What is Insomnia And How Do You Treat It?

August 24, 2017 |


If you’re one of the many people who need their coffee first thing in the morning because you didn’t sleep well the night before, you’re not alone. As many as 40 percent of Americans suffer from insomnia each year and millions are affected worldwide (1).

Insomnia may occur as a standalone condition or it can be an underlying symptom of another disease. Either way, insomnia can leave you feeling groggy and impair your performance on many levels. Here’s what you need to know about insomnia and how to find the best treatment option for you.

Insomnia Quick Facts

  • Insomnia is a sleep disorder that results in daytime sleepiness.
  • There are many causes of insomnia
  • Many cases of insomnia can be treated by changing your lifestyle habits.
  • As many as 30 to 40 percent of Americans suffer from insomnia each year.
  • Treatments for insomnia range from prescription drugs to cognitive behavioral therapy.

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia refers to a wide range of sleep disorders that are characterized by problems with falling asleep and staying asleep. People with insomnia tend to wake up several times during the night and are unable to get enough restorative sleep. They may feel groggy and tired when they wake up in the morning no matter how long they spent in bed. The three types of insomnia are:

  1. Transient insomnia, which occurs for up to three nights or less.
  2. Acute insomnia, also known as short-term insomnia, which occurs when symptoms last for several weeks.
  3. Chronic insomnia occurs when a person has trouble sleeping for months or even years. According to the National Institutes of Health, people with chronic insomnia are usually unable to sleep due to another primary medical condition.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, up to 15 percent of adults claim to have chronic insomnia (1). Insomnia negatively affects work, personal and social lives. It also contributes to the following health problems:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obesity
  • Problems with concentration and memory
  • Irritability
  • Impaired immune system function
  • Inability to make simple decisions
  • High blood pressure
  • Type two diabetes
  • Heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke

Insomnia Risk Factors

Insomnia is most common in adult women and it can occur at any age (1). The following people are more at risk for developing insomnia:

  • People who travel often, especially across many time different zones at once
  • Elderly people
  • Night shift workers or people whose work shift hours fluctuate between night and day
  • Young adult students and adolescents
  • Drug users
  • Pregnant or menopausal women
  • People with mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression

Causes of Insomnia

There are many different reasons why insomnia may occur. In most cases of chronic insomnia, an underlying medical condition is to blame. People who suffer from transient insomnia may be feeling the effects of a recent or recurring event, such as the death of a loved one or work stress. In general, insomnia may be caused by the following factors:

  • Disturbance to a person’s inner sleep cycle, such as job shift changes, jet lag, environmental noise, extreme temperatures, or high altitude
  • Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or other psychotic disorders
  • High levels of stress
  • Certain medications including corticosteroids, alpha blockers, statins, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, antidepressants, angiotensin II-receptor blockers, second generation H1 agonists, cholinesterase inhibitors, and glucosamine or chondroitin
  • Medical conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, angina, heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), acid-reflux disease, asthma, brain lesions, tumors, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, hormonal imbalances, menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, and thyroid complications
  • Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or REM behavioral disorders
  • Environmental conditions such as sleeping next to a partner who snores, going to bed too late, sleeping in, or eating late at night
  • Genetic conditions

One of the primary causes of insomnia in otherwise healthy individuals is the use of media and electronics in the bedroom or just before bed. Electronics emit blue light, which can tell your brain to stop producing a hormone needed to make you feel sleepy called melatonin.

Melatonin is needed to regulate your circadian rhythm or your inner sleep system. Upon exposure to darkness at night, your brain produces melatonin and releases it into the bloodstream so you feel relaxed and sleepy. When you turn the lights on, it causes your brain to stop producing melatonin. During the day, melatonin levels drop to a level that is barely measurable.

Light exposure is the most common way to throw off your melatonin levels. People who watch television late at night or stay up playing video games are more prone to insomnia because of the exposure to blue light.

what is insomnia

Insomnia Symptoms

Symptoms of insomnia may be due to the condition itself or they may be due to another medical condition. In each case, the symptoms may vary depending on the cause. Here are some common signs and symptoms of insomnia:

  • Waking up several times during the night
  • Difficulty falling asleep at bedtime
  • Waking up earlier than you would like
  • Feeling tired during the day
  • Anxiety, depression, and irritability
  • Inability to concentrate or focus during the day
  • Headaches that feel like you are wearing a tight band around your head
  • Digestive problems
  • Stress or worrying about sleep
  • Problems with socializing or carrying on conversations
  • Unable to find the right words to say
  • Being uncoordinated, tripping, or bumping into things
  • Vision problems

Most people with insomnia wake up feeling groggy and tired. Their symptoms increase during the day. A report by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute found that 20 percent of car accidents that are not influenced by alcohol are caused by drivers who are tired (1).

How is Insomnia Diagnosed?

Only a medical professional can make an insomnia diagnosis. If you think you may have insomnia, see a trained sleep specialist or doctor. He or she will begin by asking you a series of questions about your condition, including what your sleeping patterns are like and what your family medical history is. A doctor may even screen for depression, anxiety or substance abuse to better understand your needs.

The two terms “insomnia” and “disturbed sleep” are often used interchangeably by sleep experts. To receive an insomnia diagnosis, you need to experience disturbed sleep for more than one month. Your well-being must also be negatively impacted, such as an impairment in cognitive performance and mood (1). A sleep expert can help you determine whether your insomnia is stand-alone or if it is due to an underlying condition.

