Insomnia Causes and Risk Factors

September 30, 2017 |


Causes of insomnia aren’t always black and white. There are many shades of gray when it comes to figuring out why you can’t sleep at night. Some people do all the right things. They go to bed on time and sleep in complete darkness. Yet, they are still unable to get the deep sleep they need.

While it’s not always clear what causes insomnia, research shows there are specific risk factors that may increase the likelihood. While you can’t change genetic risk factors, others are easier to fix. Check out this list of insomnia causes and risk factors if you want the leg up on getting better sleep.

What Happens To Your Body When You Don’t Sleep?

Insomnia is a bugger of a sleep disorder. It gives you problems when trying to fall asleep. Rarely does it let you sleep through the night without interruptions. And it always seems to make you wake up earlier than you’d like.

Sleep loss has a profound effect on your health. Research shows that getting less than seven to nine hours of sleep at night increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. It also shortens your life expectancy (1). Here are seven things that happen to your body when you don’t sleep:

  1. Sleep loss affects fertility.      

Sleep loss can make it harder for you to conceive. Research shows that both men and women who don’t sleep well can have trouble conceiving because they have a reduced amount of reproductive hormones (1).

  1. Sleep keeps your heart healthy.

Chronic insomnia increases your heart rate and blood pressure, which causes inflammation that makes it harder for your heart to work properly.

  1. Sleep stimulates your immune system.

Your immune system produces antibodies and anti-inflammatory compounds when you sleep to fight off illness. Sleep loss makes you more prone to developing a cold by reducing the amount of protective compounds your immune system makes (1).

  1. Sleep keeps you thin.

Studies show that people who have problems sleeping are more likely to gain weight. Research shows that sleep loss reduces the production of leptin, a hormone that tells you when to stop eating, and increases ghrelin, a hormone that makes you feel hungry (1).

  1. Sleep boosts your brainpower.

One night of sleep loss can make you moody and irritable the next day. Studies show that people who sleep less than six hours are also more likely to have anxiety or depression (1).

  1. Sleep may help prevent diabetes.

Studies show that people who sleep less than five hours a night have an increased risk of developing diabetes (1). This is because sleep regulates the way your body uses glucose.

  1. Sleep increases your libido.

Research shows that both men and women who don’t get enough sleep have a lower libido (3). Men with sleep apnea were found to have lower levels of testosterone, which can cause a decreased interest in sex (4).

What Causes Insomnia?

Chronic insomnia causes vary from person to person, but there are some common characteristics to be aware of. Research shows that your sleep patterns, behavior, and attitude may increase your risk of insomnia (5). There is a clear link between anxiety, depression and sleep loss. In fact, people with insomnia are 39.8 times more likely to develop depression than those who sleep well (5). Depression is linked to low levels of serotonin, which is also needed to regulate your sleep cycle (6).  

Interestingly, getting too much REM sleep can make you depressed. Research shows that some people with insomnia and depression are sleeping too much (5). While most individuals with insomnia believe they are not getting enough sleep, some studies indicate they are getting the amount they need and more. In particular, people with insomnia tend to go to bed earlier, stay in bed later, and sleep during the day. They underestimate the amount of time they spend sleeping despite sleeping as much as someone who doesn’t have insomnia (5).

Your sleep attitude says a lot about your sleep quality, according to research. One study found that people with insomnia take the health risks of sleep loss more seriously than people who sleep well. They were more likely to attribute their mood disorders and fatigue to lack of sleep. They also viewed their sleep as less predictable and uncontrollable (5).

Furthermore, people with sleep-onset insomnia were more likely to focus on problems, negative thoughts, and noises in their sleep environment before going to bed. They also tended to worry about things that happened that same day when compared to people without sleep problems (5). Sleep attitudes influence sleep behaviors. For example, if you predict that you will be unable to sleep tonight, you may spend more time in bed tossing and turning.

People who spend more time in bed may be prone to insomnia. Research shows that spending less time trying to sleep may actually help you sleep better (5). Laying in bed unable to sleep causes you to associate your bed with sleep loss. Experts recommended getting up if you can’t sleep within 15 to 20 minutes of laying down.

Here are some other common causes of insomnia:

  1. Medications

Certain medications can keep you awake at night. Research shows that antidepressants and drugs that treat blood pressure or asthma may cause insomnia (7). Many over-the-counter pain medications contain caffeine and other stimulants that may also disrupt sleep. Some prescription drugs may cause insomnia because they block melatonin production. Ask your doctor to adjust your medication or dosage if you think it may be keeping you awake at night.

awake at night

  1. Pain

Not many people can sleep through chronic pain. According to a 2015 poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, only 36 percent of people with chronic pain get good sleep. On the other hand, 65 percent of people with no pain reportedly sleep well (8). Examples of chronic pain conditions include arthritis, acid reflux, and fibromyalgia.

Additionally, losing sleep may increase your pain if you have one of these conditions. According to a 2007 study, women who woke up throughout the night had a lower pain threshold than women who slept better (9). Be careful when using pain medications to help you sleep as these may cause addiction or other symptoms.

