Insomnia is a sleep condition that affects many people around the world and can cause significant problems in your life and lead to other health issues if left untreated.
It is a common sleep disorder, affecting about one-third of adults in the United States.
The symptoms of insomnia can vary from person to person making it important to know what they are and how to treat insomnia.
In this article, we will discuss what insomnia is, the causes of insomnia, the symptoms of insomnia, and the treatment options for insomnia.
We will also investigate the complications caused by insomnia and explore key factors for preventing this troublesome condition.
Insomnia is generally characterized as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early and not being able to fall back asleep even when you have the opportunity to do so.
It not only can cause you to be tired all the time but it can also affect your mood and quality of life.
There are two main types of insomnia: acute insomnia and chronic insomnia.
Acute insomnia is a form of short-term insomnia that lasts anywhere from a night to a few weeks while chronic insomnia is characterized by having difficulty sleeping three nights a week for a month or longer.
Other terms associated with insomnia include:
Primary insomnia involves insomnia that is not caused by any other medical or psychological condition.
Insomnia that results from another medical problem or psychological problem is called secondary insomnia.
When you have sleep-onset insomnia it means you have difficulty falling asleep at the beginning of the night.
Sleep-maintenance insomnia is the difficulty of staying asleep during the night. It can also be waking up too early in the morning and not being able to fall back asleep.
If you have trouble both falling asleep or staying asleep it is called mixed insomnia.
Paradoxical insomnia is a very rare form of insomnia in which you have no difficulty sleeping but have insomnia symptoms.
What causes insomnia?
There are many different things that can cause insomnia. Some common causes for your sleep disturbances include:
- Stress, such as concerns about school, work, finances, or your personal life, can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep
- Anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also be a component of insomnia
- Depression can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep
- Medical conditions such as thyroid problems, chronic pain, asthma, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic diseases
- Jet lag from travel can disrupt your sleep patterns
- Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that may keep you up while alcohol may not let you get a deep sleep as you wake up more frequently in the night
- Certain medications such as asthma treatments, antidepressants, and blood pressure medications may cause insomnia while other over-the-counter cold medicines, pain relievers, or weight loss medications may contain caffeine or stimulants
- Sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea
- Poor sleeping habits such as not having a comfortable sleep environment, having an irregular sleep schedule, watching television in bed, or other stimulating activities such as using your phone, tablet, or laptop
- Eating a big meal before bedtime
- A family history of insomnia or sleep disorders
You may also experience insomnia more as you age due to the fact that you may naturally shift sleep patterns to going to bed earlier and waking up earlier, physical activity may decrease, and you are more likely to have medical problems and take medications.
If you are a woman you are also more likely to suffer from insomnia due to changes in your hormones from menopause, pregnancy, or from premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Some mental disorders may also cause you to have disrupted sleep such as nightmares from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).
Finally, if you are under a lot of stress, your schedule shifts frequently from day to night shifts or vice versa, or you travel to different time zones frequently, these are all risk factors for insomnia too.
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The symptoms of insomnia can vary from person to person but the most frequent insomnia symptoms include:
- Having trouble falling asleep
- Having trouble staying asleep
- Waking up earlier than expected and not being able to fall back asleep
- Feeling tired during the day
- Having difficulty concentrating or remembering things
- Moodiness, irritability, depression, and anxiety
- Continual worry about sleep
- An increase in accidents and errors
If your quality of life is suffering or you find it difficult to function during the day due to insomnia then you need to speak with your doctor.
If you are experiencing insomnia your doctor will likely start with a physical exam, a complete medical history, and sleep habits questionnaire.
Your doctor will ask you questions pertaining to your sleep habits and life and they will also likely ask you if there is any family history of sleep disorders.
You may also want to keep a sleep diary for a week or two in order to track your sleep history to discuss with your doctor too.
Some tests to rule out any other medical conditions that could be causing insomnia may also occur such as a blood test, urine test, or thyroid function test.
After your doctor has gathered all of this information they may order a sleep study called a polysomnogram to rule out other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
A sleep study is when you stay overnight in a sleep lab and are monitored while you sleep by a sleep specialist although there are now at-home sleep studies available if you are more comfortable performing the study yourself from the comfort of your own home.
What are the treatment options for insomnia?
The treatment for insomnia depends on what is causing your insomnia as well as the severity of your symptoms.
If your insomnia is due to mental health conditions, then therapy may be recommended. If medications are the cause of your insomnia, your doctor may adjust the dosage or switch your medications.
If you have a sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea, then you will likely need to be treated for that first.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is a treatment option that teaches you how to change your thoughts and behaviors around sleep and is considered one of the most effective treatments for insomnia.
Some of the techniques that may be used in cognitive behavioral therapy include:
Stimulus control therapy
Stimulus control therapy involves going to bed only when you are sleepy and getting out of bed if you can’t fall asleep which helps to train your body to associate your bed with sleep. You also may be asked to avoid napping and to follow a sleep routine where you fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day.
Sleep restriction therapy
Sleep restriction therapy decreases the amount of time you spend in bed sleeping and also avoids naps. Sleep deprivation may eventually cause you to sleep more and more until you are on a regular schedule.
Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, and visualization can help to relax your body and mind.
Biofeedback is a technique where you are trained to use monitoring devices that provide information about your body such as heart rate, muscle tension, and skin temperature. The feedback helps you to be more aware of how your body responds to stressors which can then help you to control your body’s response.
Staying passively awake
Staying passively awake is a technique used that shifts the intention of trying to sleep in your bed to trying to stay awake in it. Although this may sound counterintuitive, the reasoning behind it is to cause less anxiety about falling asleep which may eventually improve sleep quality.
Light therapy involves exposure to bright light which can help to regulate your circadian rhythm if you have insomnia due to shift work or jet lag.
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What are the complications caused by insomnia?
If insomnia is left untreated it can lead to other health problems such as:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Heart disease (cardiovascular disease)
- Accidents and errors including falling if you are elderly
- Obesity or weight gain
- Substance abuse
- Difficulty at your job or school
If these complications affect you it is important to seek help from your doctor.
Insomnia can not always be prevented; however, there are some things you can do to help ensure more quality sleep such as:
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day even on weekends and avoid napping
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine including winding down for 30 minutes before sleep which can include a warm bath, reading, or listening to music among other options
- Create a comfortable and dark sleeping environment that is quiet, cool, and free of electronics, and only use your bed for sleep or sex
- Exercise regularly but avoid doing so close to bedtime as physical activity may cause stimulation and poor sleep
- Eating a healthy diet coupled with regular exercise are two lifestyle factors that can help you avoid obesity and a number of medical conditions that may disrupt your sleep
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol intake before bedtime
- Avoid large meals and limit fluids before bedtime so you don’t have to wake up to use the restroom
- Consult with your doctor about any medications or supplements that may contribute to your insomnia
If you have insomnia, talk to your doctor.
They can help to determine the underlying cause and provide treatment options from the list above.
Insomnia is a common problem but it doesn’t have to be a part of your life, because with treatment and some preventative measures you can get the quality sleep that you need.
If you have any more questions about insomnia, please talk to your doctor or health care provider.
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