What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a condition that can be quite complicated. It is a chronic sleep condition that makes it difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep for any prolonged period of time. This condition occurs even when a person has the opportunity for a restful night’s sleep.

There are two types of insomnia

  • The first is acute insomnia which means the person is not able to sleep at all or well for a relatively brief period of time. Most adults and even some children will experience a bout of acute insomnia at some point in their life. The causes of acute insomnia are often stress and life events like the illness or death of a loved one, trouble at work, or a big test or exam.
  • Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, is more enduring. This is a condition that is defined by occurring at least three nights per week and lasting for a minimum of three months. When a person suffers from chronic insomnia, there are numerous potential causes. Unhealthy sleeping habits are a possible cause and working certain shifts (like overnights or shifts that go until late at night), or other health conditions can also be related to chronic insomnia.

What are the Symptoms of Insomnia?

Along with having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, people with insomnia also suffer from many other symptoms.

Symptoms include

A feeling of fogginess throughout the day, difficulty concentrating, tiredness, and memory issues. A person with insomnia may also seem unusually irritable and may be sleepy during the day or doze off at inappropriate times like at work or school.

Insomnia Causes

Primary insomnia is often caused by lifestyle factors. Stress or emotional trauma can often cause it. Having an unusual sleeping pattern, for example doing night shifts or working to shift patterns which constantly change, can also affect the body’s natural internal clock and lead to insomnia.

Sometimes poor sleep hygiene can lead to insomnia. For example, going to bed and waking up at irregular times each day, sleeping in places other than in the bedroom each night, or using TV, computer or smartphone screens just before bed can affect the ability to sleep. Some people may also experience insomnia if they eat large meals just before going to bed as this can cause heartburn.

Smoking can lead to insomnia because cigarettes contain nicotine which is a stimulant. Similarly, excessive caffeine consumption may cause insomnia. Alcohol can help to induce sleep but it tends to prevent deep sleep which can result in frequent awakening in the night.

Secondary insomnia occurs when other medical conditions or medications make sleeping difficult, such as:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain
  • Diabetes
  • GERD
  • Heart disease
  • Mental health disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Sleep apnea

Certain medications can also cause insomnia, such as those designed to treat:

  • Allergies and colds
  • Asthma
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Pain

How is Insomnia Treated?

Acute insomnia may resolve on its own without treatment.

Treatments include

Temporary use of over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids may be helpful. Relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga as well as healthy sleeping habits can also be effective at resolving acute insomnia. Chronic insomnia may require more extensive treatment. Behavioral or cognitive-behavioral therapy might help to determine any mental health issues that could be causing chronic insomnia. If another physical health condition is causing the person’s insomnia, that condition needs to be treated in order for the insomnia to be resolved.

Insomnia Prevention

Insomnia in many cases can be prevented by adjusting key lifestyle factors. Firstly, it’s important to adopt a stricter sleep schedule; go to bed at the same time each night, and get up at the same time every morning. Aim to get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.

Find ways to relax and wind down before going to bed. Artificial light from television, computer and smartphone screens can make it harder for the brain to switch off and prepare for sleep, so make a habit of turning off these devices at least an hour before you go to bed. Instead, read a book or do another relaxing activity that will help your mind to relax. Meditation may be particularly helpful.

Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages in the evening or even in late afternoon if you feel they overstimulate you. You should also avoid drinking alcohol too close to bedtime as this will prevent you from sleeping soundly. It might also help to quit smoking.

Last Reviewed:
October 06, 2016
Last Updated:
March 30, 2018