Understanding the causes of insomnia is the first step to treating this sleep disorder. There are many potential causes of secondary insomnia. After identifying the cause, treatment can be focused on the primary issues.
Many times, insomnia itself is not the primary condition but is a symptom of something else that’s going on. (1)
Insomnia is usually secondary to other factors, which can be psychiatric disorders, physical or medical conditions, medications, or lifestyle habits.
Psychiatric disorders or issues are the most commonly known cause of insomnia.
Anxiety. Many people with an anxiety disorder have trouble with their own thoughts and worries keeping them up at night. When they finally do get to sleep, they often wake up and the anxiety keeps them from being able to fall back asleep. (2)
Unfortunately, not only can anxiety cause insomnia, but insomnia can also cause anxiety. This makes it important to find the root cause of what’s going on so the cycle can be stopped.
Depression. Depression is not the same thing as anxiety. But like anxiety, depression can also lead to insomnia. This can be an ongoing, chronic problem for someone that’s chronically depressed. It may also be a seasonal condition in someone with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which happens in the dark, gloomy, winter months. (3)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For someone with PTSD, being in the dark can bring on flashbacks and feelings of fear and anxiety. If they’re able to fall asleep, they may sometimes awaken with nightmares.
Stress and worry. You don’t have to have a diagnosed with a mental disorder to have stress or worry keep you up at night. Often times people have insomnia while going through some kind of stressful life event, such as loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or a divorce, for example. (4)
There are several physical or medical conditions that can be the cause of insomnia. Some of these include:
Allergies. Itchy eyes, stuffy nose, runny nose, and sneezing are all symptoms that can keep allergy sufferers awake at night.
Lung diseases. These can include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and sleep apnea.
Asthma, if not well controlled, can lead to nighttime shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing that can keep you from sleeping at night.
COPD, which is lung disease that causes obstruction of air flowing into the lungs, can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and can make it difficult for some COPD patients to lie flat. This disruption to normal breathing can be a cause of insomnia in someone with this disease.
Neurological disorders. Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is fairly common and can lead to insomnia. (5) It is characterized by an uncomfortable tingling sensation in the legs accompanied by an overwhelming urge to move them.
Parkinson’s Disease is a neurological disorder in which sleep disorders are common and can become worse as the disease progresses.
GERD. Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is the reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus. This can cause a burning sensation, vomiting, coughing, and can worsen symptoms of asthma, COPD, or other respiratory conditions. It is generally worse at night and while trying to sleep.
Pain. Having pain of any kind is enough to keep someone awake at night. (6) Lower back pain is one of the most common types of pain to cause sleeplessness. Arthritis can also contribute to insomnia.
Medications. It’s important to treat any of the medical conditions previously mentioned, especially if they’re keeping you from getting sleep. However, some of the medications prescribed for these conditions can also lead to insomnia, so make sure to talk to your doctor about this concern. (7)
Lifestyle Habits. Lifestyle habits that can contribute to insomnia are not having a regular bedtime routine, not having a comfortable or safe sleep environment, and using technology before bedtime are all examples of things that can give you sleep problems.
Lifestyle habits, such as consumption of nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol can also lead to insomnia.
If you have insomnia, it’s important to take a look at what may be causing your sleeplessness.
Insomnia can lead to a number of problems including daytime fatigue, poor job performance, worsening symptoms of anxiety or mental illness, or accidents while driving. If left untreated it can lead to more serious health conditions.
Fortunately, whatever it is that’s causing your anxiety can likely be corrected, and many times without medication.
If you’re having trouble sleeping and think you may have insomnia, your doctor can help you figure out the best treatment for you.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.