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Not Sleeping Well? Discover the Neurotransmitters that Control Your Sleep

Did you know that sleep is regulated by chemical messengers in the brain? When out of balance, these neurotransmitters could be to blame for your sleepless nights.

There’s nothing like a good night’s rest to help you feel refreshed, rested and ready to take on your day. However, sleep is more than just rest, it’s an essential part of maintaining a healthy body and mind, as you integrate memory and allow your body to repair and recover from working all day.


But what happens when you can’t fall asleep or have a difficult time staying asleep?


The signs of poor sleep are obvious and almost immediate. Lack of sleep can lead to low energy, changes in mood, poor reaction time, inability to focus and more. Insufficient sleep over an extended period of time can also lead to chronic health issues and sleep disorders.


Getting a good night’s sleep depends primarily on the balance of awake chemicals to sleep chemicals in your brain. Learn more about what chemicals make you sleepy and why they matter.

The Sleep-Wake Cycle: Which Part of the Brain Controls It?

The hypothalamus, a small structure deep in the brain about the size of a peanut, is the area of the brain that controls sleep. It receives information about light exposure from the eyes to control your internal clock or circadian rhythm, regulates sleep duration, and controls sleep and arousal. 


When it is time to sleep, the neurons in the hypothalamus release sleep neurotransmitters to correspond with light-dark cycles in the environment, the amount of time you’ve been awake, and to begin inhibiting the levels of awake neurotransmitters so you can begin inducing sleep.


Most importantly, the sleep brain chemical messengers travel down the brainstem to induce sleep and immobilize the body as you sleep. Otherwise, you would act out your dreams!

Neurotransmitters and Sleep: How Brain Chemicals Affect Your Zzz's

So what are neurotransmitters? Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers released by neurons to transmit messages to other neurons, glands or muscles. These chemical impulses influence many systems in the body, sleep being one of them.


When it’s time to sleep, the neurons in the hypothalamus begin to produce sleep chemicals and block awake chemicals until a “switch” happens and the neurotransmitters that promote sleep are greater, allowing you to fall into restful sleep until it is time to awaken again. 

Adenosine and Sleep: The Brain Chemical That Makes You Sleepy

Adenosine is one of the primary sleep chemicals in the brain that regulates your sleep cycle. It builds up in your brain throughout the time that you are awake, usually the day, and makes you feel drowsy come nighttime. Adenosine inhibits the wake-promoting regions in the brain, leading to sleep.


The levels of adenosine go back down as you sleep and the build-up cycle begins again when you wake up.


However, many people fight off the feelings of being drowsy with adenosine antagonists. Adenosine blockers are chemicals that block where adenosine binds in the brain, also blocking the drowsy feelings. Caffeine is one of the most common adenosine antagonists used to keep you awake and prevent sleep. Interfering with this natural cycle can have long-term effects on your body’s ability to regulate sleep naturally.

Other Neurotransmitters of Sleep: GABA, Glutamate, and More

The balance between inhibitory neurotransmitters and excitatory neurotransmitters is key to a healthy sleep-wake cycle. The inhibitory sleep chemicals block the excitatory wake chemicals when it is time to sleep, and vice versa when it is time to wake up.


This delicate balance of neurotransmitters is what regulates your sleep and sleep quality.


  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps switch off wakefulness and helps trigger the process of falling asleep. It is associated with sleep, muscle relaxation, sedation and inhibition.
  • Melatonin helps regulate circadian rhythms, is most often associated with sleep although its levels fluctuate throughout the day, and is regulated by the amount of light in the environment.
  • Acetylcholine is associated with muscle activation, during sleep slowing the heart rate, and most present during REM stage of sleep.
  • Orexin or Hypocretin regulates dopamine, norepinephrine, histamine, and acetylcholine hormones that are responsible for the awake part of the sleep-wake cycle.
  • Glutamate is the main excitatory neurotransmitter and helps regulate duration of sleep and wakefulness.
  • Norepinephrine is most involved in arousal from sleep and leaving the REM stage of sleep.
  • Dopamine and Serotonin regulate motor function and waking up from sleep.

Start getting better sleep with Forum Health!

Many lifestyle factors can affect how your body produces neurotransmitters and the balance in your brain and body. As explained briefly here, the chemicals that regulate sleep and wakefulness must be in balance and work together to establish a healthy sleep-wake cycle.


Poor sleep could be a signal that your neurotransmitters are off or not cycling properly to get the adequate amount of sleep, or allowing you to wake up feeling refreshed.


At Forum Health, our functional and integrative medicine providers are experts at getting to the root-cause of your symptoms. Using a whole-person approach, testing and offering leading therapies, you can recover your sleep-wake cycle.


To learn more about Forum Health, find a provider near you.