Occasional Poor Sleep vs. Chronic Insomnia

People of all ages yawning from sleepiness


Having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep is something that everyone experiences from time to time. Occasional poor sleep is normal, but when it becomes a regular occurrence, you may be experiencing chronic insomnia.

Chronic insomnia affects about one in 10 adults, and if you’re among this 10%, you probably understand the frustrations and exhaustion that chronic insomnia brings. When do you need to see a doctor? Let’s explore the differences between occasional poor sleep and chronic insomnia.

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep condition in which someone has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. It encompasses not only the amount of a person’s sleep but also their quality of sleep.

Symptoms of insomnia include:

  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Waking up periodically during the night or waking up too early
  • Feeling tired and sleepy the next day or not feeling refreshed after a night’s sleep

Insomnia also has effects that hamper your daily life, including:

  • Ongoing worries about sleep
  • Trouble paying attention to tasks and focusing
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Anxiety, irritability and depression
  • Increased accidents and mistakes

What Causes Insomnia?

Insomnia has several causes, some of which are associated with other health conditions and some of which are a result of certain lifestyle habits. Stress, irregular work schedules or excessive travel, eating too much late at night and poor bedtime habits all affect your ability to fall asleep. Often, changing your habits may fix your sleep issues.

  • Other lifestyle conditions that can affect insomnia and sleep include drug and alcohol use. While some people swear by a nightcap before bed, and drinking alcohol can make many people fall asleep, once the alcohol wears off, many people wake up and experience difficulty falling back asleep. Street drugs can affect your sleep in a number of ways, whether you’re using them or coming off them.
  • Prescription medications may also cause insomnia. If you’re noticing side effects of insomnia, talk to your doctor about changing to a different medication. Certain over-the-counter medications may also make it hard to fall asleep. Many common colds and flu medications, as well as some PMS meds, contain caffeine. If taken too close to bedtime, they may cause you to have trouble sleeping.
  • Sleep apnea is a health condition that can cause insomnia and difficulty sleeping. With sleep apnea, the person’s airway is partially obstructed, making it difficult for them to breathe during sleep. They may wake up multiple times during the night or have trouble falling asleep. Restless leg syndrome is another medical condition that makes it hard for sufferers to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Chronic pain, such as that from rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, heart disease, asthma, Parkinson’s disease and some forms of cancer, can also cause insomnia.

The Difference Between Chronic Insomnia and Occasional Poor Sleep

Acute, or short-term, insomnia is defined as experiencing insomnia over a period of a few weeks to a few months and can be common during periods of high stress or after a traumatic event.

Long-term, or chronic, insomnia, however, is a different condition, one in which someone experiences an inability to sleep or consistently wakes up halfway through the night over months or even years. Many cases of chronic insomnia are caused by an underlying health condition.

How Does Insomnia Affect My Health?

Getting a proper amount of sleep each night — most adults need between seven and eight hours — is important for both your physical and mental health. Chronic lack of sleep can affect your memory and ability to concentrate, and both these things can make work or school assignments increasingly difficult.

Mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are also affected by lack of sleep. Poor sleep habits can lead to the onset of anxiety and depression and can exacerbate and worsen the symptoms for those who already have one or both of these conditions.

The risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure increases with chronic insomnia, and many people who suffer from one or both may find that their symptoms decrease as they’re better able to get regular sleep.

How Can I Cure Chronic Insomnia?

Finding a cure for insomnia usually starts with determining what causes it in the first place. Talk to your doctor about your difficulty sleeping, and ask whether your medications or underlying health conditions may contribute to your poor sleep. Or, if you suspect you have sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, a sleep study, conducted in a sleep lab, can help diagnose these so you can be prescribed medication or the use of a CPAP machine.

Other ways to end insomnia can include lifestyle changes. Reduce your drinking and drug use, and opt not to eat within a few hours of your bedtime. If you have shift work, explore your options to change your schedule or work at a different job. For those who travel frequently, try altering when you fly or see if you can work remotely instead of traveling.

Ways To Get Better Sleep

Whether you suffer from occasional poor sleep or chronic insomnia, there are several ways you can improve your overall sleep hygiene.

  • Reduce your screen time before bed, and don’t fall asleep looking at your phone or watching TV.
  • Don’t eat meals late at night and eliminate your late-night snacking. For people with acid reflux or other gastrointestinal diseases, reducing your late-night eating may improve these conditions as well.
  • Stay active – regular exercise can help improve your night’s sleep. However, don’t engage in workouts within a couple of hours of bedtime.
  • Use your bed only for sex or sleeping, and create a bedtime routine that helps you associate your bed with sleep.

Getting a proper amount of sleep can have a big impact on your overall physical and mental health, help you focus and even improve your relationships. If you note that you’re having consistent trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, consult your doctor and consider lifestyle changes that can help improve your sleep hygiene.

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