  1. Neurological Diseases

People with neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer’s, may have lower levels of melatonin, which causes sleep loss. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke found that neurological disorders may change chemicals and certain areas of the brain that are needed for sleep (10). The same goes for people who have had a stroke.

  1. Allergies

It’s not hard to see why allergies could keep you awake at night. Scratchy eyes and a runny nose are hard to sleep through. According to a 2012 study, both children and adults who had asthma and allergies commonly experience snoring, sleep-disordered breathing, and obstructive sleep apnea (11). The study found that allergies and asthma cause sleep impairment that can significantly affect a person’s quality of life. Sleep disturbances that are caused by congestion, inflammatory factors and other symptoms may result in daytime fatigue, decreased motor abilities, and concentration problems (11).

Keeping allergens out of the bedroom is a good place to start. Wash your pillows and sheets frequently and do not allow pets in your bed. Showering before bed may also help limit allergens.

  1. Caffeine

Coffee is a way of life for some people. But it could also be the reason why they aren’t sleeping well. According to one study, consuming caffeine three to six hours before bed can keep you awake (12). Other studies show that caffeine may stay in your body as long as 8 to 10 hour (13). Either way, it might be in your best interest to limit caffeine to one or two cups a day if you want to improve your sleep.

  1. Genetics

Having a family history of insomnia may put you at an increased risk of developing the condition yourself. Research shows that there are seven genes linked to insomnia (14). Researchers of one study concluded that several genes might also contribute to periodic limb movements of sleep and restless legs syndrome, which have been shown to cause insomnia.

  1. Poor Sleep Hygiene

Your sleep cycle runs on an internal body clock called the circadian rhythm. It determines when you fall asleep and wake up. Melatonin is one of many driving forces behind your circadian rhythm. It is produced in the brain and released into your bloodstream when it gets dark to make you feel sleepy.

Throwing off your circadian rhythm is easy to do. Temperature changes, altitude and light exposure can all do the trick. If you have poor sleep hygiene, you are more likely to disrupt your internal sleep cycle and develop insomnia (15). Establishing a bedtime routine and keeping your room dark is a good way to help set your circadian rhythm.

Insomnia Risk Factors

Some people are naturally more at risk for developing insomnia than others. According to the National Sleep Foundation, there are at least five things that can increase your risk of developing insomnia (16):

  • Negative thoughts about sleep and lack of sleep
  • Learned and conditional factors
  • Poor sleep habits and other bad behaviors
  • Psychological issues such as stress and psychiatric conditions
  • Medical disorders that may affect the circadian rhythm

Additionally, the following people are at an increased risk of developing insomnia (16):

  1. Women

Research shows that women are more likely to develop insomnia than men. One theory is that women experience more hormones over the course of a lifetime. Examples include during puberty, pregnancy, postpartum, menopause, and post menopause.

  1. Aging Individuals

Older people are more likely to develop insomnia. This is likely due to certain medications, increased health problems and lifestyle changes ascertained by retirement. An individual’s circadian rhythm shifts as they age, which causes them to go to bed and wake up earlier. It also increases their need to nap or engage in more fragmented sleep due to an inability to attain the proper amount of deep sleep.

  1. Medication Conditions

Certain medical conditions increase your risk of insomnia. Patients with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are most likely to develop sleep problems. Other health issues associated with insomnia may include:

  • Musculoskeletal disorders
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Endocrine conditions
  • Chronic renal failure
  • Cardiopulmonary disease
  • Neurological diseases
  1. Certain Behaviors

Traveling across several time zones may cause jet lag, which can result in insomnia. Individuals who work the night shift may also develop insomnia due to an altered circadian rhythm. Having poor sleep hygiene also puts you at an increased risk of a sleep disorder.

How To Treat Insomnia

Almost everyone can improve their sleep by making a few key behavioral changes. Stress is often the number one reason why a person can’t sleep at night. Finding a healthy way to deal with stress is key to sleeping well.

Research shows that exercise reduces stress and helps you sleep. A poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation determined that people who exercise regularly have a better sleep on most nights when compared to individuals who are not active (17). Another study found that when you are physically active during the day, it may increase your deep sleep at night (18).

Meditation is also beneficial for reducing stress. It works by asking you to redirect negative thoughts that prevent you from relaxing. According to a 2012 study, meditation also increases your melatonin production. The study found that people who meditate have greater levels of melatonin than those who don’t. Meditators also have less sleep related daytime impairment and fatigue, are less depressed and anxious, and have fewer inflammatory compounds that may cause disease (19).

Developing a bedtime routine can also help you relax at night. Your body likes to know what is coming next. Go to bed at the same time every night and avoid sleeping in. Aim for a morning workout session and an evening meditation session to reduce any jitters associated with the day’s activities. You may even want to write out a to-do list for the next day if you’re a worrier. Finally, try taking a natural sleep aid before going to bed to help improve your sleep quality.