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What Is Insomnia and How to Defeat It?

written by / June 7, 2021
What Is Insomnia - Featured

The luckiest among us fall asleep as soon as they touch the bed. Some may take 10–20 minutes more, which is ok too. However, more and more people are “hitting a wall” when trying to get some quality shut-eye. 

Not only that, but lots of people are waking up throughout the night or early in the morning before reaching the “full” mark on satisfying rest. These are insomniacs—individuals affected by a condition called insomnia.

But what is insomnia exactly? Insomnia is a sleep disorder that can have many causes, two symptoms, and one end result—poor sleep. 

This slumber misery can negatively impact every aspect of the lives of those concerned and can even make their lives shorter. 

But how can we recognize, prevent, and treat insomnia? Find out everything in the lines below.

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia falls into the category of sleeping disorders. The shortest definition describes it as the difficulty of falling asleep and sustaining sleep.

Luckily, for many who experience it, insomnia is just a passing difficulty, but for a quarter of those affected will become a lasting issue.

An average adult needs at least seven hours of sleep per day, and shorter sleep can have serious consequences on health and overall wellbeing.

So, how do I know I have insomnia?

In general, these are the signs that should trigger your insomnia alarm: 

  • If you need more than half an hour to fall asleep on multiple occasions
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night and then you’re unable to fall back asleep
  • If you wake up early even though you’re not properly rested  

Types of Insomnia

Insomnia is the most common of sleeping disorders. Stats show that about 95% of Americans have experienced at least one episode of insomnia in their lifetime. 

But there are several forms of insomnia, depending on their causes, symptoms, and the duration of insomnia episodes. 

Types by Duration

How long have you been sleepless? This is the first question you’ll get from your physician when you complain of insomnia. The answer is crucial to determine what kind of treatment you should take and which of the following two different types of insomnia you have: 

  • Acute, short-term or transient insomnia—It lasts up to several weeks. 
  • Chronic or long-term insomnia—It lasts for over three months, with the frequency of at least three nights per week.

The acute form of insomnia is also called adjustment insomnia and is fairly common. Sometimes it’s even considered a normal reaction to stressful life events such as: 

  • having a serious accident
  • losing a loved one
  • becoming a parent
  • starting  a new job
  • jet lag

While most of the time, an acute type of insomnia resolves on its own, it can also progress into a chronic problem. That’s why it’s important to recognize it on time and treat it if necessary.

On the other hand, chronic insomnia doesn’t go away on its own and thus always requires professional treatment. About 10–15% of insomniacs in the US suffer from long-lasting insomnia. 

Types by Manifestations

The manifestations of insomnia are actually its main symptoms. Since the treatment depends on the main symptom of insomnia, this sleep disorder can be classified as:

  • Sleep-onset insomnia—when patients struggle to fall asleep.
  • Sleep sustaining insomnia (middle insomnia)—when people keep waking up during the night. 
  • Mixed insomnia—a combination of the two symptoms above, interchanging over time.

Types by Insomnia Causes

Treating insomnia is impossible without understanding its underlying causes. For this purpose, insomniacs are categorized as having:

  • Primary insomnia—which occurs due to several reasons, explained in the three subtypes:  
    • Idiopathic (insomnia that occurs for no apparent reason)
    • Stress-related insomnia
    • SSM (sleep state misperception) where people falsely believe they are not getting enough sleep.
  • Secondary insomnia (comorbid insomnia)—which happens as a result of another health condition such as:
    • organic illness
    • mental illness
    • the medical treatment of these conditions

Causes of Insomnia

By the looks of it, human sleep is pretty fragile. Indeed, there are so many different triggers of insomnia that the list is quite long. 

Anything from acute stress to hormonal changes can alter our sleep. So it is up to the medical care practitioner to identify the cause. 

