Insomnia: Too Much Alpha Wave Activity at Night

The brains of people with insomnia are active at night, even during quiet sleep. This activity isn’t often noted in sleep studies, where the point is to identify dominant wave forms. But looking closer, scientists are discovering slight but crucial differences in insomniacs’ brain waves at night, which may explain our trouble falling and staying asleep.

“Alpha wave intrusion” is a term used to describe the wake-like brain activity observed during the deep sleep of people with fibromyalgia and major depression. Now a new study in the Journal of Sleep Research presents evidence of abnormal alpha wave activity in insomniacs’ brains at night. Here are the two main findings:

Insomnia is characterized by greater alpha wave activity at night

Insomnia is characterized by greater alpha wave activity at nightPicture the brain at night. It’s mostly quiet except during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Then clusters of neurons in the brain stem start firing away like mad. These bursts of activity are perfectly normal during REM sleep, alternating with periods of quiet non-REM sleep through most of the night.

The brains of people with insomnia are more active at night—even during non-REM sleep. This activity isn’t often noted in sleep studies, where the point is to identify dominant wave forms. But looking closer, scientists are discovering slight but crucial differences in insomniacs’ brain waves at night, which may explain our trouble falling and staying asleep.

Alpha wave intrusion is a term used to describe the wake-like brain activity observed during the deep sleep of people with fibromyalgia and major depression. Now a new study in the Journal of Sleep Research presents evidence of abnormal alpha wave activity in insomniacs’ brains at night. Here are the two main findings:

Trouble Falling Asleep

The descent from wakefulness into deep sleep occurs fairly quickly in healthy sleepers. The pressure to pay off the day’s sleep debt is strong, compelling a rapid descent into deep (slow-wave) sleep.

But in people with sleep onset insomnia, who typically take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night, the descent takes quite a bit longer, research shows. Insomniacs—for unknown reasons—seem to have reduced sleep pressure. Not only does it take us longer to fall asleep. It also takes us longer to descend into deep sleep, the really restorative stuff.

Why the Slow Descent?

The research team investigating alpha wave activity looked at the sleep studies of 18 good sleepers and 10 insomniacs and found one difference that occurred before sleep began. Alpha waves—associated with a relaxed, meditative state of consciousness that occurs when the eyes are closed—are predominant in the period leading up to sleep. They’re generated by neurons firing at frequencies of 7.5 to 12.5 cycles per second.

As the healthy sleepers in the study were falling asleep, the alpha rhythms in their brains began to fluctuate and decay. But the alpha wave activity in insomniacs’ brains continued going strong.

Sleep onset insomnia may have something to do with decreased alpha variability, the researchers concluded. Insomniacs are relaxed and ready for sleep—yet (again for unknown reasons) we remain stuck in alpha mode.

Waking Up at Night

Alpha waves may also play a role in sleep maintenance insomnia. Polysomnogram studies show that normal sleepers awaken at least a few times a night but are mostly unaware of these awakenings.

People with sleep maintenance insomnia, in contrast, are conscious of waking up at night. These awakenings make our sleep feel fitful and less restorative. (And some sleep maintenance insomniacs are told their problem involves alpha wave intrusion following a sleep study.)

Adults spend up to 80% of the night in non-REM sleep, and in the alpha wave study, different kinds of alpha activity occurred in the brains of healthy sleepers and insomniacs throughout non-REM sleep. Brief arousals in the healthy sleepers were characterized by alpha waves that stayed well below the frequency of alpha waves during conscious wakefulness.

But the alpha frequencies in participants with insomnia rebounded to wake levels. In this situation, a sleeper might be easily awakened by noise or movement and memories could be formed. It might account for why so many insomniacs complain of light and/or broken sleep.

The Take-Away

Higher alpha frequencies during brief arousals and lower alpha variability at the approach of sleep fit with the hyperarousal theory of insomnia, which suggests that people prone to insomnia experience higher levels of arousal around the clock. As for how to correct these alpha abnormalities, we’ll have to wait and see.

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

16 thoughts on “Insomnia: Too Much Alpha Wave Activity at Night”

    1. Hi Brett,

      Some people with insomnia experience even higher-frequency brain activity at night in in a few key areas of the brain while the rest of the brain is asleep. This may explain the sensation of being aware of what’s going on in the environment—and perhaps even processing thoughts—while a sleep study would indicate that you were asleep.

      You might be interested in this blog post about paradoxical insomnia:


  1. I have completed 12 weeks of CBT-I and now have a sleep window of 11.15pm – 6am. I used to wake 5-7 times a night before sleep restriction but even now, I often wake 3-5 times a night which means I am tired during the day and much more clumsy than when I was having more hours in bed, even if not asleep. I fall asleep again more quickly than I used to but I do worry that I’m not getting enough refreshing deep sleep. Can you suggest anything which might help me stay asleep for longer periods, please. I don’t want to give up on the sleep restriction but I am starting to feel that I will never get a full nights sleep.
    your website is so reassuring, many thanks for all your research


    1. Hi Beverley,

      Feeling tired and clumsy during the daytime is certainly not where you want to end up after 12 weeks of CBT-I. The sleep restriction process—by shortening, and then gradually lengthening, sleep—typically helps people consolidate their sleep. Sleep then feels deeper and more refreshing compared with sleep that’s interrupted by wake-ups.

