It can be hard to think of an inability to fall asleep as a sleep disorder, but that’s exactly what it is.
In fact, insomnia is the most common of the sleep disorders according to the American Psychiatric Association.
You would be hard pressed to find an adult who hasn’t experienced insomnia at some point in their life. For most, insomnia is an occasional, and temporary, inconvenience.
But, for others, insomnia is an ongoing problem that can negatively impact their health, their well being, and their quality of life.
What Is Insomnia?
Any of the following qualify as insomnia:
- You have a hard time falling asleep.
- You have a hard time staying asleep.
- You wake up earlier than you want to, and then you can’t get back to sleep.
On top of that, insomnia can be split into two basic types.
If you have primary insomnia, there is no underlying cause of your sleep problems, like a health condition. Your inability to sleep is the main problem.
If you have secondary insomnia, your insomnia is caused by something else. The underlying cause could be a health condition, like asthma, depression, arthritis, or nighttime heartburn. A medication you’re taking could be keeping you from getting the sleep you need.
Using stimulants, like caffeine and nicotine, can also lead to secondary insomnia. And your sleep problems could also be the result of alcohol consumption.
Insomnia can also be further categorized based on how long it lasts, and how frequently it occurs.
First there’s acute, or short term, insomnia. Many people experience this type of insomnia, which can last for one night or a few weeks.
It is often, but not always, caused by something like stress, or a traumatic event.
Then there’s chronic, or long term, insomnia. This type of insomnia can last for months, or even years. And, in order to qualify as chronic insomnia, the sufferer has to have trouble sleeping at least three nights a week.
With chronic insomnia, the insomnia itself is often the primary problem. But it can also be caused by something else, like a medical condition.
Chronic insomnia often works in cycles. A sufferer might experience periods where they have no problems sleeping, only for their sleep problems to eventually return.
Can insomnia be cured?
Definitely. Insomnia isn’t something you have to learn to live with. By identifying the cause, receiving the proper treatment, and adopting better sleep habits, you can beat this condition, and get the rest you need to be your best.
Common Causes of Insomnia
Anyone can experience insomnia, and there are dozens of things that can cause this sleep disorder.
People over 60 are more likely to experience this condition, due to changing sleep patterns, and changes in their overall health.
However, it’s possible to experience insomnia at any age. Even children and teens sometimes experience sleep problems.
The most effective way to “cure” insomnia is to identify what’s causing it, and then find a way to treat or alleviate that underlying cause.
With that in mind, here are some of the most common causes of insomnia.
A drastic life change, like losing a job, experiencing a break up, moving to a new place, or learning a loved one is sick, can cause you to have trouble sleeping.
Worrying can also cause insomnia. If you lay in bed thinking about money, work, school, or family issues, that can make it difficult for you to relax enough to fall asleep.
Good, but stressful, situations can also cause insomnia, like planning a wedding.
Insomnia is a symptom or side effect off many medical conditions, like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s diseases
Chronic pain can also cause insomnia. For example, if you have arthritis or back problems, the nagging pain could make it hard to fall asleep. And a sharp pain could wake you up in the middle of the night.
Other sleep disorders, like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, can cause insomnia. And a woman experiencing hormonal shifts due to her menstrual cycle, menopause or pregnancy will sometimes experience sleep problems.
Many prescription drugs and over the counter medications can cause insomnia. These include some medications used to treat colds, asthma, depression, allergies, high blood pressure, and pain.
A Disrupted Sleep Schedule
“Jet lag” is an infamous cause of insomnia.
Your circadian rhythms help to control your sleep cycle. When you travel across time zones, it can throw off your circadian rhythms and lead to insomnia. And, if you travel frequently, sleep issues are probably a frequent problem for you.
Changing shifts (for example, moving from a day shift to the night shift) can also throw off circadian rhythms. And if you change shifts frequently, you are likely to be plagued by sleep issues.
Poor sleep habits, like not having a regular bedtime, can also result in insomnia.
You environment can negatively affect the quality of your sleep. Some external factors that can cause you to have trouble sleeping include:
- Too much light.
- A room that’s too warm.
- A room that’s too cold.
- An uncomfortable sleeping surface like a mattress that’s hard or lumpy (See our best luxury beds guide if you’re planning to get one).
Any of the above can make it hard for you to fall asleep, or cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.
Mental or Emotional Issues
Conditions like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder can cause sleep problems. In fact, insomnia is a common symptom of many mental health disorders.
Countless studies have found that using certain devices too close to your bedtime can make it harder for you to fall asleep.
So watching TV, working on a computer or playing video games right before going to bed could cause you to experience insomnia.
Caffeine and Other Stimulants
We all know that drinking caffeinated beverages, like caffeinated coffee, soda and tea, could make it harder for you to sleep.
What many don’t know is that caffeine and other stimulants can be found in other things too, like over the counter pain medications, and weight loss products.
Another common stimulant is nicotine. Many people don’t realize that using tobacco products (like cigarettes) could be what’s causing their sleepless nights.
