise making insomnia worse, the explanation being that strenuous physical activity increases cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body and it can stay at an elevated level well after the workout. Even if you aren't stressed due to life factors, your brain may be having a similar response to how it would if you were actually stressed, i.e. waking you up in the middle of the night. 

    Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      I've heard that too, though I would expect that to make it difficult to fall asleep, not stay asleep. How would one treat? Are there cortisol inhibitors, for example?

      Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      Insomnia is a funny thing, some people have a problem going to sleep and others have a problem staying asleep.  I've been dealing with insomnia for a few years, though I mostly have it under control now. It was stress induced, leading to chronically high levels of cortisol and norepinephrine myself, but I never had any problem going to sleep. I have always been able to go to sleep at 9PM dead tired, but when it was at it's worst I'd wake up after 2-3 hours and never be able to go back to sleep. 

      My thoughts on treating it are not to overdo it with the workouts. I don't know of anything that inhibits cortisol production or that you'd want to suppress it anyway because it does have its place in getting us to take action when we are legitimately stressed. Your body may just not be great at recovering after a workout from a hormonal standpoint.  I know one thing for sure from my experience with insomnia: there is literally nothing I would do (working out strenuously, career, anything) to interfere with getting consistent sleep. 

      You might try going back to the super early workouts, then make sure you wind down really well late in the day. Meditation or even extended periods of deep breathing are good ways to reduce those stress hormones. People swear by yoga as a way to get relaxed. Also, try to think of anything that might have you psychologically stressed every day.  I know you said that it is solely caused by the exercise, but if something else has you chronically worrying, those workouts may be just enough added stress to throw you into a pattern of insomnia. 

      Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      > I have always been able to go to sleep at 9PM dead tired, but when it was at it's worst I'd wake up after 2-3 hours and never be able to go back to sleep. 

      That sounds very familiar. Don't know what it is about that magic 3 hour mark.

      I haven't done much yoga; maybe I should experiment with that, or even as a replacement for my regular exercise routine. Meditation and breathing exercises are good suggestions too. Thanks!

      Report / Delete Reply
  • Posted

    This is definitely very strange. Don't understand how a positive thing like exercise could suddenly cause issues. But I definitely get the doctor part about them not understanding. I've been struggling with getting into a deep sleep for about 3 months now and it's destroying my life. I can't function. Did you have your heart checked. Just a suggestion. Not that there are issues but worth a look.

    Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      I really feel for you -- I fought it for a long time and kept working out. I was chronically fatigued and couldn't function.

      Why do you suggest getting my heart checked? A friend had also mentioned it, but I'm not sure what to ask for.

      Report / Delete Reply
  • Posted

    Dear Mekin, I was surfing down the internet and found your story. I couldn’t sleep, and was looking for an answer to my sleeping/insomnia problem. Your story is exactly mine. My docter here in Holland said I had to go and see the neurologist. I had an mri, but they couldn’t find anything. I told them that when i work-out, but also work in the garden, and even after having intercourse I noticed my insomnia got worse and worse. The sleeping specialist in the hospital and neurologist thought that that couldn’t be the problem... I would like to know if you have any solutions yet? I read you maybe would have a anchiogram. Can you please tell me how you are doing now?
    Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      No solution yet. My sleep doctor is a neurologist, but she's never heard of anything like this. I've been using the prescribed CPAP machine for a couple months now, but if anything I've only slept worse.

      I have not had an angiogram; I asked my doctor about having my heart looked at, but she didn't seem to think it was necessary. Have you tried this?

      Report / Delete Reply
  • Posted

    Hi Mekin,

    Sorry to hear you are suffering with this. I understand. I have exactly the same condition; I've tested it in every conceivable combination and the results are always the same: If I exercise more than moderately, I can predict that I will barely sleep and my body will be warmer than usual through the night. It makes no difference if I eat or don't eat, take magnesium or not, take cold showers or not. The fact is that my body doesn't appreciate more than moderate exercise. I'm interested in your story because you mention having previously been a heavy exerciser. I was too, for years. I ran, cycled, swam or some combination of them, nearly everyday. I found it hard to be relaxed unless I had over extended myself. I'm 54 now. This issue with exercise-induced insomnia began around the year I turned 46. I've been dealing with it for years. Doctors never listen to me and always told me it was psychological. I've maintained otherwise. All I know is if I exercise - which I love to do more than anything else on the planet - I will be deprived of a night of sleep and always followed by a day when I am a total mess. I've begun simple tai chi (taijiquan) and I hope that I will be able to do this and sleep. I've tried to investigate if my condition is a symptom of something else. For example, if I exercise for too long not only will I not sleep but I will tremor. I've had this since my forties also and almost never lift weights or use weight machines and I can predict this symptom too. I've had tests for neurological damage and they showed nothing. I'd be interested if anyone here understands what I am talking about, apart from Mekin, who obviously knows well how exercise can adversely affect you. Still, I will exercise. Yesterday, I went to my local 50-meter pool and spent a hour gently paddling up and down, knowing I would be an unwelcome visitor in my bed that night. Hence, my presence here today, a jangled, messed up day following a night of no sleep. C'est ca!

    Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      Sorry to hear your story, but I find it comforting there are others out there with the same issue. Maybe we can compare notes. What diagnostic tests have you had? You mentioned neurology -- what were they looking for?

