Everyone knows how it feels to have a bad night of sleep. Unfortunately, some people go through that over and over again. In fact, about one out of three people have unsatisfying sleep. When their sleep problems meet specific criteria, they may be diagnosed with insomnia.
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder. Those who are afflicted with insomnia may find it difficult to go to sleep, stay asleep, or wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep. They still feel tired when they wake up. Most people need about seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Going without that, especially for extended periods of time, can deprive them of energy, decrease their health and mood, and impact their work performance and their quality of life.
At some point, most adults will experience acute insomnia, which is short-term, only lasting days or weeks. Typically, acute insomnia is a result of stressful events or situations. However, some people suffer from long-term or chronic insomnia, which lasts for at least a month, often longer. Insomnia may be the primary issue, but in cases where it is chronic, sleeplessness may be a symptom of other medical problems or a side effect of medications.
What Are the Different Types of Insomnia?
There are several different types of insomnia that vary based on their specific attributes:
- Acute insomnia – Difficulty sleeping for less than a few weeks
- Chronic insomnia – Sleep problems that affect an individual for at least three days a week, for at least three months
- Maintenance insomnia – Difficulty staying asleep or waking too early
- Onset insomnia – Difficulty falling asleep
- Behavioral insomnia – Children who have trouble falling asleep or refuse to go to sleep
What Are the Symptoms of Insomnia?
People with insomnia may suffer from numerous symptoms, including:
- Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early
- Low energy and chronic sleepiness
- Not feeling well-rested
- Depression, anxiety, and irritability
- Anxiety about sleeping
- Trouble focusing on tasks
- Memory problems
- Increased accidents or errors
When insomnia makes it hard to function normally during the day, it is time to see a doctor and get to the bottom of what’s causing insomnia. The first step in determining how to treat insomnia is often taking part in a sleep study or other testing.
What Causes Insomnia?
In some cases, insomnia is the primary issue for people, while in others, it is associated with other medical conditions. Typically, chronic insomnia occurs due to stress, habits, or life events that disturb sleep. Even though treating underlying causes often resolves insomnia, some individuals suffer from it for years.
Some of the common causes of chronic insomnia are:
- Stress – Worrying about family, work, school, finances, or health can keep the mind active, making it hard to fall asleep. Stressful situations or traumatic events may also make sleep challenging.
- Poor sleep habits – Irregular bedtimes, eating before bed, naps, TV, smartphones, video games, and other stimulating activities can interfere with the sleep cycle.
- Work or travel schedule – Challenging work or travel schedules can upset the circadian rhythms of individuals, which can lead to insomnia.
- Eating late in the evening – While light or small snacks might be alright, eating too much can cause someone to have trouble sleeping. Heartburn, acid reflux, or upset stomachs can keep one from falling asleep.
Other causes of insomnia are:
- Medical conditions – Some medical conditions are linked with insomnia. For example, heart disease, chronic pain, asthma, diabetes, cancer, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Parkinson’s disease, overactive thyroid, and Alzheimer’s disease may all cause insomnia.
- Mental health disorders – Anxiety disorders like posttraumatic stress disorder can disrupt sleep.
- Medications – Many prescription medications interfere with sleep, like some blood pressure, asthma, and antidepressant medicines. Additionally, some over-the-counter medications, like cold and allergy medications, pain medications, and weight loss medications, may also disrupt sleep.
- Caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine – Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants and will often keep people from falling asleep. While alcohol is a depressant and may help a person fall asleep, it prevents deeper sleep and may cause waking up during the night.
- Sleep-related disorders – Disorders like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome may interrupt or prevent sleep.
Treatment for Insomnia
Many options for insomnia treatment are available, including medication and supplements, therapy, and natural remedies.
Medication and Supplements
Doctors often prescribe medication to assist with insomnia. The most commonly used drugs are:
- Zolpidem – brand name Ambien
- Eszopiclone – brand name Lunesta
- Triazolam – brand name Halcion
Like any other medications, sleep medications have side effects, so it is important to discuss which medication to use with a doctor.
Additionally, there are over-the-counter sleep aids available at grocery and drug stores. They offer some relief but may not be as effective in treating insomnia as prescription medications.
Melatonin is a supplement that may be helpful with insomnia. The body naturally produces melatonin (a hormone) during the sleep cycle. It is thought that melatonin supplements may help people fall asleep faster, but experts disagree on its effectiveness.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered a first-line treatment method for chronic insomnia. Therapists use CBT to teach patients suffering from insomnia specific techniques that may relieve the condition, including:
- Sleep restriction – This technique involves restricting time spent in bed to start and then gradually increasing that time to promote sleep quality and efficiency.
- Stimulus control – This method involves getting out of bed and finding something relaxing to do until you feel sleepy, limiting the time that is spent laying in bed worrying about falling asleep.
- Bright light therapy – This technique uses bright light exposure in the morning or evening, depending on whether the issue is falling asleep or staying asleep.
Additionally, there may be other suggestions therapists make to help patients address sleep problems, including:
- Limiting or avoiding caffeine near bedtime
- Limiting or avoiding large, heavy, or spicy meals close to bedtime
- Avoid intense exercise near bedtime
- Not using the bed for anything other than sleep or sex
A therapist may also identify mental health symptoms that are underlying and contributing to insomnia or worsening symptoms. Addressing triggers and other contributing factors often go a long way toward relieving insomnia.
Sometimes, home remedies and lifestyle changes can help people manage insomnia. Some things to try include:
- Natural sleep aids like herbal tea, warm milk, and valerian before going to bed.
- Acupuncture may be helpful in easing the symptoms of insomnia.
- Meditation promotes mindfulness and relaxation. It can help reduce stress, anxiety, and pain, which may contribute to insomnia.
- Aromatherapy may offer some benefits. Relaxing scents like lavender can be used in oil diffusers, applied to the skin, or as a room spray.
Get Help for Your Insomnia
Insomnia is not simply an inconvenience or a small nuisance. It’s a serious sleep disorder that can negatively affect a person’s emotional and mental health and physical well-being.
If you believe your sleep problems meet the criteria for insomnia, reach out to a trained therapist, psychiatrist, or mental health treatment center to get help as soon as possible. Your doctor will help you explore the possible causes and determine how to best treat your situation.