Unusual exercise-induced insomnia

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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!

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  • Posted

    I recently started having this issue as well. Certainly have not been dealing with this as long as the people in this string......I tried a few different things since being only able to sleep 3 hours per night (fall asleep straight away wake up like it was mid day covered in sweat). Last night I tried one of those edible marijuana  gummies. They apparently take awhile to take effect and since I can fall asleep right away I took it right before I went to bed. The hope was it would kick in before and maintain during the 3 hour mark. Slept for a full 7 hours (only up once to pee). First time in over 3 week! That was only n of 1 so excited to see if it works tonight to or just a fluke. Hope this helps.

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  • Posted

    Has anyone here tried monitoring their blood sugar? I've these exact problems for about 7 years, and have never been able to figure out what was wrong with me. Last week I got a blood test done which showed very low levels of blood sugar, and i decided to investigate its relation to insomnia a bit: 

    "You’re exhausted and you need your eight hours of sleep, but you suddenly bolt awake around 3 or 4 a.m., energy coursing through your veins and mind churning anxiously. What gives? Waking up in the middle of the night is simply one of many low blood sugar symptoms.

    Sleeping through the night represents a long period without food when blood sugar can drop too low. This is bad news for the brain, which depends on glucose for energy. The brain is highly active at night, transforming short-term memory into long-term memory,[1] and carrying out repair and regeneration.[2]

    In response, the adrenal glands, two walnut-shaped glands that sit atop the kidneys, release stress hormones. These stress hormones raise blood sugar back to a safe level. Unfortunately, stress hormones also raise, well, stress. Hence the anxious awakening during night’s darkest hours." 

    From: https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/diabetes/do-you-bolt-awake-at-3-a-m-low-blood-sugar-symptoms-may-be-to-blame/

    "On the opposite end of the spectrum, if your blood glucose is too low, hypoglycemia, you may also wake up during the night.  Every cell in your body needs sugar to work properly. It’s your body’s main source of energy.  When your sugar levels fall too low it can cause a variety of problems within your central nervous system which can include: [Hypoglycemia Sleep Issues]

    Hunger

    Weakness

    Dizziness

    Nervousness

    Anxiousness

    Irritability

    Chills

    Sweating

    Tingling or numbness of mouth

    Blurred Vision

    Headache

    Confusion

    Nightmares

    Sleepwalking

    Restlessness

    The next time you wake up during the night with these symptoms, check your blood glucose. When there is a drop in the blood glucose level, it causes the release of hormones that regulate glucose levels, such as adrenaline, glucagon, cortisol, and growth hormone. These compounds stimulate the brain. They are a natural signal that it is time to eat. 

    Good bedtime snacks to keep blood sugar levels steady throughout the night are oatmeal and other whole grain cereals, whole grain breads and muffins, and other complex carbohydrates. These foods will not only help maintain blood sugar levels, they actually can help promote sleep by increasing the level of serotonin in the brain." [2]

    From: http://www.alaskasleep.com/blog/blood-sugar-and-sleep-problems

    There is also this page regarding the issue: https://marshanunleymd.wordpress.com/2011/12/23/sugar-and-insomnia[/b]/ 

    All doctors I've spoken to found it weird (or didn't even believe me) when I told them that cutting out all exercise except for walking made me sleep much much better. But it sounds like the insomnia could have something to do with issues regulating blood sugar, leading to too low blood sugar during the night after even small amounts of exercise during the day, which then leads to these "stress"-episodes in the middle of the night keeping me/us awake. I've found that on top of exercise, even small amounts of sugar and alcohol are the worst things i can eat/drink during the day regarding my insomnia at night. They both have a significant impact on the blood sugar balance, so that might further acknowledge that the issue could be related to this. 

    I'll dig deeper into this and try different diets to stabilize my blood sugar, but if anyone has already tried this, feel free to share.

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    • Posted

      I am curious if you have gotten any answers about what is causing your exercise-induced insomnia. I have the same problem - no doctor can tell me what is causing it. Have you gotten any clues at all? It has gotten progressively worse for me and is taking a huge toll on my life and health. I hope so badly that it is something curable. Thank you very much for any reply.