The diagnosis can be reached by

  • physical examination 
  • any insomnia test (sleep disorder test)
  • looking at the anamnesis 
  • additional organic illness tests 

Acute Stress

Stress can alter your sleeping and eating habits. However, as long as it is short-lived, the sleeplessness that appears as a result of it will likely disappear once the stress is gone. 

These are some examples of acute stress that can cause insomnia:

  • the changing of seasons
  • jet lag
  • organizing big events such as a wedding
  • death of a loved one
  • going through divorce
  • losing a job or changing a job position

Mental Health Problems

The so-called comorbid insomnia is associated with an organic or mental disease. 

Indeed, many studies prove it—worsened mental health and insomnia go hand in hand. They have a bidirectional relationship, which makes it difficult to determine what is the cause and what is the consequence.

Some of the main culprits for this type of sleeplessness include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Organic Diseases

Insomnia could also be a result of some underlying organic disease. 

So, in terms of health conditions, what causes insomnia?

  • Chronic diseases that are painful such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and cancer
  • Health conditions that result in hormonal disbalance such as hyperthyroidism and  Cushing syndrome
  • Neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cardiovascular diseases such as heart failure and arrhythmias
  • COVID-19
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, etc.

Some Medication

Many health conditions are treated with insomnia-inducing medications. So, if the onset of your insomnia symptoms coincides with starting a new prescription drug, you should probably look into it. 

These are some of the medication types that can cause insomnia:  

  • sedatives
  • antidepressants
  • blood pressure medications
  • corticosteroids
  • nasal decongestants
  • oral decongestants
  • ADHD medication
  • beta-blockers 
  • asthma medication
  • medication for Alzheimer’s disease
  • substitutes for nicotine
  • anticonvulsants

Other Common Causes of Insomnia

In this category are the environmental, personal, and other reasons for insomnia such as:

  • the comfiness of your mattress, bed, or bed frame 
  • noise, ambient temperature, and humidity 
  • sleeping hygiene
  • eating habits
  • lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking coffee, or alcohol
  • work schedule
  • negative thinking patterns such as constant worries.

Risk Factors 

Insomnia is very common. According to one sleep model statistic, every third American suffers from insomnia. 

That said, not everyone runs the same risks of ever developing it. The complete list of insomnia risk factors is long, including things such as lifestyle, job position, and outlook on life.

While we have some control over these, there are some other insomnia risk factors that we can’t change. These include age, race, and genetic predisposition. 

So, who suffers from insomnia? The breakdown of risk factors below will give you the answer.

Seniors

It’s a well-known fact that insomnia rates increase with age. Studies found that people over 65 are 1.5 times more likely to have sleep problems than younger people. 

The reasons behind this can be the more frequent chronic conditions or the natural shift and changes of sleep parameters as we age. 

For example, bladder issues are quite common among seniors. Consequently, waking up to urinate during the night is one of the main middle insomnia causes.

In addition, the quality of sleep deteriorates in older people and there is a reduction of slow-wave sleep (SWS)Usually, the sleep-wake cycle also changes. Typically, this means going to bed earlier and waking up earlier. 

However, this doesn’t necessarily result in insomnia.

Women

Following the results from the sleeping model discussed above, women are about 1.3 times more likely to become insomniacs than men.  

So, what is the reason behind it? What causes insomnia in females?

  • Fluctuating hormones 

Hormones are in charge of all bodily processes. While both sexes have them, the particularity for women is their fluctuation. Changes in hormone levels on a monthly basis, when pregnant, and during menopause can cause insomnia.

  • Mental load

In today’s (still) patriarchal society, the mental load mainly falls on women’s shoulders. This means that women are typically in charge of organizing household chores. Having too many tasks to organize and worry about can steal women’s well-earned z’s.  

  • Mood disorders

What is insomnia if not the most common manifestation of a mental health issue? That said, women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with mental disorders, as per recent statistics.

  • Parenting

Women typically have more day-to-day parenting responsibilities than men. This can lead to emotional and physical exhaustion and insomnia.

