Almost everyone experiences insomnia from time to time. Factors such as stress, jet lag, or even diet can affect your ability to get high quality sleep.

Sometimes the problem lasts for a night or two, but in other cases, it’s an ongoing issue.

You can have:

  • chronic insomnia, which lasts a month or longer
  • acute insomnia, which lasts a day, days, or weeks
  • comorbid insomnia, which is associated with another disorder
  • onset insomnia, which is when you have difficulty falling asleep
  • maintenance insomnia, which is the inability to stay asleep

Research shows that comorbid insomnia accounts for 85 to 90 percent of chronic insomnia. Insomnia also increases with age. Sometimes insomnia goes away after lifestyle factors, such as family or work stress, resolve.

For more serious cases, addressing the underlying cause can improve your sleep quality.

Treating insomnia is important because this condition can increase your risk for other health concerns. Read on to learn about the effects of insomnia on your body, the causes, and what to do about it.

There are serious health risks associated with chronic insomnia. According to the National Institutes of Health, insomnia can increase your risk for mental health problems as well as overall health concerns.

Increased risk for medical conditions

These include:

Increased risk for mental health disorders

These include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • confusion and frustration

Increased risk for accidents

Insomnia can affect your:

  • performance at work or school
  • sex drive
  • memory
  • judgment

The immediate concern is daytime sleepiness. A lack of energy can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, or irritation. Not only can it affect your performance at work or school, but too little sleep may also increase your risk for car accidents.

Shortened life expectancy

Having insomnia can shorten your life expectancy. An analysis of 16 studies that covered over 1 million participants and 112,566 deaths looked at the correlation between sleep duration and mortality. They found that sleeping less increased the risk for death by 12 percent, compared to those who slept 7 to 8 hours per night.

A more recent study looked at the effects of persistent insomnia and mortality over 38 years. The researchers found that those with persistent insomnia had a 97 percent increased risk of death.

There is primary insomnia, which has no underlying cause, and secondary insomnia, which is attributed to an underlying cause.

Chronic insomnia usually has a cause, such as:

  • stress
  • jet lag
  • improper sleep habits
  • eating too late in the evening
  • not sleeping on a regular schedule due to work or travel

Medical causes for insomnia include:

  • mental health disorders
  • medications such as antidepressants or pain medications
  • conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and asthma
  • chronic pain
  • restless leg syndrome
  • obstructive sleep apnea

There are many reasons you may have trouble sleeping. Many of them are linked to your daily habits, lifestyle, and personal circumstances. These include:

  • an irregular sleep schedule
  • sleeping during the day
  • a job that involves working at night
  • lack of exercise
  • using electronic devices like laptops and cellphones in bed
  • having a sleep environment with too much noise or light
  • a recent death of a loved one
  • a recent job loss
  • various other sources of stress
  • excitement about an upcoming event
  • recent travel between different time zones (jet lag)

Finally, the use of certain substances seems to have a negative effect on sleep. These include:

  • caffeine
  • nicotine
  • alcohol
  • drugs
  • cold medications
  • diet pills
  • certain types of prescription medications

There are many strategies for treating insomnia. Before you talk with a doctor about medications, try making lifestyle changes. Medications provide effective short-term results, but some studies show that long-term medication use can increase mortality.

Lifestyle changes

  1. Establish a regular sleep schedule. Sleep and wake up at the same time.
  2. Relax and wind down before going to bed by reading a book or meditating.
  3. Create a comfortable sleep environment.
  4. Avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine in the evening hours.
  5. Be finished with any heavy meals or strenuous physical activity at least 2 hours before your bedtime.
  6. Get out of bed if you are having trouble falling asleep. Do something else until you actually feel sleepy.
  7. Avoid taking naps in the later hours of the afternoon and evening.

Melatonin supplements

This over-the-counter hormone can help regulate sleep by telling your body that it’s time for bed. Higher melatonin levels make you feel sleepier, but too much can disrupt your sleep cycle and cause headaches, nausea, and irritability.

Adults can take between 1 and 5 milligrams of melatonin 1 hour before bed. Talk with a doctor about dosage before taking melatonin, especially for children.

You can also try a combination of the therapies listed above.

Sleep medication

Talk with a doctor about sleep medications if lifestyle changes are not working. Your doctor will look for underlying causes and may prescribe sleep medication. They’ll also tell you how long you should take it. It’s not recommended to take sleeping pills on a long-term basis.

Some of the prescription drugs that a doctor may prescribe include:

These prescription pills can cause adverse effects, such as:

  • dizziness
  • diarrhea and nausea
  • drowsiness
  • severe allergic reactions
  • memory problems

Although it’s common to have insomnia from time to time, you should schedule an appointment with a doctor if the lack of sleep is negatively affecting your life.

As part of the diagnostic process, your doctor will likely perform a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms.

They will also want to know about any medications you take and your overall medical history. This is to see if there’s an underlying cause for your insomnia. If there is, your doctor will treat that condition first.

Learn more about which doctors can diagnose your insomnia.