Insomnia is trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep. More women than men are affected by insomnia. This common sleep disorder can happen at any age, but it’s more likely to occur in older adults. The condition can be acute (short-term), lasting for a few days or weeks; or chronic, in which the problem is ongoing for a month or longer. Those who have insomnia usually don’t get enough sleep, or they don’t get quality sleep. This often means they don’t feel refreshed or rested when they wake up.
There are two kinds of insomnia. The majority of cases are people who have secondary insomnia, in which the insomnia is a side effect or symptom of something else, such as a psychological problem, a medical condition, or another sleep disorder. The use of certain medications and other substances can also cause secondary insomnia. Primary insomnia, on the other hand, is a distinct disorder that is not caused by or a symptom of another condition. It usually lasts for at least one month.
If you think you may have insomnia, see if these symptoms apply to you.
- Lying awake for a long time before falling asleep most nights
- Waking up multiple times during the night
- Waking up too early
- Not feeling refreshed after waking up
- Feeling tired and/or falling asleep during the daytime
Insomnia can cause significant problems with your normal functioning. You may have memory problems and experience trouble concentrating on daily tasks and activities because you feel constantly tired or sleepy. Many people with insomnia become irritable, depressed, or anxious. It can even be dangerous, when you become drowsy while driving or operating other machinery. Nearly 20% of serious injuries in car accidents are caused by driver sleepiness not caused by alcohol. Older women with insomnia have also been found to be at a greater risk for falling. Lack of sleep can even affect your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight infections.
In some cases, having insomnia can be self-perpetuating, in that you think more and more about getting enough sleep. The effort to sleep can make you upset and frustrated, which in turn makes it more difficult to fall asleep. In order to treat insomnia we have to determine the causes.
There are any number of reasons a person can develop insomnia. Secondary insomnia may come from one or more other factors, including lifestyle, medications or other substances, and physical or mental health issues. Some of the lifestyle habits people have that can cause trouble sleeping are:
- Not enough exercise
- Napping during the day
- Inconsistent bedtimes
- Working unusual shifts (evening or night)
- Using electronic devices in bed (television, laptop, smartphone, etc.)
- Sleeping in an environment with too much light or noise
- Staying in bed too long while awake
You should also examine what substances you are using that may be contributing to your inability to sleep. Heavy smoking, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and consuming too much caffeine (especially in the afternoon or evening) can all cause insomnia or make it worse. In addition, some cold medicines, diet pills, herbs, and other health care supplements can affect your sleep.
Physical and psychological issues that can cause insomnia include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Major depression
- Chronic pain from conditions such as arthritis or headache disorders
- Thyroid disease
- Conditions that cause trouble breathing (asthma, heart failure)
- Sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea
Age can also be a significant factor in one’s ability to sleep normally. As we grow older our sleep patterns start to change, so that in their later years many people have more trouble falling asleep and tend to wake up more frequently during the middle of the night.
Primary insomnia is less understood and is more difficult to treat, as its cause cannot be attributed to another condition. Various life changes people go through can trigger this type of insomnia, such as major stress or emotional turmoil that extends over a long period of time. Other things that interfere with your normal sleep routine, such as prolonged travel or unusual work schedules, can also cause primary insomnia. Sometimes even when these causes are removed the insomnia may continue because of ingrained habits that someone has developed to cope with it.
If you are having trouble sleeping, you should see a doctor for a full evaluation and diagnosis. Regardless of what type of insomnia you may have, there is a wide range of treatment methods. Acute insomnia can often be cured through simple lifestyle changes such as avoiding caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and other substances; getting more exercise; establishing a regular sleep schedule; and adjusting your sleeping environment to be more conducive to falling and staying asleep. For more complicated and chronic cases, an overnight sleep study can be beneficial in determining if you have another type of sleep disorder. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and various medications have been found to be effective in treating chronic insomnia.