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  • Posted

    I've also been having these issues recently (waking up with insomnia after 3 hours despite getting to sleep easily) and can see from the foregoing discussion exercise could well be the problem. I am 66 and have been exercising for many years, swimming since I was 50, though over the last 8 years it has been jogging and weight training 3-5 times a week. I am very fit for my age - maybe too fit! Simultaneously to these episodes starting in March this year (now May) I was worrying about work (yes I know why should I at my age?) but had shifted to doing more intense exercises using kettle bells in particular. I seem to take to doing the crunches. Perhaps too much. They seem to get easier during the session, which is odd.

    I then avoided the most high intensity stuff for a few weeks and the insomnia symptoms seemed to go away. But recently I have returned to the high intensity sessions and the insomnia (waking up after 3 hours in a state of alertness) has returned. I am definitely going to cut out all exercises now and if that works I will then return to gradually reintroduce less intense workouts.

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  • Posted

    This is exactly what I am facing. Exercise/no exercise, I get up exactly 5 hours after I sleep(whatever may be the time), exercise makes it worse, I get real alert after exercise so I can't sleep immediately. Less sleep increases my food/sugar cravings. I am going nuts trying to get a grip on this. I am frustrated listening and getting comments from all sorts of people about how less I have to eat and get a grip on my food habits. This is happening to me whose health records a couple of years back were so good that my doctor refused to do the routine physical checkup because she thought I am wasting insurance money by going to checkups every year and getting tests done. I am so so fed up. How the hell do I get back my sleep?

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  • Posted

    It is really great to find this thread.  I have been suffering with exercise induced insomnia for over three years and it sounds very much like what several of you report.  The most repeatable symptom is that if I exercise vigorously during the day, I will awaken with an "adreneline rush" after 3 to 5 hours of sleep.  This insomnia came on fairly suddenly in my mid 40s.  I have always enjoyed exercising, was a distance runner and soccer player in high school and college, and have remained fit.  

    I have another strange exercise induced problem:  I get urticaria (hives) after a hard workout.  That has been occurring for a few years more than the insomnia.  Doctors say it is not uncommon.  Of course, for that they recommend antihistimines which also solve the sleep problem that day, but I can't think straight for a day and then my sleep is messed up the next few days.  I have been guessing there is some auto-immune component to my insomnia.  Combine immune, endocrine and neurological issues, and it is not hard to see why doctors can't figure this one out.

    I also have tachycardia, and am somewhat prone to fainting.

    There is also some connection with my digestive system.  About the same time my insomnia started, my digestive system became much less stable.  A spicy or greasy meal can give me loose stools for a day or two and my insomnia happens even without exercise then.   The worst was the first month or two when I thought the insomnia was caused by digestive instability and I tried more exercise to help me sleep better.  That left me totally exhausted until I figured out the exercise was the most clear cause of the insomnia.

    It is also stress related.  But everybody guesses that.  More stress makes it worse.  The problem is that even without much stress, a good workout means waking up in the middle of the night.  If I am not stressed, I am better at relaxing and going back to sleep an hour later.  If I am stressed and do a workout, I wake at 3am and am up the rest of the night.  

    Sorry I don't have any answers to add.  Hopefully people will report here some things that work for them.

     

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    • Posted

      A correction to my comment above:  I see in the middle of the night I got tachycardia and brandycardia mixed up.  I have slow heart rate (brandycardia) and so the hypothesis in an earlier post that it might be related to low oxygen availability is interersting.
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    • Posted

      I found this thread because I have been having similar issues. But I'm not super fit, am just trying to be healthier. I have just been trying to reach 10k steps a day (my neighborhood is a bit hilly) with walking, and also lift weights 3 times a week for 30 minutes and this is resulting in my not being able to go to sleep and not being able to stay asleep, as well as feeling hot and waking every 2 or 3 hours. I also get restless leg symptoms now at night which I think is the result of some kind of overactivity in my brain despite being physically tired. I do have anxiety and am on medication for it so I'm sure it has to do with my cortisol levels. I noticed that taking mucinex made me instantly start having restless leg symptoms then read that antihistamines block the absorption of dopamine which causes the restless leg symptoms, and decongestants can also cause it. It almost sounds like you guys have the hyperactivity of RLS without the leg sensations. I try to take a hot bath or shower to get myself to relax and into a state where I can fall asleep and where my legs stop being idiots. If you haven't tried that then maybe it will help. And maybe if any of you are on antihistamines or decongestants that may be something to look at.

