Although insomnia and sleep apnea can each affect your ability to get a quality night’s sleep, there are a few key differences that make them easy to differentiate and diagnose.
Insomnia and sleep apnea are common sleep disorders among adults.
Insomnia is characterized by trouble falling or staying asleep. It can be caused by a wide variety of environmental factors, such as an uncomfortable bed or excessive noise, and other underlying health conditions, including anxiety and depression.
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when your upper airway is blocked during sleep. Your breathing may become shallow or stop completely. Central sleep apnea happens when the body misses the cue to breathe while you sleep.
If left untreated, both conditions can increase your risk for other health complications.
With insomnia, you may lie awake or wake up frequently throughout the night. Insomnia can also make it difficult to fall back asleep once you’re awake.
Short-term (acute) insomnia lasts less than 3 months. Anything longer than 3 months is considered long-term (chronic).
Sleep apnea is characterized by inconsistent breathing while asleep, resulting in the body waking itself up to breathe. Snoring that leads to gasping for breath is a sign of sleep apnea.
Inconsistent breathing wakes the body throughout the night, making you tired the following day.
Overlapping signs and symptoms
Insomnia and sleep apnea have many of the same symptoms, including:
- morning headaches
- daytime drowsiness
- difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks
- irritability and other mood changes
Although insomnia and sleep apnea are two different conditions, they can co-occur. This can make a diagnosis difficult to reach without proper research.
Insomnia doesn’t cause sleep apnea, but sleep apnea can cause insomnia.
Acute insomnia can result from the following:
- stress or anxiety
- working shifts late at night or early in the morning
- having an irregular sleep schedule or poor sleep hygiene
- drinking caffeine or alcohol late in the afternoon or before bedtime
- sleeping in a new place or on a new bed
- jet lag
Chronic insomnia can occur on its own or as a result of other health conditions, including:
- back pain
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- bipolar disorder
- cardiovascular disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
Most people experience acute insomnia at least once throughout their lifetime. Chronic insomnia is more severe and could come with serious health complications.
Sleep apnea typically results from another underlying health condition.
Obstructive sleep apnea is associated with the following:
- obesity hypoventilation syndrome (Pickwickian syndrome)
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- pulmonary fibrosis
- heart or kidney failure
- polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Central sleep apnea is associated with the following:
- abnormal breathing patterns
- Parkinson’s disease
- cervical spondylosis
- heart failure or heart attack
Overlapping causes and risk factors
Insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, and central sleep apnea share some of the same underlying causes, including:
The best way to get to the bottom of insomnia is to rule out other conditions. Your clinician may ask you to document your nighttime routine for a week or two to help weed out possible triggers.
They may advise you to note:
- how long it takes you to fall asleep
- whether you wake up during the night
- whether you wake up multiple times in the night
- how many times you wake up throughout the night
- how long these periods of wakefulness last
- what time you wake up and get out of bed to start your day
- your overall sleep quality rating
Sleep apnea is categorized as sudden drops in access to oxygen while asleep. Your clinician may request a sleep study to see how often your breathing is interrupted and for how long.
You’ll be asked to spend the night at a lab, clinic, or another healthcare facility so you can sleep under a clinician’s supervision.
You’ll be hooked up to equipment that monitors your heart, lung, and brain activity, blood oxygen levels, breathing patterns, and movements while you sleep.
Overlapping tools for diagnosis
It’s possible to be diagnosed with both conditions separately or simultaneously. Sleep apnea could cause anxiety, which may lead to acute insomnia.
Each condition has a different diagnostic process and different treatment options. It’s important to receive the proper diagnosis to ensure you start the correct treatment plan for your condition.
Insomnia related to new beginnings should subside once the newness wears off. A new job, house, or bed could make sleep elusive for a short-term period.
Most cases of insomnia can be improved by creating good sleep hygiene. The actions you take during the day could affect how well you sleep during the night.
There are over-the-counter medications available to help with short-term insomnia. Be sure to consult a healthcare professional before adding a sleep aid to your regime, as it may negatively interact with other medications. Sleep aids are a short-term solution and aren’t meant to treat insomnia long-term.
If you have chronic insomnia, you may have developed anxiety around your ongoing lack of sleep. Your clinician might refer you to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help change your ideas surrounding sleep.
CBT is the
Your clinician may recommend that you use a continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) machine while sleeping to help alleviate sleep apnea.
A CPAP machine constantly pushes air through your nose and mouth, keeping the passageways open and air flowing freely. This helps prevent shallow breathing, gasping for air, and snoring.
If using a CPAP machine is unsuccessful, surgery may be an option.
Overlapping treatment options
Improving your overall sleep hygiene may help with insomnia and sleep apnea.
If you aren’t already, consider the following:
- powering down phones, TVs, and other blue-light devices an hour or two before bed
- getting blackout curtains or covering your windows to block out light and sound
- exercising earlier in the day instead of before bed
- reducing or cutting out caffeine and alcohol
- avoiding long naps and late-night meals
Insomnia and sleep apnea each interrupt the sleep cycle, preventing you from receiving the rest you need to operate at a safe and healthy level.
Lack of sleep can impair your motor skills, increase anxiety and irritability, and lead to depression. Those are all things that affect life outside of the bedroom, which is why sleep is so important for your body’s overall health.
Insomnia and sleep apnea can be managed successfully, and relief is possible. If you suspect you have either condition, consult with a healthcare professional to learn more.
A proper diagnosis, along with the correct treatment options, can get you on the road to a well-rested night in no time.
Catasha Gordon is a sexuality educator from Spencer, Oklahoma. She’s the owner and founder of Expression Over Repression, a company built around sexual expression and knowledge. You can typically find her creating sex education materials or building some kinky hardware in a fresh set of coffin nails. She enjoys catfish (tail on), gardening, eating off her husband’s plate, and Beyoncé. Follow her everywhere.