What is insomnia? Common symptoms, treatments, and causes

Do you have trouble sleeping at night? If so, you’re not alone. According to the Cleveland Clinic, around 50% of all adults experience insomnia, or habitual sleeplessness, at some point, and approximately one in 10 adults suffers from chronic (ongoing) insomnia. Not getting enough deep sleep can lead to plenty of problems during the day, like poor performance at work, exacerbation of mental health issues like depression or anxiety, slower reaction times when driving or operating machinery, and more. Insomnia also becomes more common as people age (nearly 50% of folks over age 60), more prevalent in women than men (including 80% of pregnant women), and frequently found in those with a family history of the condition (35% of the time). With studies showing one in four Americans developing insomnia every year, it’s clear the matter is no small problem.

So what can be done once you develop sleeplessness, what causes it, and most importantly, what treatments or aids are available? Join us as we uncover the answer to each of these questions, and find the right remedies to help you fall asleep fast.

Symptoms

Most commonly, symptoms of insomnia include one or more of the following:

  • Difficulty falling asleep at night
  • Waking up too early in the morning
  • Not feeling well-rested when you wake up in the morning
  • Waking up during the night and having trouble getting back to sleep
  • Fatigue in general
  • Irritability in general
  • Increased errors on work or accidents during the day
  • Problems concentrating during the day
  • Sleepiness throughout the day

Diagnosis 

Chances are, if you’ve been experiencing these symptoms, you’re probably either suffering from insomnia or you’re on your way. The best way to find out for sure what’s going on is to consult your physician. You may be asked to discuss your sleep history, medical issues, take a physical exam or blood test, or keep a sleep diary over a period of time. Sometimes a visit to a sleep center for observation may also be in order.

Once you have confirmed the issue is insomnia, it’s important to figure out what is causing it.

Causes

Insomnia falls into two categories: Primary and secondary. Depending upon which category matches your symptoms, you may or may not have insomnia caused by another health condition. To clarify, primary insomnia occurs without a direct association with another health condition, while secondary insomnia is caused by or directed related to another health condition. Here are some examples:

Causes of primary insomnia include:

  • Stress related to life events, like starting college, a new job, or preparing for a wedding
  • Changes in sensory stimuli, i.e. lighting, temperature, sounds around you during sleeping hours
  • Emotional upsets, like breaking up with a partner or losing a loved one
  • Issues related to traveling or a change in schedule i.e. jet lag, or starting the night shift at work

Causes of secondary insomnia include:

  • Pain in part of your body at night, i.e. heartburn, arthritis
  • Medical problems linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or other such issues
  • Mental health issues, like PTSD
  • Sleep apnea
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Medications, caffeine, alcohol, or drugs

Treatment

For short-term or mild insomnia, treatment may not be necessary. Your doctor may simply prescribe some sleeping aids for a short period of time, or, in other cases, taking the time to correct problematic sleep patterns (i.e. watching tv or playing games on your phone too late into the night) can fix the matter.

For longer-term insomnia, other treatments may be recommended. Successful remedies have included:

  • Behavioral therapy with a qualified practitioner (preferably with a specialization in insomnia),
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I)
  • Relaxation training
  • Stimulus control (i.e. learning to use the bed for sleeping only, etc.) or sleep restriction (decreasing the time you spend in bed until you only fall asleep in it; after improvement, then increase in increments)
  • Paradoxical intention (focusing on remaining awake instead of falling asleep; useful when insomnia is linked to worry and anxiety)
  • Light therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Over-the-counter sleep aids or natural supplements (although some doctors warn against these without a physician’s approval in advance)
  • Others have tried a variety of sleep apps they’ve found helpful, sleep trackers to measure how treatments were working over time, and other types of remedies

Prevention

To ward off insomnia in the first place, experts have found the following to be helpful:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every night and morning
  • Get regular exercise daily (be sure to finish your workout at least 4 hours prior to bedtime)
  • Don’t nap during the day
  • Avoid heavy meals late in the day
  • Avoid stimulants (caffeine or nicotine) or alcohol late in the day
  • Keep your thoughts positive
  • Take a relaxing bath, do some yoga, practice breathing exercises, or play some calming music before bed
  • Check your medication labels for anything that might be contributing to sleeplessness
  • Try a sleep mask or some blackout curtains if light peering into your bedroom keeps you awake
  • If you have trouble falling asleep, read a book or get out of bed and do something else

Now that we’ve covered the basics of sleeplessness, we hope you can recover from or prevent insomnia in a healthy way. If you think you may have some of the symptoms we mentioned, be sure to contact your physician to discuss the best course of action for your body and health history. And if you run into more questions regarding the quality of your sleep, be sure to visit our sleep hub for more great sleep-related content.

References:

  • Insomnia. (2016, October 15). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355167
  • Insomnia: Symptoms, Treatments. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12119-insomnia
  • Ratini, M. (2020, January 04). Insomnia: Definition, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/insomnia-symptoms-and-causes
  • What Causes Insomnia? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/what-causes-insomnia
  • The Good Body. “26 Insomnia Statistics: Data Reveals Rise In (Frightening) Epidemic.” The Good Body, 13 Feb. 2020, www.thegoodbody.com/insomnia-statistics/

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