Insomnia Causes

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 16, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on September 16, 2014

Insomnia Causes and Risk Factors

Insomnia can have a significant impact on everyday life. Whether you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, it can affect your overall health. Relationships and work productivity can also suffer. If you have insomnia, your doctor can help you find out what kind you have. Primary insomnia is its own disorder. It isn’t a symptom of another condition. Insomnia can either last only a few days or weeks (acute) or be long-term (chronic).

If your insomnia stems from an underlying condition, it’s called secondary insomnia. It’s the most common type of sleeplessness. It can be either acute or chronic. Some common factors that can cause secondary insomnia include the following.

Stress and Anxiety

Worries can keep your mind active at night. Issues at work or school or with family can make you anxious. This can make it difficult or impossible for you to sleep. Traumatic events like the death of a loved one, divorce, or a job loss often cause long-lasting stress and anxiety. These conditions can lead to chronic sleeplessness.


Depression is a common source of insomnia. This may be due to imbalances in brain chemicals that affect sleep patterns. Alternately, you may be too distressed by fears or troubling thoughts that can come with depression to sleep well. 

Insomnia can be a common symptom of other mood disorders. Bipolar disorder, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder can all cause sleep problems.


Women are twice as likely to experience insomnia as men. Hormonal shifts during the menstrual cycle and in menopause are thought to be responsible for sleeplessness. Insomnia often occurs during the time leading up to menopause (perimenopause) when night sweats and hot flashes commonly disturb sleep. Experts believe a lack of estrogen may contribute to sleep difficulties in postmenopausal women.


Insomnia increases with age as our sleep patterns change. Older adults often have trouble with sustained sleep over an eight-hour period.  They may need to nap during the day to get the recommended eight hours of sleep over a 24-hour period. According to the Mayo Clinic, some estimates suggest that nearly half of all men and women over 60 years old experience symptoms of insomnia.


A number of over-the-counter medications can cause insomnia. Pain medications, decongestants, and weight-loss products can contain caffeine or other stimulants. Antihistamines may make you drowsy at first, but they can lead to frequent urination that means more nighttime trips to the bathroom.

There are many prescription drugs that can disrupt your sleep patterns. These can include:

  • antidepressants
  • heart and blood pressure medicines
  • allergy drugs
  • stimulants


Coffee, tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks contain caffeine that stimulates the brain. This stimulus can interfere with sleep. Drinking coffee in the late afternoon can keep you from falling asleep at night. Nicotine in tobacco is another stimulant that can inhibit sleep.

Alcohol is a sedative that may help you fall asleep initially, but it will prevent deeper stages of sleep and make you toss and turn. The deep stages of sleep are necessary for adequate rest.

Medical Conditions

A host of medical conditions can contribute to insomnia. Sleep issues are associated with chronic medical conditions or their symptoms, such as:

  • chronic pain
  • breathing difficulties
  • sleep apnea
  • arthritis
  • diabetes
  • cardiovascular disease
  • obesity
  • cancer
  • frequent urination
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • overactive thyroid
  • menopause

Unhealthy Weight

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sleeping disorders are linked to obesity. Adults who sleep less than six hours a night have a significantly higher rate of obesity (33 percent) than those who sleep seven to eight hours a night (22 percent). This pattern was found in both men and women and across all age and ethnic groups. 

Sleep Disorders

Common sleep disorders like restless leg syndrome can disturb sleep. This is a crawling sensation felt in the lower part of the legs that is relieved only with movement. Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder accompanied by loud snoring and shorts periods when breathing stops.

Environmental Changes

Shift work or long-distance travel can affect your body’s circadian rhythm. This is the 24-hour biochemical, physiological, and behavioral cycle affected by your exposure to sunlight. This rhythm is your internal clock. It regulates sleep cycles, body temperature, and metabolism.

Sleep Habits

Unfortunately, worrying about not getting enough sleep can lead to even more sleep deprivation. If this is the case for you, try changing your usual bedtime routine. Take a relaxing bath or listen to some soothing music. Avoid watching TV or working in bed. Try not to eat right before you go to bed. Your body will be busy with digestion when it should be sleeping. Eating right before bed can also trigger heartburn.

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