What is Insomnia? Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder affecting approximately one in ten individuals globally. It disrupts sleep patterns, impacting both the quality and duration of sleep. People with insomnia often struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep, which can lead to significant health issues over time. Chronic insomnia, which persists for months and occurs several nights a week, can be particularly debilitating and highlights the importance of understanding this condition more deeply. Insomnia may manifest as a primary condition or as a symptom of other underlying health issues.

An in-depth examination of insomnia includes an exploration of its symptoms, causes, and a range of treatment options. This discussion also extends to strategies for managing and preventing the condition, offering insights into how to tackle this disruptive disorder. With the incidence of insomnia increasing with age and varying between genders, it’s crucial to understand the potential complications arising from ongoing sleep disturbances. The review encompasses both non-pharmacological methods and medical treatments available for managing this sleep disorder, providing a comprehensive overview aimed at improving sleep health.

Understanding Insomnia

Insomnia, a sleep disorder that affects up to a third of adults, can be classified according to its duration and underlying causes. The two main types of insomnia are:

  1. Acute Insomnia: This form is short-term, often triggered by life events such as stress, emotional or physical discomfort, and can last for a few days or weeks. It is usually self-resolving once the triggering event has passed.
  2. Chronic Insomnia: Persisting for three months or longer, chronic insomnia occurs at least three nights a week and requires a comprehensive approach for management. It can severely impact daily functioning and quality of life.

The causes of insomnia are categorised into:

  • Primary Insomnia: Occurring without an apparent underlying health condition, primary insomnia can be a standalone disorder.
  • Secondary Insomnia: This type is due to other medical conditions, such as mental health disorders, chronic pain, or certain medications, underscoring the necessity of identifying and treating the root cause for effective resolution.

Common Symptoms of Insomnia

Individuals grappling with insomnia may find themselves in a perpetual state of sleeplessness, characterised by:

  • Difficulty falling asleep: Lying awake for a prolonged period before sleep onset is a common symptom, leading to significant distress and anxiety about sleep.
  • Staying asleep: Frequent awakenings or restlessness during the night disrupt the sleep cycle, resulting in fragmented and unrefreshing sleep.
  • Daytime fatigue or impairment: The inability to maintain consistent sleep patterns often culminates in daytime consequences such as overwhelming tiredness, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.

These symptoms lead to daytime consequences including fatigue, mood disturbances, and impaired performance in work or social activities. Addressing both the acute and chronic aspects of insomnia is crucial for restoring healthy sleep patterns and preventing long-term complications.

Given the prevalence and impact of this sleep disorder, understanding its nature and categorisation is the first step towards personalised and effective treatment strategies.

These manifestations of insomnia not only compromise the quality of nocturnal rest but can also impact daytime functionality, thereby diminishing overall quality of life. The recognition of these symptoms is pivotal in the pursuit of a diagnosis and the formulation of a tailored treatment plan. Addressing these symptoms can mitigate the risk of further complications associated with chronic sleep deprivation, including cognitive impairment and mood disorders.

Exploring the Causes

Causes of Insomnia
Causes of insomnia

Exploring the diverse origins of insomnia is essential for tailoring effective treatment strategies. Several factors contribute to this sleep disorder, ranging from lifestyle choices to physiological conditions:

  • Lifestyle and Environmental Factors:
    • Regular use of electronic devices before bedtime may inhibit the onset of sleep.
    • Consuming heavy meals close to bedtime or having an uncomfortable sleep environment can interfere with sleep quality.
    • Irregular sleep schedules, such as those caused by shift work or jet lag, disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms, leading to sleep disturbances.
  • Physiological and Health-Related Factors:
    • Certain medical conditions, including chronic pain, diabetes, and heart disease, can precipitate insomnia.
    • Mental health disorders like anxiety and depression are closely linked with sleep disruptions, often creating a cyclical pattern of sleep disturbance and emotional distress.
    • Specific sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnoea and restless legs syndrome, are directly associated with insomnia.
  • Demographic and Genetic Factors:
    • Older adults may experience insomnia due to age-related changes in sleep patterns, social isolation, or health concerns.
    • Women, particularly during pregnancy, are more susceptible to insomnia because of hormonal and bodily changes.
    • Genetic predispositions can also influence one’s likelihood of experiencing insomnia, suggesting that some individuals are inherently more prone to sleep disturbances.