      Somehow it hasn’t worked that way for you although you’ve devoted 12 weeks to it (certainly plenty of time).

      I’m wondering if you consulted a sleep specialist before starting on CBT. Regardless of whether you did or didn’t, I think you should see one now.

      The daytime symptoms are concerning and suggest that something other than simple insomnia may be going on. One thing that comes to mind is the possibility of the wake-ups and the daytime tiredness being a sign of sleep apnea. There are other possibilities as well.

      These things really need to be checked out if they haven’t been ruled out already. Having an overnight sleep study is the way to do it—which is my reason for recommending a consultation with a sleep specialist.

      Best of luck in connecting with someone trained to sort out the reason for your nighttime wake-ups.


      1. Thanks Lois
        I have seen a consultant who said he didn’t feel I had any underlying sleep phase problems and that I would probably be on sleep restriction for life. He also praised the meticulous way I have stuck to the CBT-I so I know I’m doing it properly with the help of a professional CBT therapist. I’ve been checked for sleep apnoea and also seen an ENT consultant to rule out any breathing problems so I’m not sure what to try next!

        I’ve done sleep school and mindfulness for sleep and after 15years of walking during the night every night, I don’t lie awake worrying about it but I would love to go to sleep one night and wake up and find it is morning!


      2. Hi Beverley,

        It sounds like you’ve seen all the right specialists for the wake-up problem and had several possible diagnoses ruled out. I’ll keep my eyes posted for new research on middle-of-the-night awakenings and strategies other than those you’ve tried for curtailing them.

        Researchers explain some middle-of-the-night awakenings as occurring in people who have a higher rate of “cyclic alternating patterns”—repetitive brainwave patterns that occur during non-REM, or quiet, sleep, which cause sleep to become less stable. But to my knowledge no one has proposed what, if anything, can be done to alter the CAP rate. Again, I’ll keep looking for new information.


  2. Hi Lois
    Thanks for this article. I’ve just had my sleep study and they diagnosed alpha wave intrusion. I experience everything that you describe and this article is so helpful in that regard. However it’s written a year ago – is there any update or treatment for this condition? I’m in the uk and the consultant said there isn’t anything he can do!


    1. Hi Simon,

      I’m sorry to report that there is no new research on alpha wave intrusion that I can find. Alpha wave intrusion is one of many symptoms of insomnia that remain unexplained.

      You may know this already, but cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is the best therapy on offer for insomnia right now. You’ll find more information about it in this blog post:

      I’ve also found that daily, vigorous exercise is very beneficial to my sleep. Thirty minutes (or more) swimming laps or working out on the elliptical trainer in the late afternoon helps me fall asleep more quickly and sleep more soundly.


  3. Good morning Lois

    I believe I have suffered from insomnia since high school. I am 36 now. I have conscious wakefulness, trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. I have gone as far as taking ambien, fast acting benzodiazepines and first generation anti-histamines. But alas, 2 decades in and I am still a walking zombie. This has affected my personal life with my wife and family and career. I strongly believe that I am not innately depressive, however, the wakefulness has caused so much frustration that has lead me to being anxious, depressive and suicidal. It is a living nightmare and I have done all there is to do for sleep hygiene. Just to blabber out, I am a strong follower of Philip Nitschke who founded Exit International and authored a book called the Peaceful Pill Exit. For a person who lives nightmares during the waking hours, what do I do?


    1. Hello jars,

      Your life sounds difficult now—I’m sorry you’re having such trouble with sleep and depression. If you’ve experienced trouble falling and staying asleep for several years and it’s interfering with your quality of life during the daytime, it’s not unusual that you’re also experiencing depression. Insomnia and depression are closely linked and often go hand in hand. As for finding ways to manage these disorders, the thinking now is that both disorders should be treated. Ideally treatment should be provided by specialists (or professionals who really know what they’re doing).

      You mention sleep hygiene. It’s certainly a good idea to practice good sleep hygiene, but that by itself does not have a good track record when it comes to curing or helping people learn to manage chronic insomnia. The gold standard for treating chronic insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, CBT-I. Here’s a link to a blog post that will hopefully send you in the right direction: . It’s possible to go through CBT-I using a book or participating in online therapy. Probably the best way is to get face-to-face coaching from a therapist trained in behavioral sleep medicine.

      You should also look for treatment of your depression and anxiety. You might start with your family physician, who may also be able to refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist if an antidepressant/anti-anxiety medication does not help.

      Finally, if you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, here are resources you can access immediately:
      Suicide Prevention Line: 800-237-8255
      National Hopeline Network: 800-784-2433

      Your situation may seem hopeless but, based on what you’ve written, I’m not sure you’ve connected yet with people who are trained and equipped to actually help. I want to leave you feeling that people who can help ARE out there, and that with some effort on your part you will find them.


