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Insomnia: Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention




According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every 24 hours, depending on their age. However, it’s estimated that 25 percent of Americans experience insomnia every year, but only 75 percent do not develop a long-term problem.


Even if it’s short-term, insomnia can cause daytime fatigue and difficulty concentrating. But, if this becomes a long-term problem, it could have negative implications for your health and well-being.

In the following article, we’ll examine insomnia's causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and how to treat it.


What is Insomnia?


According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s ICSD-3 manual, insomnia is defined as “persistent difficulty with sleep initiation, duration, consolidation or quality.”

Sleep disorders have many contributing factors and symptoms. But they are typically diagnosed by looking at two elements: difficulties sleeping despite adequate opportunities for normal sleep, and impairment in daytime functioning resulting directly from poor sleep quality or duration.

Sleeplessness that lasts for three months or longer is diagnosed as chronic insomnia. Short-term insomnia is characterized by a duration of no more than three months.

Rarely, patients may display insomnia symptoms without meeting the criteria for short-term insomnia. As such, they may require some form of treatment. This condition is called other insomnia.

Despite the variety of ways insomnia can manifest, most diagnoses fall into two main categories:

  • The inability to fall asleep is referred to as sleep-onset insomnia. Many people who suffer from this type of insomnia have difficulty relaxing in bed. Factors such as jet lag or irregular work schedules may also cause this type of sleep disorder.

  • An individual with sleep maintenance insomnia has difficulty staying asleep after falling asleep. Those with this type of insomnia are usually older individuals, along with those who consume caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco before going to bed. There are other conditions that can cause sleep maintenance insomnia, such as sleep apnea and periodic limb movement disorder.

Those who suffer from mixed insomnia may have both sleep-onset problems and sleep-maintenance difficulties, and they may notice that their symptoms change over time.

Insomnia Causes


Depending on the cause of your insomnia, it may be the leading problem or it can be a symptom of another condition.

Sleep disturbances are often caused by stress, life events, or habits disrupting sleep. Insomnia can be resolved by treating the underlying cause, but sometimes it lasts for years.

Insomnia is caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • Stress. It can be hard to sleep at night when you have concerns about work, school, health, finances, or family. Life experiences such as dying or ill loved ones, divorce, or losing a job can also contribute to sleep disruptions.

  • Travel or work schedule. Sleep-wake cycles, metabolism, and body temperature are governed by circadian rhythms, which act as a kind of internal clock. You may experience insomnia if your circadian rhythm is disrupted. These conditions can be caused by jet lag from traveling across multiple time zones or by working a late or early shift.

  • Poor sleep habits. Unhealthy sleeping habits include getting too little sleep, taking naps, engaging in stimulating activities before bed, and sleeping in an uncomfortable bedroom with a television or computer. Screen time before bed can disrupt your sleep cycle, whether that be on your computer, TV, video game, smartphone, etc.

  • Eating too much late in the evening. Eating a light snack before sleep is fine. However, eating too much may cause physical discomfort while sleeping. After eating, there is often an unpleasant sensation of acid rushing up into the esophagus along with food from the stomach.

There may also be a link between chronic insomnia and illnesses or drugs. Getting better sleep may be possible after a medical condition has been treated. But, insomnia may still persist.

Insomnia can also result from:

  • Mental health disorders. PTSD and other anxiety disorders may interfere with your sleep. Depression can also lead to waking up too early. There are many mental health disorders that are associated with insomnia as well.

  • Medications. Antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and asthma medications can all interfere with sleep. Sleep can be disrupted by some over-the-counter medications, such as pain medications, allergies, cold medicines, and weight loss products since they may contain caffeine.

  • Medical conditions. Chronic pain, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), an overactive thyroid, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease are among the diseases associated with insomnia.

  • Sleep-related disorders. An individual suffering from sleep apnea stops breathing periodically throughout the night, interrupting your sleep. An almost irresistible urge to move your legs causes restless legs syndrome, which can keep you awake.

  • Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea, cola, as well as other caffeinated beverages are stimulants. You may have trouble falling asleep if you drink them in the late afternoon or evening. Nicotine is another stimulant found in tobacco products that may interfere with sleep. Even though alcohol may help you fall asleep, it hinders deeper sleep stages, resulting in frequent arousals.

Also, insomnia becomes more common as you age. And, sleep disturbances can also be a concern for children and teenagers since their internal clocks are delayed.


Symptoms of Insomnia


The following are some other problems that insomnia can cause in addition to disrupted sleep:

  • Sleepiness or fatigue during the day

  • Anxiety, depression, and irritability

  • Symptoms of gastrointestinal distress

  • Feeling unmotivated or uninspired

  • Having trouble concentrating and focusing

  • An inability to coordinate, resulting in errors or accidents

  • Anxiety or worry about sleeping

  • Taking medication or drinking alcohol to fall asleep

  • Headaches due to tension

  • An inability to socialize, work, or study

Tips for Preventing Insomnia


Insomnia can be prevented with good sleep habits, or sleep hygiene. The following tips may help:

  • Make a habit of sleeping and waking up at the same time each day. However, do not obsess over the routine.

  • Avoid or limit naps.

  • Stay physically active, at least 3 to 4 hours before bed.

  • Don't eat or drink much before going to sleep.

  • Restrict the use of tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine at night.

  • Avoid electronics prior to bed.

  • Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and not too hot or too cold. Sleeping masks can help block out light. A fan or white noise machine can be used to mask sounds.

  • Take a warm bath, read a book, write down a to-do list, or listen to soft music before going to bed.

You may also want to consider the following treatments:

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