insomnia can't sleepIf you have difficulty falling asleep at night or are waking up during the night then you might be wondering if you are suffering with insomnia. You are not alone. Many people struggle with sleep issues at some point in their life. In this post we will look at what insomnia is, what causes it and some of the common treatments that might be available to you. We will also offer some tips for good sleep habits that you can put in place that might help with your insomnia. 

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is defined as a difficulty in falling asleep or in staying asleep when the opportunity to do so is present, for example waking up in the middle of the night and then being unable to get back to sleep. Sleepless nights can be the norm for those suffering with insomnia, and this can make daytime hours draining, not least if you have to work, drive or function normally.  People with insomnia may also wake up too early in the morning and do not feel refreshed from their sleep but instead still feel tired. They may also experience the following symptoms:

  • Low energy
  • Fatigue
  • Mood disturbances
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Decrease in performance at work or school

If you are having problems with your sleep, or if you think that you are struggling with insomnia then it can be a good idea to make an appointment with your GP to discuss your concerns. 

There are two main different types of insomnia:

Acute insomnia (sometimes referred to as primary insomnia) – This type refers to insomnia that is not linked to any other medical condition, and usually doesn’t last for very long.

Chronic insomnia (sometimes referred to as secondary insomnia) – is defined as disrupted sleep for at least three nights of the week, that lasts for a minimum of three months. This type of insomnia is called ‘co-morbid’ which means it is linked to other medical issues.

The causes of insomnia

Acute insomnia

There are a number of causes that can be linked to acute insomnia. These include:

    • Stress – this might be related to big events taking place in a person’s life, for example divorce, a house move, the death of a loved one, a change or loss of a job. Insomnia in children and teens can be a result of stresses at school.
    • Pregnancy – pregnant women can struggle with insomnia; this can be due to physical discomfort: aches, pains and indigestion, but can often related be related to worrying about the birth of a baby and if the prospective parent will cope
    • Environmental issues –things around you such as temperature, noise and light can affect your sleep
    • Sleep schedule changes – this could include jet lag or may be linked to starting a new shift at work that has caused you other lifestyle changes
    • Age – unfortunately insomnia and aging can be linked
    • Poor sleep habits

Chronic insomnia

The causes of chronic insomnia are very different to those for acute insomnia and include:

    • Mental health disorders – including anxiety and depression 
    • Certain types of medication – for example, those that you might take for colds and allergies. It can also include some prescription medications that you might take for high blood pressure, asthma and depression. 
    • Pain at night
    • Tobacco, alcohol or caffeine
    • Endocrine problems – for example, hyperthyroidism
    • Other sleep disordersrestless leg syndrome, sleep apnea and more  – see our Sleep Disorders section for more specific information on these.
    • Pain at night
    • Tobacco, alcohol or caffeine
    • Endocrine problems – for example, hyperthyroidism
    • Other sleep disordersrestless leg syndrome, sleep apnea and more  – see our Sleep Disorders section for more specific information on these.

Insomnia treatments 

The NHS suggests that most insomnia could be treated with a change in your sleeping habits. It also suggests that while you can get some sleep medication over the counter from the pharmacy, tablets are not a good solution for insomnia and may give you some other, unwanted side effects such as being drowsy and sluggish the following day. It is also important to remember that with many of these over the counter medications you should not drive the next day. 

It is much better to treat your insomnia by looking at what might be causing it. In the case of a stress in your life, trying to reduce that stress should help. 

If your insomnia is a result of some medication you are taking then talk to your GP, as they may be able to offer an alternative. 

If you have tried these things with no success, your GP may prescribe sleeping tablets, but only for a few days. Alternatively, a course of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can help to change your thoughts and behaviours around sleep.   Sleep Apps can also help monitor your sleep and give you meditation and relaxation techniques – see our list of best sleep apps, and read our post on meditation before you sleep here.

Good sleep habits to help with insomnia

Getting into a pattern of good sleep habits can really help with your insomnia. Ensure that your bedroom is a sanctuary where you can relax; that means no television and no gadgets as the blue light of the screen can interfere with your body’s natural melatonin production. 

Ensure that your bedroom is a comfortable temperature and nice and dark. Avoid heavy foods and caffeinated drinks before bedtime as well. For more ideas on good sleep habits take a look at our What to do before you go to bed post.

While it can be worrying while you are suffering with insomnia, there is help available if you’re really struggling to sleep. If you are doing all the right things in terms of your sleep habits and there’s still no respite, do seek help and advice from your GP – it will not be the first time they’ll have been asked for assistance by someone who cannot sleep.