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    • Posted

      Hi ganv,

      I am curious if you have gotten any answers about what is causing your exercise-induced insomnia. I have the same problem - no doctor can tell me what is causing it. Like you mentioned with the "adrenaline rush", I will wake up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding. Have you gotten any clues at all? It has gotten progressively worse for me and is taking a huge toll on my life and health. I hope so badly that it is something curable. Thank you very much for any reply.

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  • Edited

    Hi Mekin,

    I have been going through this exact same thing recently.  I am a 50 year old woman in very good physical condition and I also eat very clean and healthy.  I have exercised all my life with only occasional sleep issues.  I notice I only seem to have issues when I do an intense, long cardio workout on my elliptical (indoors) where I am sweating a lot.  (I don't notice it as much with long distance running outdoors).  So I am wondering if the problem could have something to do with dehydration.  I drink a lot of water before, during and after my workouts, and I try to take in the appropriate electrolytes, but I think the body still gets dehydrated and takes a few days to fully recover.

    I am usually able to have a cup of coffee with my dinner without it effecting me, but I am wondering if in a dehydrated state, the caffeine effects me more as my body absorbs it more.  Also, I am wondering if my supplements are effecting my sleep more when dehydrated.  One other idea is that since dehydration causes constipation, this may be disrupting my sleep too.

    I am currently going to test these theories, but I was wondering Mekin if you sweat a lot when working out and how much water you are taking in.  Also, are you consuming any alcohol?  Even a little bit in a dehydrated state is going to exacerbate sleep disturbances and will probably effect your sleep.  I don't drink at all because it always causes sleep issues for me.

    These are some suggestions.  If anyone has any luck with these theories please share.

    We may be over analyzing this if it's just in fact dehydration.  Also, Lucas 14544, I'm not trying to be mean, but when I read your comment about how much coffee and tea you're drinking I had to laugh and ask "is this guy serious?". I can almost guarantee if you cut way back on the caffeine and drink water instead you'll notice an improvement in your sleep.  I think all the caffeine is probably making dehydration worse rather than helping you.  Also, the person who mentioned a tremor, I wonder if it could be caffeine combined with possible dehydration.

    Everyone please come back and update us all when you find successful remedies.

     

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    • Posted

      Not to sound a know-it-all, but what's wrong with my drinking habits?

      I drink max 2 cups of coffee in the morning and about 1.5L herbal tea (no caffeine). Mostly ginger/grean tea, rooibos and sleep inducing brew's at night...

       

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    • Posted

      Lucas,

      You don't sound like a Know-it-all and I'm sorry for making fun of you smile.  I didn't realize you were drinking herbal tea.  However, make sure these beverages are in addition to the recommended guidelines for water intake for athletes (which is a lot)..  These beverages should not replace water (especially the coffee).  Try drinking one cup of coffee then switching to decaf.  Also, before, your first cup of coffee drink some water first thing in the morning.  I bet you'll be surprised at how parched you really are and how good it tastes.  Be sure to get filtered water because tap water tastes awful.  (at least in California).

      Dude, I seriously think you are over analyzing your sleep problems.  You are not drinking enough water!  You can check the color of your urine, but that doesn't always turn dark until you are in a critical state of dehydration.  I always pee clear even when I'm slightly dehydrated.  By drinking the coffee first thing without hydrating yourself with water, you are absorbing that caffeine more.

      Please try my recommendation.  It will take a few days for you to see the benefits, but you'll eventually start sleeping better.

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    • Posted

      Hello beaniebye,

      I've been having sleep problems since my childhood.... My doctor recently send me to another sleeping clinic (after visiting 3 already), but none of them seem to have a solution... Apart from medication, which puts me in a zombie like state non stop. Life sucks when you're always tired. I already drink allot. Around 2liters water or herbal tea. So that's 2.5liters in total. But it has no significance on my sleep whatsoever. The problem is that I wake up allot of times during the night and its hard to fall back to sleep again. Everyday I feel lethargic and tired because of this. I'm just searching for something to alliviate my insomnia since doctors don't know how to help me...