Symptoms and Side Effects of Insomnia
So, how can you tell if you have insomnia?
Just ask yourself the following questions.
- “Do I ever have a hard time falling asleep?”
- “Do I sometimes wake up in the middle of night?”
- “Do I sometimes wake up earlier than I want to, and then have a hard time getting back to sleep?”
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then you have experienced insomnia.
Just about everyone has trouble sleeping sometimes. And spending a night dealing with a bout of insomnia can leave you feeling tired, even drowsy, for most of the next day.
If insomnia is an ongoing problem for you, you might suffer from sleep deprivation. And the symptoms of sleep deprivation can include:
- Daytime drowsiness.
- General fatigue.
- Feeling irritable, grumpy, or out of sorts.
- Difficulty concentrating, focusing, and paying attention.
- Memory problems.
- Being more prone to making mistakes and having accidents.
- Poor job or school performance.
Some insomnia sufferers never feel well rested, making it difficult for them to do their best work, or truly enjoy time with friends or family.
Insomnia can put you at risk for health conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease. Or, if you already suffer from such a condition, insomnia can make it worse.
Insomnia can also cause or worsen certain mental health disorders, like anxiety or depression.
Not being able to sleep might not sound like a big deal to some. But insomnia can have a major, and negative, impact on your life and your health.
Seeing a Doctor for Insomnia
If insomnia becomes a problem, meaning it’s negatively affecting your health and daily life, it might be time to see doctor.
A medical professional can help to identify the cause of your sleep problems, which is the first step to finding a successful treatment.
A doctor will usually ask about your sleep habits, and whether or not you experience daytime drowsiness.
They might also ask you to keep a sleep diary for week or two. This helps you track your sleep patterns, and how you feel during each day.
Next, you’ll be given a physical exam, to see if you have an undiagnosed medical condition that might be causing your insomnia.
You might be asked to stay overnight in a hospital or sleep center. While you sleep, your brain waves, heartbeat, eye movements, and other body activities will be monitored.
This will help determine if your insomnia is being caused by another sleep disorder, like sleep apnea.
Treatments for Insomnia
How do you beat insomnia?
There are many ways insomnia can be treated successfully. The best treatment for you will depend on the severity and cause of your sleep problems.
Treating Underlying Conditions
If your insomnia is being caused by some other issue, finding a way to alleviate that issue will make your sleep problems disappear.
What Type of Snorer Are You?
There are 3 types of snorers and each need their own treatment. Take our 40 second test to see what type you are.
Consider seeing a doctor to find if you have any medical conditions that could be causing your insomnia. And if you suffer from stress, depression or anxiety, seeking treatment for that condition is the best way to deal with your sleeping difficulties.
If chronic pain keeps you awake at night, a doctor can give you a prescription for a pain reliever that will help you fall asleep. They might also give you something strong enough to keep sharp pains from waking you up.
Many prescription medications can make it hard for you to fall asleep.
If you think a prescription medication you’re taking is causing your insomnia, don’t stop taking it without consulting your doctor.
Your physician might be able to find an alternative medication that won’t interfere with your sleep.
Making Lifestyle Changes
For those suffering from mild or short term insomnia, better sleeping habits (like a regular sleep schedule) might be all they need to make their insomnia go away.
Getting more exercise, meditation, and relaxation techniques can also alleviate their sleeping problems.
If your insomnia is chronic or severe, and no other treatment has worked, a doctor might suggest behavioral therapy.
The goal of behavioral therapy is to control, change or eliminate any negative thoughts, behaviors or circumstances that might be preventing you from getting the sleep you need.
There are several behavioral therapies used to treat insomnia. Here are just three of them.
- Relaxation exercises. This therapy uses relaxation techniques to relieve stress and reduce anxiety, which will make it easier for you to fall asleep.
- Restriction therapy. This therapy limits the amount of time you spend in bed, and eliminates daytime naps. Eventually, you’ll be so tired that you’ll fall asleep as soon as you go to bed. Then, the amount of time you’re allowed to stay in bed is slowly increased.
- Light therapy. This therapy uses light (often provided by a special light box) to change your internal clock. As a result, you’ll go to sleep when you want to, and wake up when you want to.
Sleeping Pills and Sleep Aids for Insomnia
Are sleeping pills bad?
Not necessarily. However, most medical experts say it’s best to try other insomnia treatments before turning to prescription or over the counter drugs.
Still, if you’re thinking of using sleeping pills to treat your insomnia, here are some things to keep in mind.
If a patient’s insomnia is disrupting their lives, and no other treatment has worked yet, a doctor might prescribe a medication to help them fall asleep or stay asleep.
Unfortunately, many prescription sleeping pills can be habit forming. Most doctors recommend you only take these medications for a few weeks, while the search for another way to treat your insomnia goes on.
Some prescription sleeping pills have been approved for more long term use. However, any sleeping pills can have negative side effects, like daytime drowsiness.
