Everything You Need to Know About Insomnia
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Definition of insomnia
Insomnia is a type of sleep disorder. Individuals with insomnia find it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or both.
People with insomnia often don’t feel refreshed when they wake up from sleeping, either. This can lead to fatigue and other symptoms.
Insomnia is the most common of all sleep disorders, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
In fact, the APA states that about one-third of all adults report insomnia symptoms. Between 6 to 10 percent of all adults have symptoms severe enough for them to be diagnosed with insomnia disorder.
The APA defines insomnia as a disorder in which people have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Doctors make a clinical diagnosis of insomnia if both of these criteria apply:
- Sleep difficulties occurring at least three nights a week for a minimum of 3 months.
- Sleep difficulties creating major distress or functional difficulties in a person’s life.
Keep reading to learn all about the:
- types of insomnia
The causes of your insomnia will depend on the type of sleeplessness you experience.
Short-term insomnia, or acute insomnia, may be caused by a number of things including:
- an upsetting or traumatic event
- changes to your sleep habits, like sleeping in a hotel or new home
- physical pain
- jet lag
- certain medications
Chronic insomnia lasts for at least 3 months and can be primary or secondary. Primary insomnia has no known cause. Secondary insomnia occurs with another condition that can include:
- medical conditions that make it harder to sleep, such as arthritis or back pain
- psychological issues, such as anxiety or depression
- substance use
- sleep apnea
Risk factors for insomnia
Insomnia can occur at any age and is more likely to affect women than men.
According to the
- high levels of stress
- emotional disorders, such as depression or distress related to a life event
- lower income
- traveling to different time zones
- sedentary lifestyle
- changes in work hours or working night shifts
Having certain medical conditions, such as obesity and cardiovascular disease, can also lead to insomnia. Menopause can lead to insomnia as well.
People who experience insomnia usually report at least one of these symptoms:
- waking too early in the morning
- unrefreshing sleep
- trouble falling or staying asleep
These symptoms of insomnia can lead to other symptoms, including:
There are both pharmaceutical and nonpharmaceutical treatments for insomnia.
Your doctor can talk to you about what treatments might be appropriate. You may need to try a number of different treatments before finding the one that’s most effective for you.
The American College of Physicians (ACP) recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a first-line treatment for chronic insomnia in adults.
Sleep hygiene training may also be recommended. Sometimes, behaviors that interfere with sleep cause insomnia. Sleep hygiene training can help you change some of these disruptive behaviors.
Suggested changes may include:
- avoiding caffeinated beverages near bedtime
- avoiding exercise near bedtime
- minimizing time spent on your bed when you’re not specifically intending to sleep, such as watching TV or surfing the web on your phone
If there’s an underlying psychological or medical disorder contributing to your insomnia, getting appropriate treatment for it can alleviate sleep difficulties.
Sometimes, medications are used to treat insomnia.
An example of an over-the-counter (OTC) medication that can be used for sleep is an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl).
Medications like this can have side effects, especially long term, so it’s important to talk to a doctor before starting yourself on an OTC medication for insomnia.
Prescription medications that may be used to treat insomnia include:
- eszopiclone (Lunesta)
- zolpidem (Ambien)
Talk with your doctor before using any medications or supplements to treat your insomnia.
There might be dangerous side effects or drug interactions. Not every “sleep aid” is appropriate for everyone.
Meditation is a natural, easy, drug-free method for treating insomnia.
According to a 2015 study, meditation can help improve the quality of your sleep, as well as make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Per the Mayo Clinic, meditation can also help with symptoms of conditions that may contribute to insomnia. These include:
- digestive problems
The naturally produces the hormone melatonin during the sleep cycle. People often take melatonin supplements in hopes of improving their sleep.
There’s some evidence that supplements may slightly decrease the time it takes you to fall asleep, but more research is needed.
Melatonin is generally thought to be safe for a short period of time, but its long-term safety has yet to be confirmed.
It’s always best to work with your doctor when considering taking melatonin.
Essential oils are strong aromatic liquids made from a variety of:
People treat a variety of conditions by inhaling oils or massaging them into the skin. This practice is called aromatherapy.
Essential oils that are thought to help you sleep include:
- Roman chamomile
- neroli, or bitter orange
A review of 12 studies published in 2015 found aromatherapy to be beneficial in promoting sleep.
Another study found lavender to be especially useful in promoting and sustaining sleep. The study reported that a mixture of essential oils reduced sleep disturbance and increased well-being in older adults.
