What causes insomnia? Insomnia is a common sleep disorder with myriad causes. If you suffer from insomnia, you may struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or find yourself waking up too early and unable to fall back asleep. Lack of sleep symptoms often include feelings of fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and irritability during the day. It can be a short-term issue, which is sometimes caused by external stressors, such as a traumatic event or a difficult work schedule. Long-term or chronic insomnia, on the other hand, are a little more difficult to diagnose. It can be a secondary condition or a side effect of medication. It could also be idiopathic insomnia, or insomnia that occurs with no other condition. The causes of idiopathic insomnia are not fully understood.1
Insomnia can be a primary condition. However, chronic idiopathic insomnia can be difficult to diagnose and to determine what is causing it. Idiopathic insomnia is rare, occurring in less than 1% of the population.2 It often appears in childhood or even at birth, and is thought to potentially be genetic.
Idiopathic insomnia is insomnia that does not stem from a secondary or external cause. It is not well understood, but it is hyopothesized that it may stem from a basic dysfunction of the way the body regulates sleeping and waking. Although it may be exacerbated by external factors, such as poor sleeping habits or stress, it is not directly caused by them. That said, treating idiopathic insomnia requires a multipronged approach to treatment, including supplements such as melatonin, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), and medication.
Secondary insomnia is much more common than idiopathic insomnia. It can be caused by the use of certain medications used to treat other conditions, or made worse by the presence of existing sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome. It can also be caused by psychological disorders or distress.
There are two ways that psychological conditions can cause insomnia: either by being a symptom of the disorder itself, or as a side effect of the medication that you take for the psychological condition. Depression, anxiety, and/or bipolar disorder can often cause difficulty falling asleep or reaching deep sleep. Medications that are used to treat ADHD, depression, and Parkinson’s disease may have side-effects that include insomnia.3
There are many physical illnesses that can cause insomnia. Experiencing chronic pain is a common cause of keeping you up at night. Some long-term conditions that result in insomnia are diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and congestive heart failure. Many pregnant women also experience insomnia, particularly in the latter half of their pregnancy, due to frequent urination, discomfort, and back pain.4 Aging also can be a factor in causing insomnia, as your sleep patterns tend to change and your overall physical health may deteriorate.
Insomnia can also be made worse by lifestyle choices such as drinking alcohol, smoking, or too much caffeine. Erratic, inconsistent sleep schedules increase the likelihood of trouble sleeping. Acute insomnia often goes away on its own or can be managed with lifestyle changes and stress management.
Finding whatever is the easiest way to fall asleep for you can help with insomnia. Natural, at-home remedies can include taking a hot bath, meditating, and avoiding using stimulants in the evening. Other ways to improve sleep include increasing your exercise regimen, eating a healthier diet, and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule.
The average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep to feel fully rested, although depending on lifestyle and temperament, you may need slightly more or less sleep. If you are experiencing continued difficulty sleeping multiple times per week, despite sleeping your normal amount, and it is affecting your concentration and functioning, then it is typically considered insomnia.
Medicine for insomnia is generally prescribed on a short-term basis to help you get through brief spells of difficulty. If you feel like you need help managing your insomnia, it is best to seek help from a medical professional to determine whether medication, such as sleeping pills or antidepressants with a sedative effect, could be beneficial for you.
There is no one method to improve sleep that works for everyone. Some people find relief by using melatonin or valerian supplements, but research on these supplements is inconclusive. Others may find that chamomile tea or warm milk can help them relax and induce sleepiness. If insomnia is a chronic issue that affects your life, then cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can be very effective.
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that is more common in women than it is in men. One theory about what causes sleeplessness in women is that hormonal changes such as PMS, pregnancy, and menopause can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle. Another potential cause of insomnia in women is a higher incidence of anxiety and depression.5
© 2021 American Sleep Association.