  4. Hi Lois,
    First of all thank you so much for this article. It is so informative and really explains so much of what I am experiencing after receiving results of an EEG. (Apparently my alpha waves in the parietal sections of my brain are VERY high, i.e., chronic insomnia, depression, pretty much everything you mentioned).
    I found a doctor who prescribes medication based on EEG results, but after a year of trial and error with several different prescriptions that don’t work, and very expensive doctors visits that I just can’t afford, I am at the end of my rope and am in desperate need to try something new.
    Talk therapy and exercise has only helped so much, and 5-HTP/night time tea only does so much as well to help me get to sleep.
    In your professional opinion, are you aware of any supplements/minerals/anything that can help to lower alpha waves? I am desperate to get my life back and any advice would be so greatly appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Gia,

      I’m very sorry to hear about your struggle with insomnia. And I wish I had updated information about the problem of alpha wave intrusion. But I just checked PubMed, my go-to source for recent research, and I could not find any new papers. There is no research-based solution I can point to that has been found specifically to reduce alpha wave activity during sleep.

      What I can recommend, though, is that before you give up hope, you try cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (, or CBT-I. It’s considered the gold standard in insomnia treatments and it helped me quite a lot. Unlike sleeping pills, though, it’s not a quick and easy fix (it takes a couple weeks before you start to experience better sleep). But if you stay committed to the process, odds are that you’ll end up improving your sleep.

      I’ve also written about so-called alternative treatments for insomnia, although there’s much less research backing them up. If you’d like to investigate these therapies, scroll upward till you see the Tag Cloud on the right side of the page. Clicking on Alternative Treatments will give you access to quite a variety of remedies you may not have read about elsewhere.

      Good luck in your search for better sleep!


  5. I also have alpha wave intrusion. I literally can not fall asleep (and not feel like a hungover teenager the next day) without .5mg of Xanax for this bout of insomnia. I am at 4 months this time around. I have tried sleep restrictions. I feel tired but that’s it. My brain just will not shut down and fall asleep on it’s own without the Xanax. And I still feel extremely fatigued the next day. Have been for over 14 years now.
    But CBT and drugs will not CURE the alpha wave intrusion, right? It is there for life and we will pretty much feel like crud and tired every day of our lives? Even when I don’t have insomnia and can fall asleep on my own I still feel like a zombie the next day and feel more tired in the morning than when I went to bed the night before. (I’m assuming from the alpha wave intrustion)
    So I guess I’m asking, is there a way to cure alpha wave intrusion? Make it go away for good? Or is this what we are stuck with and just know that the fatigue is going to be there for life? Thanks (sorry for being a downer–it’s just exhausting living like this day in and day out)


    1. Hi Jennifer,

      I’m sorry to hear that your sleep is so unsatisfying. Being fatigued and exhausted all the time cannot be any fun.

      But while it may be true that no insomnia therapy has been developed that specifically targets alpha wave intrusion, it isn’t true that you have no power to do anything about it. If your aim is to shut down the brain activity (alpha waves) that’s keeping you wakeful at night I can suggest 3 ways you might achieve this.

      First, you say you’ve tried sleep restriction, but have you tried cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-I) for insomnia under the guidance of a doctor or therapist trained and certified in behavioral sleep medicine? Trying to do CBT-I on your own, or any part of CBT-I such as sleep restriction, might give you the impression that it wouldn’t work when in reality it might work if there were someone coaching you every step of the way. Here’s a post I wrote about finding a therapist qualified to administer CBT-I:

      Next, I’ve found that vigorous daily exercise late in the afternoon is very helpful in decreasing my arousal at night. It seems to enable my brain more quickly to reach a state conducive to sleep. I used to exercise 3 days a week but when I discovered the positive impact it had on my sleep I started exercising every day. Research has started to affirm the beneficial effects of exercise on sleep. Here’s a post I wrote about that: There are several more posts about the beneficial effects of exercise on sleep and you can find them by typing “exercise and sleep” in the site search box on the right side of any page of the blog.

      Finally, research backs doing yoga or mindfulness meditation to decrease arousal in the body and brain. Here are a couple posts I’ve written about these practices:

      Good luck in finding a way to decrease your nighttime arousal that works for you.


  6. Interesting article. After numerous studies, I was confirmed with alpha wave intrusion. I’ve been a poor sleeper since my early teen years and have tried behavioral therapy and nearly every medication available that could potentially help. Has there been studies to determine if there is a link between ADHD and alpha wave intrusion? My son was diagnosed with ADHD-focal in his pre-teen years and we share many of the same symptoms.


    1. Hi Kristi,
      Sorry for this tardy reply to your question. Brain activity in children with ADHD has been found to be somewhat different than brain activity in “normal” children, but all the measurements I can see have been taken during children’s waking hours. I don’t see any attempt to get a reading on the brain waves of children with ADHD at night.


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