Essential oils don’t generally cause side effects when used as directed. The
However, in the United States, no laws are in place to regulate aromatherapy, and no license is required for practice. Therefore, it’s important to select practitioners and products carefully.
Insomnia is common during pregnancy, especially in the first and third trimesters.
Fluctuating hormones, nausea, and an increased need to urinate are some of the bodily changes that may keep you awake in early pregnancy.
You may face emotional stressors, such as anxiety about the increasing responsibilities you’ll face as a mother. Pain — such as cramps and back discomfort — may also keep you awake.
Your body is undergoing many changes, like an active metabolism and increase in progesterone, to accommodate the new life growing in you. It’s normal for your sleep patterns to change, too.
Lifestyle changes that may help include:
- keeping active during your pregnancy
- maintaining a healthy diet
- staying well-hydrated
- maintaining a consistent sleep schedule
- practicing relaxation techniques during the day or taking a warm bath before bedtime, if you have anxiety
Contact your doctor about any new exercise routines, medications, or supplements you might be interested in. You’ll want to ensure that they’re safe for someone who’s pregnant.
The good news is that pregnancy-related insomnia usually passes, and it doesn’t affect your baby’s development.
In order to arrive at a diagnosis, your doctor will ask questions about your:
- medical conditions
- social environment
- psychological or emotional condition
- sleep history
This information can help them determine the underlying causes of your sleep problems. You might be asked to:
- keep a sleep log
- record when you fall asleep
- note the instances when you wake up repeatedly
- report what time you wake up each day
A sleep log will give your doctor a picture of your sleep patterns. The doctor may also order medical tests or blood work to rule out medical problems that can interfere with your sleep.
Sometimes a sleep study is recommended not for the diagnosis of insomnia but for confirmation if the clinician suspects an underlying sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea.
There are two ways a sleep study may be carried out. One option involves an overnight stay at a sleep center. The second option would allow you to do the study at home, in your own bed.
Both sleep study options involve having electrodes placed on your body in various places, including your head.
The electrodes are used to record your brainwaves to help categorize the states of sleep. They’ll also help detect body movements while you’re asleep.
The results of your sleep study will provide your doctor with important neuroelectrical and physiological information.
Insomnia in children
Children can have insomnia, too — often for the same reasons as adults. These reasons might include:
- excessive caffeine intake
- psychiatric disorders
If your child has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or if they wake up too early, insomnia may be the reason.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, symptoms of insomnia in children may include:
- daytime sleepiness or restlessness
- irritability and mood swings
- repeated disciplinary issues
- memory problems and attention deficits
Treatment for children is often the same as treatments for adults.
Children will benefit from a consistent sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene. Reducing stress and avoiding screen time near bedtime will help as well.
Discover more ways to help your child sleep better.
Anxiety can cause insomnia, and insomnia can cause anxiety. This can result in a self-perpetuating cycle that may lead to chronic insomnia.
Short-term anxiety develops when you worry frequently about the same specific issue, such as work or your personal relationships.
Short-term anxiety usually goes away once the issue is resolved. Your sleep should return to normal as well.
People can also be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or panic disorder. These disorders can result in varying degrees of insomnia.
The causes of anxiety disorders aren’t completely understood. Treatment is usually long term and includes a combination of therapy and medications.
The same lifestyle and behavioral practices recommended for other forms of insomnia help diminish anxiety-related insomnia, such as restricting stressful topics of conversation to the daytime.
Learn more about the connection between mental health issues and insomnia.
A meta-analysis of 34 studies concluded that poor sleep — especially during times of stress — significantly increased the risk of depression.
Another study found that as insomnia persisted and symptoms worsened, subjects developed an even greater risk for depression.
For other people, symptoms of depression may precede insomnia.
The good news is that the same treatments often help both depression and insomnia, no matter which condition comes first.
The most common treatments are:
- lifestyle changes
These lifestyle changes can include:
- developing better sleep habits
- exercising in the daytime
- eating a balanced diet
Not getting enough sleep can take a toll on your health. Insomnia can increase your risk for a number of conditions including:
- asthma attacks
- weak immune system
- diabetes mellitus
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
Insomnia can also:
- increase your risk for an accident
- affect your performance at school or work
- lower your sex drive
- affect your memory
Insomnia isn’t just a nuisance or a small inconvenience. It’s a real sleep disorder, and it can be treated.
If you think you have insomnia, talk to your doctor. They can help explore possible causes and develop a safe and appropriate treatment plan based on your healthcare needs.
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