Understanding these causes is pivotal in addressing insomnia, as it informs the selection of appropriate treatments and management strategies. By acknowledging the complexity of factors at play, individuals and healthcare providers can work towards mitigating the impact of this prevalent sleep disorder.

Impact of Insomnia on Daily Life

Impacts of Insomnia
Impacts of insomnia

Insomnia, far from being a mere nighttime nuisance, can ripple through every aspect of an individual’s life, from their physical health to their mental well-being. The consequences of this sleep disorder are varied and, at times, severe:

  • Day-to-Day Functioning:
    • Energy levels are often the first casualty, with individuals experiencing a persistent lack of vitality.
    • Memory can become unreliable, with simple recollections turning into a struggle.
    • Mood swings may become a common occurrence, with irritability and emotional volatility on the rise.
    • Concentration suffers, making tasks that require focus and precision increasingly difficult.
  • Long-Term Health Implications:
    • The risk of severe health issues escalates, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and a variety of psychiatric and neurological conditions.
    • Insomnia often intertwines with other medical and psychiatric conditions, notably depression, where up to 85% of patients report sleep disturbances.
    • The economic burden is also notable, with adults facing up to 60% greater healthcare costs, often due to the over utilisation of healthcare services.
  • Specific Populations and Complications:
    • Cancer patients may find insomnia exacerbates fatigue and contributes to immunosuppression, potentially impacting treatment outcomes.
    • Those with traumatic brain injury (TBI) or neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s may find symptoms worsened by insomnia.
    • A multitude of complications can arise from prolonged sleep deprivation, including daytime sleepiness, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obstructive sleep apnoea, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and conditions involving psychosis.

By recognising the pervasive impact of insomnia on daily life, the importance of seeking appropriate treatments and management strategies becomes clear. It is not only about improving nighttime rest but also about safeguarding one’s overall health and quality of life.

Treatment Options for Insomnia

Treatment options for Insomnia
Treatment options for insomnia

Treating insomnia involves a multi-pronged approach that addresses both the symptoms and underlying causes of this sleep disorder. The following treatment options are commonly used to improve sleep quality and enhance overall well-being:

1. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for insomnia, often referred to as CBT-I, is a structured program that helps you identify and replace thoughts and behaviours that cause or worsen sleep problems with habits that promote sound sleep. Unlike pills, CBT-I addresses the underlying causes of insomnia. The process typically involves:

  • Sleep Education: Understanding how sleep works and the factors that affect it.
  • Stimulus Control Therapy: Restricting the bed and bedroom for sleep and sex only, thus strengthening the association between bed and sleep.
  • Sleep Restriction: Limiting the amount of time spent in bed to the actual time spent sleeping, thereby increasing sleep efficiency.
  • Relaxation Techniques: Methods such as muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and mindfulness to reduce body tension and control racing thoughts.
  • Sleep Hygiene: Improving sleep environment and habits, like reducing caffeine and creating a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Cognitive Therapy: Identifying and challenging beliefs about sleep that may cause anxiety and worsen insomnia.

2. Prescription Medications

Healthcare providers may prescribe different types of medication to assist with sleep, including:

  • Benzodiazepine Receptor Agonists: Increase GABA activity to promote sleep.
  • Melatonin Receptor Agonists: Mimic the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin.
  • Orexin Receptor Antagonists: Block orexin, a neurotransmitter that regulates wakefulness.
  • Benzodiazepines: Enhance GABA activity but are typically considered for short-term use due to dependency risks.

These medications can be effective but may come with side effects and risks of dependency.

