What is insomnia?

Insomnia can significantly impact your everyday life. Whether you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, it can affect your overall health, relationships, and work productivity. If you have insomnia, your doctor can help you find out what kind you have. Primary insomnia is insomnia that isn’t a symptom of another condition. Insomnia can be either acute or chronic. Acute insomnia lasts only a few days, or weeks, and chronic insomnia is a long-term condition.

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 causes and risk factors for 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 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 a chemical imbalance in the brain that affects sleep patterns. Alternately, you may be too distressed by fears or troubling thoughts, which may prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep.

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


Females are twice as likely to experience insomnia as males. 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, referred to as perimenopause, when night sweats and hot flashes commonly disturb sleep. Experts believe a lack of estrogen may contribute to sleep difficulties in postmenopausal females.


Insomnia increases with age as your 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, which can then disturb sleep by causing more nighttime trips to the bathroom.

Many prescription drugs can disrupt your sleep patterns. These can include:

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


These drinks often contain caffeine, which stimulates the brain:

  • coffee
  • tea
  • soft drinks
  • energy drinks

This stimulation 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
  • overactive thyroid
  • menopause


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sleep disorders are linked to obesity. Adults who sleep less than six hours per night have an obesity rate of 33 percent. The obesity rate for those who sleep seven to eight hours per night is 22 percent. They found this pattern in both men and women and across all age and ethnic groups.

Sleep disorders

Common sleep disorders, such as restless leg syndrome, can disturb sleep. This is a crawling sensation in the lower part of the legs that only movement can relieve. Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by loud snoring and brief pauses in breathing.

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 that exposure to sunlight affects. This rhythm is your internal clock. It regulates sleep cycles, body temperature, and metabolism.

Sleep habits

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. Follow these tips:

  • Take a relaxing bath.
  • Listen to some soothing music.
  • Avoid watching TV or working in bed.
  • Try not to eat right before you go to bed because your body will be busy with digestion when you should be sleeping. Eating right before bed can also trigger heartburn.

Whether your insomnia is acute or chronic, losing weight if you’re overweight or obese, adopting a healthy sleep routine, and avoiding overuse of stimulants can all help you get a good night’s sleep. Discuss any sleep problems you have with your doctor, and review your medical conditions and medications with them to see if any are responsible for keeping you awake at night.