Sleep: What exactly is insomnia?

Sleep: What exactly is insomnia?

Having trouble falling or staying asleep? Insomnia could be the cause.

Learn what causes this common sleep disorder and how to overcome it – without counting sheep.

A third of us can expect to suffer from insomnia at some point in our lives.

Fortunately, it is often transient, but for some, it can become a long-term problem that affects our well-being and quality of life.

What exactly is insomnia?

Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling or remaining asleep. Some researchers believe that insomnia is caused by an inability to turn off your brain's 'awake' mode.

Insomnia symptoms include:

  • taking 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep
  • waking during the night and taking longer than 30 minutes to fall back asleep
  • waking early and being unable to fall back asleep
  • feeling sleepy during the day, with a low mood and difficulty concentrating.

Insomnia is classified into two types:

  • Acute insomnia, which lasts a few days or weeks. It usually has a clear trigger, such as stress or illness, and usually goes away once the trigger is gone.
  • Chronic insomnia, which affects you three or more nights per week and lasts longer than three months.

What causes insomnia?

Every night, a good night's sleep is required to help your body rest and repair.

However, not getting enough quality sleep over time can:

  • increase your risk of accidents and injury
  • impair your memory and concentration
  • lead to weight gain or make it difficult to lose weight
  • reduce your sex drive and affect your fertility
  • make you more susceptible to colds and viruses
  • increase your risk of conditions such as heart disease and diabetes

What causes sleeplessness?

There are numerous causes of insomnia, but the following are the most common:

  • stress – it can make it difficult for your mind to switch off at night
  • some medications, including over-the-counter caffeine tablets
  • jet lag and shift work – this can disrupt your natural sleep-wake cycle
  • a bedroom that is too light, noisy, cold, or hot
  • an uncomfortable bed
  • napping during the day – disrupts your sleep schedule
  • looking at a smartphone, laptop, or other digital device right before bed – emits blue light, which can inhibit your body's production of the sleep hormone melatonin.

Insomnia can also be a sign of other health problems, such as sleep apnoea, allergies, an overactive thyroid, restless legs syndrome, anxiety, and depression.

Because insomnia can develop from seemingly minor issues, such as an uncomfortable mattress, it's critical to address any source of disturbed sleep to prevent it from progressing to full-blown, chronic insomnia.

How to Deal with Insomnia

First, make sure your bedroom is sleep-friendly – it should be dark, quiet, and cool before bed.

It's also important to stick to a sleep schedule; set your alarm to wake up at the same time every day to help your body and brain get into a regular wake-up routine.

The following suggestions may also be useful:

  • Keep a sleep diary – it may help you figure out what's causing your sleep issues.
  • if you can't sleep after 20 minutes, get up, move to a different room, and do something relaxing, such as reading or listening to music, until you feel sleepy
  • try a few gentle exercises before bedtime – they will help relax your muscles in preparation for sleep
  • only use your bed for sleeping or sex – no checking emails or watching TV, for example
  • don't look at the clock if you wake up in the night – it will cause anxiety

If your insomnia symptoms do not improve despite lifestyle changes and the condition is interfering with your daily life, consult your doctor.

They will look into what is causing your insomnia and may refer you to a sleep clinic or a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) programme to help you change the thoughts and behaviours that are interfering with your sleep.

You can also seek CBT through the NHS psychological therapies service. According to a 2018 study published in Sleep Medicine, CBT is an effective treatment for insomnia, with effects lasting up to ten years.