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ADHD Alternative Treatments: Sleep

Updated on July 2, 2011

Everybody knows that a bad night's sleep is likely to leave you moody, irritable, and bouncing between exhaustion and hyperactivity the next day. What is less well known is the fact that many of the symptoms of sleep deprivation are very similar to the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

In fact, sleep deprivation is sometimes mistaken for ADHD, but more commonly, it simply exacerbates it. Parents of children with ADHD are significantly more likely than parents of non-ADHD children to report that their child has problems falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning. Serious sleep problems are even more common among teenagers and adults with ADHD.

Because sleep deprivation exacerbates the symptoms of ADHD, it's very important to develop and practice good sleep habits.

Photo by Tina Keller
Photo by Tina Keller

Sleep Disorders and ADHD

Many sleep disorders associated with ADHD are caused by an underlying medical condition. Fortunately, many of these conditions are treatable.

One of the most common sleep disorders associated with ADHD, especially among children, is sleep apnea. If your child snores or seems to "pause" his breathing during the night, sleep apnea may be the cause of his sleeping problems. One study of 3000 parents found that about 25% of children had sleep disordered breathing, and those who did were significantly more likely to report problems with daytime sleepiness, hyperactivity, aggression, inattention, and more.

Another common sleep problem associated with ADHD, especially among adults, is Restless Leg Syndrome, which causes a restless, buzzing, or "creepy-crawly" sensation in one or more limbs.

Sleepwalking, asthma, bed wetting, and general insomnia may also contribute to sleep problems in children and adults with ADHD.

ADHD Sleep Patterns

Adults and children with ADHD frequently report very similar sleep patterns. The most common pattern goes something like this:

  1. Mental and/or physical restlessness make falling asleep very difficult, possibly taking an hour or more after going to bed.
  2. The first few hours of sleep are restless, possibly with several awakenings.
  3. Finally, often around 4 AM, the child or adult falls into deep sleep, often called "the sleep of the dead" because it is so hard to awaken anyone experiencing it. If the person is undisturbed in this state, he may sleep until noon. If she is disturbed, she may be moody, irritable, and tired all day, but especially in the morning.

Some scientists believe this common ADHD sleep pattern may be the result of weak circadian rhythms in people with ADHD.

Tips for Getting a Good Night's Sleep With ADHD

Once any underlying sleep disorders are taken care of, you can help yourself or your child get a good night's sleep with these tips:

  • Establish a set bedtime and a regular, relaxing bedtime routine, and stick to it as religiously as possible. This is especially important for young children, but helps older children and adults as well. Routines train your body to sleep at a certain time and help prevent the development of irregular or abnormal sleep patterns.
  • Use your bed only for sleep. Reading, watching television, doing homework, or other activities in bed can train your body to expect activity and stimulation in bed. Using your bed only for sleep trains to to sleep there instead.
  • Avoid naps during the day, unless you're sick. Too much sleep during the day can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
  • Sleep in the dark. Turn off night lights, buy dark blinds or thick curtains, and cover lights from electronics before you go to bed. A chemical called melatonin, which can only be manufactured by the body in the dark, plays an important role in maintaining healthy circadian rhythms. Lights, even faint ones, can also make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol for 4 hours before bed. Both are diuretics, increasing the chance that you'll be woken up with a full bladder. Try warm milk or non-caffeinated chamomile tea instead.
  • Don't eat a large meal shortly before bed. A small snack is fine, and may actually help you get to sleep.
  • Take a hot bath or shower about an hour before bed. The warmth will relax you and the cooling off period afterwards will help signal your body it is time to sleep.
  • Pay careful attention to how your medication affects your sleep patterns. Some people find that the stimulant medication most commonly used to treat ADHD helps them sleep better, others find it makes them sleep worse. If you are in the later category, talk to your doctor and see if you can adjust your medication dosage or schedule.

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    • Enelle Lamb profile image

      Enelle Lamb 

      8 years ago from Canada's 'California'

      Now that's an interesting theory! I will have to look into that...

      Hope you don't mind, but I posted a link to this hub as well :P

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      9 years ago from East Coast, United States

      This is a very interesting take on a modern epidemic. I heard that some studies show that a good old fashioned tonsilectomy can pretty much cure the sleep apnea. And the children with ADD who had tonsilectomies show behavior changes very quickly.

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