In some cases, a sleep doctor may ask you to keep a journal of your symptoms to get a better understanding of your condition. He or she may ask you to write down your sleep patterns, such as when you go to bed, what times of night you wake up, and how you feel during the daytime. Your doctor may also ask you to take an overnight sleep test to monitor your sleep patterns called a polysomnography. An actigraphy test may be conducted to measure your sleep-wake patterns and movements.

Treatments For Insomnia

After you receive an insomnia diagnosis, your doctor should talk to you about treatment options. There are several options available depending on your individual needs. In some cases of chronic insomnia, a sleep doctor may prescribe a prescription sleeping pill. While a prescription sleep aid may be necessary in extreme cases, they often produce unwanted side effects.

Before taking a prescription sleep aid, ask your doctor if you can try another treatment first. The following is a list of reported side effects of prescription sleeping pills (2):

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Appetite changes
  • Tingling or burning in the hands, feet, arms, and legs
  • Balance problems
  • Drowsiness during the day
  • Dizziness
  • Bloating or gas
  • Heartburn
  • Dry mouth or throat
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Abdominal pain or tenderness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Uncontrollable shaking
  • Nightmares or vivid dreams
  • Memory problems and attention problems

In some cases, treatment might not be necessary at all if the underlying cause works itself out, such as work or relationship stress. Behavioral therapies and non-pharmaceutical practices can be used at home to naturally treat insomnia without the side effects of a prescription drug.

Examples include:

  • Improving your sleep hygiene or habits at night
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Meditation
  • Muscle relaxation techniques
  • Visualization therapy
  • Natural sleep aids

Tips For Dealing With Insomnia

Many people are able to treat their insomnia at home without the use of pharmaceutical drugs by improving their sleep habits. Here are some tips for fighting insomnia naturally.

  1. Create a bedtime routine.

One of the many reasons why you might be suffering from insomnia is because your circadian rhythm is thrown off. Habits such as staying up too late, eating large meals late at night, and falling asleep with the television on can disrupt your circadian rhythm. Creating a healthy bedtime routine can help restore your circadian rhythm so you can sleep through the night without waking up.

Start by getting rid of all electronics in the bedroom. If your child is the one with insomnia, you may want to remove any electronics and video games from their room. Avoid using electronics two hours before bedtime and gradually reduce your exposure to light before bed. Make your bedroom as comfortable as possible by investing in a comfortable mattress and sheets. You may also want to look into blackout curtains, especially if you work the night shift and need your room to be dark during the day so you can sleep.

In place of using electronics at night, create a bedtime routine that helps you relax. Take a walk after dinner or visit with your neighbors. Taking a hot bath with essential oils or reading a book might be helpful. Meditate or spend a few quiet minutes writing out a to-do list for tomorrow so your mind is as quiet as possible when you go to bed.

  1. Exercise.

Some people have a hard time sleeping at night because they don’t feel tired or they are too anxious. Exercise has been shown to improve your quality of life by reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. It also helps make you feel physically tired, which can help you drift off to sleep with ease.

Exercise reduces anxiety and depression by increasing serotonin, which is a brain chemical called a neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy and content. Past studies have shown that people with insomnia have lower levels of serotonin (3).

According to a 2012 study, regular exercise is as beneficial for improving insomnia as taking a hypnotic prescription drug (3). The study found that exercise increases your total sleep time and reduces the amount of times you wake up during the night.

Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous or excessive to be effective. The goal is to relax your muscle and calm your mind. Start slowly by spending 30 minutes a day walking. If time is a problem, try breaking up your exercise into three ten minute segments throughout the day. Park your car ten minutes away from work and spend ten minutes of your lunch break going up and down the stairs at the office. Both men and women can benefit from resistance training two or three times a week.

  1. Meditate or try cognitive behavioral therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a problem-solving technique that can be used to improve insomnia by retraining your brain from thinking negative thoughts. According to the National Sleep Foundation, insomnia patients can use cognitive behavioral therapy in place of prescription drugs to alleviate their symptoms (4).

Cognitive behavioral therapy works by teaching you how to recognize and change the thoughts and behaviors that keep you awake at night. The following is a list of different types of cognitive behavioral therapy you can use to improve your sleep:

  • Stimulus control: This type of therapy asks you to remove stimuli from your environment that interferes with sleep, such as electronics in your bed.
  • Muscle relaxation training: This method works similar to meditation by calming your mind and body. While laying in bed, close your eyes and tighten each of your muscles one by one. Count to three, exhale and relax them. Feel the tension leave your body as you exhale.
  • Relaxation therapy: This type of behavioral therapy asks you to visualize a relaxing thought to reduce stress. You can meditate, count, or mentally picture a relaxing scene such as a beach or a waterfall to redirect negative thoughts to positive ones when you feel worrisome or anxious.
  • Paradoxical intention: This sleep method includes a bit of reverse psychology to help you fall asleep. Lay in bed and try not to fall asleep. Sleep therapists believe that trying to stay awake will take your mind off of the stress associated with not being able to fall asleep. While this type of therapy is not recommended long-term, it may work occasionally.
Insomnia can be caused by many factors. The worst thing to do is leave your insomnia untreated as this may result in daytime sleepiness and impair your ability to perform at your best. Finding out the underlying cause is the best way to determine the best treatment option for you.