COVID-19 Survivors

Regardless of the severity of their coronavirus infection, some patients experience long-lasting effects of the disease even after recovery. 

Besides the typical COVID-19 symptoms, insomnia, anxiety, and fear of falling asleep are also common among those that fought with the disease.

What’s more, the treatment of coronavirus-induced insomnia is tricky, since the reasons behind it are not yet fully understood. 

Chronic Disease Patients

Any chronic illness, especially a painful one, can lead to difficulty dozing off. In addition, some medications you take to treat the chronic disease can influence your sleep as well. That’s why it’s important to change your treatment as soon as you feel the onset of insomnia.

People with Mental Disorders

Insomnia is part of the clinical picture of many mental diseases. Therefore, for these patients, treating and stabilizing their mental condition will also mean fighting off insomnia. 

Racial Minorities

Unfortunately, there are still many social and healthcare disparities between Caucasians and racial minorities. Consequently, this leads to a higher incidence of insomnia among people of color. 

For example, African Americans are more likely to suffer from shift work sleep disorder. Plus, they face higher stress levels because of racial discrimination.

In addition to all that, African Americans who suffer from severe chronic insomnia, as well as those with an acute form, wait longer for diagnosis and treatment because they have trouble getting quality medical treatment.  

The Stressed Out

Being under a lot of stress can increase your chances of developing insomnia. Stress can have multiple causes, including the following:

Work-Related Stress

  • hectic working schedule
  • stressful work environment
  • conflicts with co-workers and managers
  • dissatisfaction with work activities or position

Stress-Inducing Thinking Patterns 

Negative and repetitive thoughts make you lose sleep. While they are rarely the cause of sleep maintenance insomnia, they usually delay the onset of sleep. 

  • unrealistic expectations for sleep duration
  • OCD
  • catastrophizing
  • overgeneralization
  • selective attention
  • lack of optimism 
  • low self-esteem

People with Certain Lifestyle Choices 

Your lifestyle can influence your sleep in more than one way. Knowing this can help you combat insomnia without paying for medication or alternative treatments. 

Eating and Drinking Habits That Affect Sleep

  • Eating spicy, caloric food before going to bed can leave you sleepless
  • Drinking coffee, alcohol, energy drinks, and even too much water before bedtime
  • Smoking cigarettes

Poor Sleeping Hygiene

  • Chronic insomnia treatment may include following a strict schedule for waking up and going to bed during the week, which is the basics of maintaining good sleeping hygiene.

Other Sleep-Killing Behaviors and Habits

  • Using your mobile phone, working on a computer, or watching TV before going to bed
  • Exercising or doing other stimulating activities right before bedtime

The Genetically Predisposed

A recent study confirms what scientists have long suspected—insomnia can be hereditary. That said, genes are not enough to cause insomnia. They have to be triggered by external factors. 

Symptoms of Insomnia

The most common complaints of patients who have insomnia are these:

  • difficulty falling asleep at night
  • waking up during the night, once or multiple times
  • waking up too early
  • daytime sleepiness
  • fatigue
  • low blood pressure
  • mood troubles such as irritability, depression, anxiety
  • cognitive disorders such as hyperactivity, reduced memory, and lack of focus
  • falling asleep behind the wheel
  • digestion issues
  • headaches
  • hallucinations (only in extreme insomnia cases

Consequences of Insomnia 

If left untreated, insomnia can have some of these negative effects:

  • mental and physical exhaustion
  • low professional performance
  • social isolation
  • higher risk of motor vehicle accidents
  • mental health disorders
  • substance abuse
  • hypertension
  • heart conditions such as arrhythmias and heart failure
  • asthma, COPD, and other respiratory conditions
  • increased susceptibility to infection 
  • developing fibromyalgia or another kind of chronic pain
  • gaining weight
  • metabolic syndrome

Prevention 

Understanding what is insomnia and what causes it is indispensable for proper preventive actions. 