3. Over-the-Counter (OTC) Aids

OTC sleep aids usually contain antihistamines that can induce drowsiness. While they are accessible and can provide temporary relief, their use can lead to:

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Dizziness
  • Prolonged drowsiness, known as the “hangover effect”

4. Lifestyle and Home Remedies

Incorporating healthy lifestyle habits can significantly improve sleep quality:

  • Regular Physical Activity: Enhances sleep quality but should be avoided close to bedtime.
  • Stress Management: Techniques such as journaling, meditation, or therapy to reduce stress levels.
  • Consistent Sleep Schedule: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day to regulate your body’s clock.
  • Avoiding Stimulants: Limiting intake of caffeine and nicotine, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime.

5. Alternative Treatments

Alternative treatments may include:

  • Melatonin Supplements: Mimic the natural sleep hormone.
  • Valerian Root: A herbal supplement with potential sleep-inducing effects.
  • Acupuncture: Traditional Chinese medicine technique that may help with sleep.
  • Mind-Body Practices: Yoga, tai chi, and meditation can reduce stress and improve sleep patterns.

6. Light Therapy

Light therapy involves exposure to a bright light source in the morning to help reset the body’s circadian rhythm. This treatment is especially useful for:

  • People with circadian rhythm disorders.
  • Those experiencing sleep phase delay, where they fall asleep very late and have difficulty waking up in time for commitments.

7. Medical Cannabis

Medical cannabis is sometimes considered as a potential treatment for insomnia.

  • Mechanism: It includes compounds such as THC and CBD, which may influence sleep by interacting with the body’s endocannabinoid system.
  • Research: Ongoing studies aim to assess its effectiveness and safety for treating sleep disorders.
  • Regulation: The recommendation and regulation of its use for insomnia vary widely due to differing legislation across states and countries.
  • Considerations: It is essential to consider potential side effects, the risk of dependency, and the legal status in the patient’s region before opting for medical cannabis as a treatment option.

Each of these treatment options offers a different approach to managing insomnia, and their effectiveness can vary from person to person. It’s crucial to consult with a healthcare provider to determine the most appropriate treatment based on individual health needs and conditions.

Prevention and Managing Insomnia

Preventing and managing insomnia effectively involves a combination of healthy sleep practices and behavioural strategies. Here are crucial steps to consider:

  • Sleep Environment Optimisation: Creating a bedroom that encourages sleep is essential. This means maintaining a cool, quiet, and dark environment to promote uninterrupted sleep. Consider using blackout curtains, earplugs, or white noise machines if necessary.
  • Regular Sleep Schedule: Consistency is key when it comes to sleep. Aim to wake up at the same time every morning, even if the amount of sleep the night before was less than ideal. This helps regulate the body’s internal clock and can improve sleep over time.
  • Mindful Substance Use: Avoiding stimulants like caffeine and nicotine before bedtime is crucial, as they can hinder the ability to fall asleep. Similarly, while alcohol may initially induce drowsiness, it can disrupt sleep later in the night, so it’s best avoided in the hours leading up to bedtime.

Incorporating these practices can significantly reduce the likelihood of developing insomnia and assist in managing the sleep disorder should it occur. For those already experiencing insomnia, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) offers a structured approach over 6 to 8 weeks, focusing on cognitive therapy, relaxation techniques, and education about sleep to improve sleep patterns and quality. Additionally, establishing a day-night routine and learning stress management techniques can be particularly beneficial for managing short-term insomnia, helping to reduce anxiety and promote a restful night’s sleep. Preparing for a medical appointment with a sleep diary and a list of symptoms can also be instrumental in diagnosing and treating insomnia effectively.


Ultimately, addressing the complexities and impact of insomnia is essential for not only improving nighttime rest but also enhancing the overall quality of life. The exploration of various causes, from lifestyle choices to physiological factors, underscores the importance of personalised and comprehensive treatment strategies. Recognition of symptoms and early intervention with options like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, prescription medications, and home remedies can significantly mitigate the debilitating consequences of sleep deprivation.

While it’s important to remain open-minded about new remedies, traditional treatments coupled with established prevention strategies offer the most effective approach to managing insomnia. Regular sleep schedules, creating a sleep-conducive environment, and engaging in relaxation techniques can pave the way to restful slumber. For further understanding and to explore more detailed management options for insomnia, engaging with trusted healthcare resources is recommended.

Written by

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

Written by

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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