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    • Posted

      Hi Lucas,

      One thing I wanted to say was check your herbal teas and make sure the label states "caffeine-free". Not all herbal teas are.  It should state that they are, and if it doesn't contact the company or search the web.  (i'm sure the sleepy time probably is, but green teas typically contain caffeine.)

      Also, I would really try to cut way back on your coffee.  I know you drink it in the morning, but some people are just more sensitive to caffeine and can be affected by that morning dose.  Start by cutting back to just one cup in the morning, and see if it helps at all (drink water first so you aren't absorbing it so fully and try to eat something with it).  

      See if you even miss it.  (You probably won't.) Then maybe try switching to a coffee blend that is 1/2 decaf and still having only one cup, or only drink half of a cup.  You may not even notice the difference.  It's really that first little bit of caffeine that gives you the "kick" that you need.  Your tolerance is probably high since two cups really does have a high level of caffeine.  You may struggle a bit at first, but it will get easier.

      Please try this.  You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

      I did an experiment the other night.  I did my most high intensity cardio workout where I sweat like a mother ****** and usually can only sleep three hours after.  (Even though I go to bed exhausted).  

      Afterwards, I drank loads of water and had all the necessary electrolytes.  However, the one thing I did differently was I skipped the evening coffee (which doesn't usually effect my sleep unless I have done this particular workout).  Also, I made sure to take all my meds and supplements in the morning.  And I slept like a baby.  I found when I got up I still needed to take in loads of water and electrolytes.  However, I had energy throughout the day.

      Good luck!  Please report back.  I am taking my own advice on this since I had such positive results giving up my evening caffeine and switching my meds and supplements to morning.

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    • Posted

      Lucas, 

      This is my second reply to you.  I just had an after thought.  The first post has more ideas.

      When you awake in the night, have a bottle of water on your night stand and guzzle it as fast as you can.  If you wake up hot, then drink a chilled bottle.  Then close your eyes and relax and try not to think about anything.  If you don't fall back to sleep immediately, grab a favorite book and start reading.  When I do this, I almost always wake up in the morning with my lamps on as I fall back to sleep reading.

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    • Posted

      With the greatest respect, a dietician (clinical professional) would tell you that the diuretic effect of caffeine is minuscule next to the amount of hydration you take on from the water it's dissolved in. Herbal tea is great way to rehydrate - often better than water only because it has anti-oxidants and electrolytes. However, caffeine is a stimulant and if you have it late in the day it can still be in your system when you are trying to sleep. So for sure, avoid caffeine but it doesn't contribute to dehydration - you'd need incredibly strong coffee to see a noticeable effect.

      My guess is that Lucas is Over Training - his symptoms sound exactly like that. Lucas, something to try would be a HR monitor and following Phil Maffetones maximum HR advice for your age. I think its 180 minus your age. It's really hard to exercise with HR that low, but it's broadly consistent with the advice I got from the NHS Chronic Fatigue Clinic, who were the most practically helpful of all the professionals I saw.

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    • Posted

      Thanks RohanS. Exactly my thoughts. I've been a bad sleeper my whole life. I think that this, and a busy life with allot of sports is been contributing to these problems I've, and most people in this thread, been experiencing.

      When i started seroquel for sleep i finally slept the whole night after years of tossing and turning. I started weight lifting as i felt i owned the  world. But the use of seroquel had allot of side effects, from excessive sweating, brain fog, anxiety and i felt so dumb! It interfered so much whith daily life...

      I tried to maintain sports as good as i could, but i soon felt back in my old pattern of bad sleep. I took some real steps back already in intensity, duration as in frequency. Which was already pretty hard to do.

      I'm gonna follow up on your advice and see how it goes. Yesterday i did some pull-ups (3x8) which went fairly easy. Today i had to call in sick at work. Because i slept only three hours. And if it happens on occasion that you sleep a little less it's OK, but my whole sleep journal looks out of whack. Sport or no sports.

      Do you got any more advice?

       

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    • Edited

      Yes. I do.

      For me personally, I found it very very hard...nearly impossible to limit my efforts. I went through a really bad phase of the OTS and I was diligent about training at low intensities, but I'd start getting better and then the opportunity for a blow would happen, I'd take it, and then it would set me back. Being a senior karate practitioner, I'd also want to lead from example - holding back is really hard when you are telling people to push themselves.