But since many things may affect the quality of our sleep, preventing insomnia primarily means taking good care of your physical and mental health.

That said, there are some everyday steps you can undertake to avoid falling into the hands of sleeplessness:

  • Make sure you sleep on a good-quality bed or sleeper sofa
  • Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day.
  • Don’t eat spicy and fatty foods or large meals before going to bed.
  • Be physically active every day.
  • Try some home remedies for insomnia such as breathing exercises.
  • Limit napping time.
  • Turn off electric devices such as a TV, phone, and laptop at least one hour before going to bed.
  • Take your medical treatment for pain regularly.
  • Treat specific pain with specialized pillows such as pillows for neck pain, knee pain, and similar.
  • Practice relaxing techniques.
  • Don’t use your bed for other activities different from sleeping and sex.
  • Consult a therapist if you have negative or repetitive thoughts.
  • Limit the consumption of coffee and other stimulants.
  • Don’t drink alcohol.
  • Stop smoking.

As you’ll find out below, preventive measures can sometimes coincide with natural remedies for insomnia.

Treatment

Specific treatment is not needed for every type of insomnia. More precisely, acute insomnia tends to resolve on its own. Nevertheless, you should take action if you experience persistent sleep troubles which continue for more than a month.

When treating insomnia, the physician’s main task is to identify what is causing it. Depending on the type of insomnia, they should decide what type of treatment is best suited and whether the use of medication is necessary or not.

Types of Insomnia Treatments

Non-Drug Insomnia Treatment 

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapeutic approach. CBT is an effective treatment for anxiety, depression, and stress-related insomnia. One of its major benefits is that it doesn’t have any side effects.
  • Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation can help your body and mind relax and prepare for sleep.
  • Treatments for relaxation such as acupuncture, massages, and others.
  • Regular exercise (not close to bedtime) 
  • Changes in sleeping habits—Good sleep hygiene is important to anyone who’s struggling to figure out how to cure insomnia. It includes turning off any electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime, avoiding certain foods and drinks in the evening, and keeping naps short.
  • Changing dietary habits—paying attention to what and when we eat and drink falls into this category.  
  • Devices for insomnia—Gadgets such as blue-light filtering glasses or white noise machines can help us fall asleep quicker.
  • Create a soothing sleep environment by eliminating noise, turning off lights, and covering up with a good-quality weighted blanket. You can find more useful tips and tricks in our article on a healthy sleep environment.

So now you know how to treat insomnia naturally without medication.

Over–the–Counter Insomnia Remedies

Some over-the-counter medications can have sleep-inducing effects. These include:

  • Herbal products such as those containing extracts from chamomile, valerian, or kava;
  • Melatonin supplements—Melatonin is a hormone that has a role in the regulation of the sleep-wake cycle;
  • Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine and doxylamine;
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) oil and other CBD-containing foods or drinks.

Prescribed Medications for Insomnia

The so-called sleeping pills are generally reserved for the treatment of severe forms of insomnia, regardless of its duration. That said, doctors are careful about prescribing these for long-term use since most of them can have negative side effects.

There are plenty of medications commonly used for chronic insomnia treatment and they can be divided into these pharmaceutical groups:

  • Benzodiazepines 
  • Histamine-receptor blockers 
  • Antidepressants
  • Melatonin receptor agonists
  • Orexin receptor antagonists 

Conclusion

Although things might look scary when sleep slips away from our grip, there are plenty of solutions for this problem. Finding the right one is a bit trickier. That’s why we made a concise list of the most probable causes.

Understanding what is insomnia makes the fight easier, or better said, it makes it easier to let go. So, educate yourself and take action before it’s too late.

FAQs

What is primary insomnia?

Primary insomnia is insomnia whose cause isn’t obvious. It’s usually triggered by acute stress, discomfort, or altered perception of sleep (sleep state misperception or SSM). Unlike secondary insomnia, primary insomnia isn’t caused by any underlying disease.  

