The Complete Guide to Insomnia: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment Options
The average adult needs about seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
If you’re not getting the right amount of sleep, it may be due to a sleep condition.
If you’re having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, you may have insomnia: a common sleep disorder that affects many people.
Below, we’ll detail the ins and outs of insomnia, including likely causes, how it manifests itself, and what practical measures you can take to eradicate it.
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that is defined by the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. As a result, those with insomnia get less sleep throughout the night and often wake up feeling tired.
Many people suffer from short-term, or acute, insomnia at some point in their lives, which can last anywhere from one night to several weeks.
Acute insomnia is most often linked to stress or having just experienced a traumatic event.
Chronic insomnia is more serious, and lasts for a month or longer. Chronic insomnia is often a symptom of another medical problem (see “Secondary Insomnia” below).
There are two main types of insomnia:
1. Primary Insomnia
Primary insomnia has no underlying medical cause. It exists as its own condition with no distinct factors.
2. Secondary Insomnia
Secondary insomnia is a symptom of a larger health condition including but not limited to depression, pain, alcohol abuse, asthma or cancer. Medication can also contribute to the problem.
Who Gets Insomnia?
Insomnia is the most prevalent sleep condition in Canada, with about 25% of the population reporting symptoms.
Anyone can be affected by insomnia, but those more at risk include women, older adults, or those dealing with an underlying medical condition.
Aging increases the chances of insomnia because of the physiological and environmental changes that occur, including lack of physical activity and internal clock changes.
Insomnia is also more common in people who have an irregular schedule due to shift work or constant travel between time zones. These disruptions in the sleep cycle make it hard for the body to adjust to a regular sleep schedule.
Although insomnia is more likely to happen to adults, children can experience it too. Everything from diet to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism or Asberger’s syndrome may be contributing factors.
Causes of Insomnia
Sometimes the cause of insomnia cannot be determined, and that’s what makes it so frustrating for the individual experiencing it.
That being said, there are a lot of common causes of primary and secondary insomnia and treating them may help eliminate the condition.
The main causes of primary insomnia include:
- Stress related to work, finances or family
- A traumatic experience such as job loss, divorce or death of a loved one
- External environmental factors including excessive noise or light
- An irregular sleep schedule due to bad habits, work or travel
Researchers have recently discovered that technology may also play a role in primary insomnia. Studies have shown that backlit devices like cellphones, TVs and computers, may affect sleep patterns and can worsen symptoms of insomnia.
Secondary insomnia is a symptom of an underlying medical condition, which may be caused by:
- Chronic pain
- Substance abuse
- Asthma or heartburn
- Emotional disorder such as Alzheimer’s disease, PTSD or Parkinson’s disease
Symptoms of insomnia vary from person to person, but the main sign that someone is dealing with the condition is their inability to fall asleep.
You may toss and turn in bed for hours or wake frequently throughout the night. Some people with insomnia also wake much earlier than they want to and have trouble falling back asleep.
Those who suffer from insomnia feel tired throughout the day and may experience irritability or increased anxiety. Their concentration is strained, which may lead to an increase in mistakes.
This lack of focus and slowed reaction time is particularly dangerous because it results in a higher risk of accidents, especially while driving.
Those dealing with insomnia are also more likely to be worried about not being able to fall asleep at night, which may cause them to overthink about it so much that it actually keeps them awake.
If these symptoms persist, the medical implications can be dangerous, as insomnia increases the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
How to Diagnose Insomnia
If you think you are suffering from symptoms of insomnia and it is becoming increasingly difficult for you to function during the day, talk to your doctor.
There are lots of methods to determine if someone is struggling with insomnia.
Often, doctors will start by asking you to keep a sleep journal to track what happens throughout the night and to help them understand your sleep patterns.
With this information, they may diagnose you with insomnia if the symptoms have lasted more than a month and are causing serious problems in your life, including distress, anxiety or poor performance.
You may also be referred to a sleep specialist who will determine whether or not to diagnose you with insomnia through a series of tests.
The sleep specialist will conduct a questionnaire about your medical history and a physical exam to check for potential medical or psychiatric disorders.
An actigraph, which is a small device worn on the wrist, is another way to determine if someone has insomnia. It can help a doctor diagnose the condition by tracking a person’s movement during sleep and calculating the number of times someone wakes at night.
Polysomnography is another common method used to study sleep disorders. It is an overnight test that records your sleep patterns to help doctors see what is contributing to the cause of your sleeplessness.
Because insomnia is often the result of other factors, such as lifestyle habits or a medical condition, it can often be treated by correcting the underlying cause.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is suggested as a non-medicinal treatment. It helps people reduce stress, deal with their grief and change their thought patterns. This type of therapy can help resolve stressful issues that may be keeping someone up at night.
Some other non-medical treatments that have been known to help improve insomnia are:
- Keeping a regular sleep schedule. Try to avoid daytime naps, and go to sleep at the same time every night
- Avoiding caffeine at night. Limit your cups of coffee during the day and try switching to non-caffeinated beverages after 3 pm
- Meditating. Deep breathing and relaxation can help you fall asleep faster
- Restricting backlit devices. Avoid bringing your phone into bed or watching TV right before you go to sleep
- Creating a comfortable sleep environment. Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep by eliminating noise and bright lights
- Exercise. If you tire your body out during the day, you’ll be more likely to fall asleep faster
Medicine has also helped people with insomnia. Sleeping pills, antidepressants, melatonin and over the counter sleep aids are commonly prescribed.