      I've had sleep tests, which didn't find much but resulted in a CPAP treatment. I'm currently having my heart looked (EKG, chest X-ray, Holter monitor) at to rule out cardiac problems.

      Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      Yes, indeed. Very cool to have people to talk with about this for me too. I had simple doctor examinations for Parkinson's and for MS and because I experienced tremor, I had tests for essential tremor. I also had a brain scan but it was not a CAT scan though. Every test I had came up very clean. In fact, I seem to be healthy for my age. I did something yesterday that I have never tried before and you might be interested in the results. I thought: why not try and exercise very early in the morning to give my body enough time to recover, rehydrate or whatever the issue is. In this spirit I have been getting up at 5am and doing very simple Taichi since last Sunday. So, over a week. No problems with sleep. Yesterday, I got up at the same time and did my Taichi then went to the swimming pool. Now normally any swimming screws with my sleep cycle but I was out of the pool by 8am and low-and-behold no problems sleeping last night! This is a breakthrough for me. Next weekend I am going to push it and climb a mountain for 2 hours total at 6am and see what happens. I'll be done by 8am. Usually that kind of exercise knocks my sleep completely. I may not have found the cause but I really hope this is a solution, even if it means getting up at 4am to exercise, I'll do it. Its prompted me to learn more Taichi which I'm very happy about too.

      Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      Coincidentally I did change my exercise routine to early morning and noticed that I can get deep sleep which I was lacking and barely getting a few hrs before I change my routine naturally. So yes, I resonate with this one, but I am a light excerciser and don't do so many things like other people do.... Guess one needs to keep busy even if you don't have anything else to do to get that perfect routine. Heaven help

      Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      Hi Daragh,

      I posted reply that I think you might find interesting here: https://tinyurl.com/ya9y5ro7

      Basically what I think is happening to you is similar to what is happening to several of us - an over active sympathetic nervous system, probably brought on from overtraining, overwork stress, a combination, or just bad lack and genetics. It's not well known in normal general practise, but it is very well known by sports physiologists, and fatigue clinicians.

      As it happens, one of the main therapies for it is graded exercise therapy, and the chief activity they recommend is Tai Chi. You should be able to improve you exercise load if you very carefully increase it - doing your work outs in the morning was another recommendation. Another is a little less practical but effective if you can do it, is light exercise throughout the day.

      So what happens is, you kick off your stress response inappropriately, if you exercise even moderately or raise your heart rate. So when doctors say it is psychological they are partly right, even if they don't know it. The sports docs and fatigue docs emphasis mindfulness as being very important to recovery. But once you develop these problems, you have developed them for good so you have to be very careful to manage it.

      In my case, I have found that I can get "money in the bank". If I train carefully for a while (not to raise HR or over stress) I can do some heavy work for a while before the symptoms begin to reoccur.

      I like to think of it as like hiccoughs. You stimulate your SNS causing a cascade of symptoms such as insomnia, feeling wired or depressed, fatigue, headaches and brain fog. It gets easier and easier to recover from it though as I know what I need to do. It still a massive massive pain in the back passage though. sad

      Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      This is my story too . I started lifting weights twice a week, 4 months ago, and was doing well, increasing by 5# each week, and suddenly I had extreme insomnia. Well it wasn't that sudden as i had been waking up around 1 am and having a harder and harder time going back to sleep, and staying awake longer and longer. Then one night I couldn't even fall asleep. My PVCs (premature ventricular contractions) have also worsened. I'm trying acupuncture and taking herbal supplements. Will see a Sports Medicine Doc tomorrow. I sure hope I don't have to give up weight lifting!

      Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      Hi,

      I just found your comment on this insomnia topic and like to ask whether you have found a solution for your problem.

      The same is happening to me. I started lifting last January and in November started experiencing difficulty falling asleep, then two weeks later I couldn't even fall asleep and it lasts since then. I tried a lot of natural remedies like Valerian root, ashwaganda, glicin, trypthophan, this last two helped a lot for a while, but now it doesn't seem to help anymore. I'm desperate.

      I so hope that I don't have to give up weight lifting, but without sleep I'm not able to function normally and I fell I'll go crazy if I don't find a solution soon.

      Report / Delete Reply
    • Posted

      I'm really sorry to tell you this, but you will absolutely have to dial back your training if you are getting these symptoms. Not only will they get worse, but you'll end up with other health complications if you don't.

      You can still train, in fact that's the therapy, but you will have to make it short, very light and keep your HR very very low. The advice I was given and (virtually ignored) was stretching while you are in the recovery phase. It might take 3 or 4 months before you can start ramping it back up.

      A physio with experience of fatigue, or chronic fatigue physicians are all over this. They'd be able to give you more authoritative advice but it will be along those lines. They'll likely look at your diet as well. They may even test you to see if you have had a very specific strain of glandular fever at some point in your past.

      Good luck...believe me I understand what a frustrating problem it is.

      Report / Delete Reply

Join this discussion or start a new one?

New discussion Reply

Report or request deletion

Thanks for your help!

We want the forums to be a useful resource for our users but it is important to remember that the forums are not moderated or reviewed by doctors and so you should not rely on opinions or advice given by other users in respect of any healthcare matters. Always speak to your doctor before acting and in cases of emergency seek appropriate medical assistance immediately. Use of the forums is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and steps will be taken to remove posts identified as being in breach of those terms.

newnav-down newnav-up