      Everything you have written suggest you haven't gone past stage 2 OTS meaning you probably are in better positioned to crack it, so that's good. But ask yourself how you would feel about taking 2 or 3 months off training and just going for occasional walks. How does that make you feel? Most people with early stages OTS find that very confronting, and because they can't stick to it they get to stage 3 and permanent and very frustrating damage to their system. A lifetime of looking over your shoulder trying to manage what you do.

      The people who might be best to help you professionally will be Chronic Fatigue clinicians. Also sports doctors, which is where I went to first. But you might be able to sort it out on your own by doing a little research on Over Training. A good primer for the SNS is this:

      https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/symptoms-overactive-sympathetic-nervous-system-you-headed-chad-oler

      Phil Maffetone has a good article here:

      https://philmaffetone.com/the-overtraining-syndrome/

      But stage 2 and stage 3 are not sympathetic and parasymapthetic overtraining respectively. I don't know why he called them that, they are 2 different types of over training. Everything else in the article is correct.

      I'd also suggest that because you have always had problems sleeping, you have probably always been prone to over-stimulated SNS meaning you will also overtrain easily. That's a bit of a bugger for you really. Could preclude your favourite forms of exercise. That said, what I have found is that if you are really well rested, have eaten well and take measures to recover well, the odd periodic big blow out might be ok. I have had big training sessions and had no adverse reactions at all. Sometimes its hard to predict.

      If I were you, I think I would try rejigging my training so that I don't get my HR too high. So if you are doing weights don't do 3 sets in a row, switch around a lot with plenty of rest in between, try to be really zen and calm. I have a routine I do which works really well...I feel nicely 'used' but not over-extended, I do a heavy week and then a light week and a session doesn't last more than 20 to 25 minutes and yeah, my fitness has been very good. Very, very good at times. But running is the worst - which is a pity because I LOVE running. I go for a run I'm guaranteed a horror night in bed.

      A question...do you have problems with cramps? I don't think it is anything to do with OTS necessarily, but I do...I have to keep on top of the electrolytes as well.

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    • Edited

      Thanks for the tips Rohan. I've been doing better the last few weeks. I did no training or really light with stretching. And I slept a whole lot better.

      I almost thought I was cured... Then something happened with a friend. He died. So I use training also as a way to cope with frustration and aggression. So I did a couple sets 90kg bench press x 5 and had three days of horrible sleep. Some of no sleep at all and had to puke in the morning the because I felt like crap. Even had to call in sick at work. So I'm gonna follow up on your advice and gonna rest. It's really hard if you're used to working out almost every day...

      Thanks again for everything smile

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    • Posted

      Hi Rohan,

      I guess my point was that if you are already dehydrated from your workout caffeine has more of an effect on you than normal.  I used to have the problem with exercise induced insomnia until I gave up all caffeine after a workout (regardless of what time I worked out).  The funny thing is that if I drink a few cups of decaf that has 15mg caffeine (Starbucks VIA) after a workout, I get a good buzz from it as if I am drinking regular coffee, and I still sleep like a baby.  This kind of proved my theory for me.

      We are all entitled to our opinions, but I strongly believe that you need to drink a lot of plain water throughout the day to rehydrate in addition to other beverages.  (I am just speaking from my own experience).  And when I do drink coffee, if I don't quench my thirst first with water, the caffeine has way more of an effect on me and will probably keep me up later.

      It sounds like Lucas has a very unique problem because he has never been able to sleep.  I don't know if he has ever tried to go completely caffeine free, but if he hasn't it sure would be worth a try.

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    • Posted

      I'm sure you are right - at the very least partly. There is plenty of evidence (anecdotally anyway) that you should stay off caffeine later in the day. It's the case for me as well. And for sure, we should drink plenty of water or fluids. But there are some myths going about regarding hydration. The diuretic effect of alcohol and caffeine is minuscule relative the fluid we take on, but that doesn't mean we won't see adverse effects from drinking seven cups of coffee! The effects are of course cumulative.

      I think my main point was regarding a deeper systemic problem Lucas and I both seem to have.

      In my case too - I have to be careful not to over-hydrate as that leads to cramps and other problems. My dietician and actually a few other doctors recommended having salt with my water so that I don't become hypnotraemic. Hydration is problem for me related to the issue that causes my insomnia.

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