Grogginess caused by sleeping pills can also make you more prone to making mistakes and having accidents.
Over the Counter Sleep Aids
So what is the best over the counter sleep aid?
Many medical experts say there is no such thing.
The sleep aids you can buy without a prescription are usually antihistamines, and aren’t recommended for long term or regular use.
Over the counter sleep aids have several drawbacks. For one, these medications lose their effectiveness over time.
They might help you sleep better at first. But, with continued use, they simply don’t work as well.
These sleep aids can also have many unpleasant side effects, including dizziness, daytime drowsiness, confusion, and cognitive decline.
Natural Remedies for Insomnia
Many people turn to natural remedies, like supplements and essential oils, to help them sleep better.
So what is the best natural sleep aid?
Melatonin is a hormone your body produces to make you feel sleepy. And some use melatonin supplements hoping they will have the same effect.
Another supplement used to treat insomnia is valerian, which has a mild, sedating effect.
While these supplements might be effective sleep aids, there haven’t been sufficient studies to prove their effectiveness. And there are questions about how safe some supplements are with long term use.
Also, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dietary supplements or herbal remedies for safety or effectiveness. So it’s best to consult a doctor before using a new supplement.
On the other hand, several studies have found that some essential oils, like lavender, can help you get a better night’s sleep. And essential oils are generally recognized as safe by the FDA.
Lifestyle Changes to Combat Insomnia
The first step to beating insomnia is adopting better sleep habits. In fact, this is all some people need to fall asleep faster and sleep through the night.
There are actually several simple lifestyle changes that can help you beat insomnia. Here are a few of them.
Stick to a Consistent Sleep Schedule
You should go to bed at the same time, and get up at the same time. And you should stick to that schedule even on weekends and during vacations.
Get Regular Exercise
If you engage in physical activity (like going for a jog, or doing yard work) during your waking hours, you’ll be more tired when you go to bed. And that will help you fall asleep faster.
Just make sure any exercise sessions end about 3 or 4 hours before your bedtime. Engaging in stimulating activity before you turn in could end up keeping you awake.
Take Care When Taking Naps
Napping has its advantages. But if you take a nap too close to your bedtime, you might not feel sleepy when you go to bed, and it will take you longer to fall asleep.
If you really need a nap, try to keep it short, and nap for no longer than 30 minutes.
Also, make sure you wake up from your nap at least 3 hours before your bedtime. If you still have trouble sleeping at night, take your nap earlier, so you’ll wake up 4 to 6 hours before you bedtime.
Use Stimulants and Alcohol in Moderation
Try to drink caffeinated beverages (like coffee, soda and tea) in moderation. You also want to stop consuming caffeine at least 6 hours before you go to bed.
Get into the habit of checking labels. Some products, like certain over the counter medications, contain caffeine and other stimulants.
Nicotine is also a stimulant. If you stop smoking, and using other tobacco products, it will help you sleep better, and improve your health overall.
Consuming alcohol can also cause sleep problems. While alcohol might help you fall asleep, it can also make you wake up in the middle of the night.
Alcohol can also prevent you from reaching the deeper stages of sleep that are so important to your health and well being.
To avoid or mitigate the sleep problems that can be caused by alcohol, drink in moderation. You should also stop consuming alcoholic beverages several hours before you intend to go to bed.
Reserve Your Bed for Sleep
You should only use your bed for sleep or sex.
You also want to make your environment conducive to sleeping.
- Turn out the lights. And if the room’s still not dark enough, consider wearing a sleeping mask.
- If there’s too much noise, use ear plugs to block out some of the sound. You can also drown out the sounds with a white noise generator.
- If it’s too warm, turn up the air conditioning, or use a fan.
- If it’s too cold, turn up the heat, or use a comforter.
Create a Bedtime Ritual
If you do the same things before you go to bed every night, your brain will begin to associate those activities with going to sleep. Soon, just starting your bedtime ritual will be enough to make you drowsy.
Almost anything can count as a bedtime ritual, even brushing your teeth. And some good, relaxing bedtime rituals you can adopt include reading, listening to soothing music, taking a warm bath, doing yoga, and meditating.
Don’t Try So Hard
It may seem counter intuitive, but trying too hard to go to sleep can keep you from going to sleep. The frustration you feel over not being able to sleep will agitate you, making you more awake and alert.
If you can’t get to sleep, don’t lie in bed stressing over that fact. Instead, get up and do something to take your mind off of the problem, like reading.
As soon as you start to feel drowsy, go back to bed. But don’t think about trying to go to sleep. Instead, let your mind drift. Or give yourself something to focus on, like nature sounds or relaxing music.
Not worrying about falling asleep makes it easier to fall asleep.
Avoid Electronic Devices
As difficult as this might sound, stop using devices with screens before you go to bed.
Studies show that the light given off by certain devices make it harder for you to fall asleep.
So, an hour or two before your bedtime, stop watching TV, working on your computer, playing video games, or using your smartphone.