What is chronic insomnia?

Insomnia that lasts over three months with a frequency of over three nights per week is considered a chronic condition.

Chronic sleeplessness requires medical treatment and more severe forms require prescription medication. 

What are the 3 types of insomnia?

  • Sleep-onset insomnia happens when people can’t fall asleep in 30 minutes.
  • Sleep sustaining insomnia—Those who suffer from this type of insomnia may fall asleep fast, but wake up during the night. This is why it is also called middle-of-the-night insomnia.
  • Mixed insomnia is when both falling and staying asleep are problematic.

What happens during insomnia?

Insomnia leads to excessive daytime sleepiness, which directly impacts a person’s ability to drive or operate machinery, and also leads to reduced mental and memory functions. 

Not being able to recover from lack of sleep affects a person’s mood, and can trigger anxiety and depression. Plus, insomnia can aggravate an underlying disease.

Here are some facts about lack of sleep:

  • Going 17 hours without sleep is equivalent to having a 0.5 blood alcohol content.
  • Insomnia increases appetite by 25%.
  • 1/5 of road accidents are linked to chronic insomnia.

How do I get rid of sleepless nights?

  • Identify what’s causing your insomnia.
  • Change your before-bed habits such as watching TV or using another blue-light emitting device. 
  • Don’t overeat or eat spicy foods before going to bed.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol consumption in the evening.
  • Check the possible side effects of any medication that you’re taking.
  • Do medical tests to exclude any underlying cause.
  • Sleep in a dark and quiet environment.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Practice relaxing techniques such as meditation, yoga, etc.
  • Quit smoking.

Can you die from insomnia?

There’s only one type of insomnia that is deadly, and that is fatal familial insomnia, which is actually a degenerative disease of the brain.

If you’re not suffering from it, you have nothing to worry about! There’s zero evidence that insomnia can kill you. Moreover, the world record for staying awake is eleven days!

That said, insomnia increases your risk of heart disease, hypertension, and respiratory infections.

Can insomnia be cured permanently?

Fortunately, yes! Insomnia can be cured if the underlying cause is properly diagnosed. In the best-case scenario, you’ll just have to change the medical treatment you’re taking. 

Another option is making some lifestyle changes, which can be pretty hard. Also, if psychological issues are keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep, then there’s hard work in front of you. 

That said, going to therapy, doing relaxation exercises, and practicing cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you restore your sleep.

Other therapies include sleeping pills, electrostatic stimulation, or over-the-counter remedies.

What foods cause insomnia?

There are a few foods that can keep you from falling asleep:

  • Red meat – Foods that are high in fat and protein are more difficult to digest so they can keep you awake.
  • Spicy foods – Whether it’s a super-hot curry or a spicy chili sauce, these foods cause indigestion and may increase body temperature. Therefore, they can disrupt sleep.
  • Fried foods – French fries, eggs, and everything else deliciously fried in a pan should be removed from your menu in the evening if you want to fall asleep quickly.
  • Chocolate and other cocoa products – Besides caffeine, chocolate contains other stimulants, including tyrosine and theobromine. These amino acids can cause an increased heart rate.
  • Tomatoes – Tomatoes are acidic, which again affects digestion, making it hard to sleep.
  • Salads – Their high water content will likely lead to several night-time trips to the bathroom, which will disturb your sleep.

Can insomnia go away on its own?

The acute form of insomnia can disappear on its own. After the initial shock of whatever change you might be going through, your body and mind will adapt to it, and you’ll be able to doze off soon enough. 

For the chronic type of insomnia, you’ll need to identify the culprit and take adequate action to eliminate it. This typically includes seeking medical advice. 

Educating yourself on what is insomnia can help you identify it easier and start treating it on time. 

At medical school, it was easy to realize that sleep is crucial while studying during the many sleepless nights I spent. As a new mom, when the lack of sleep became even more evident, this was the real moment when I started appreciating the benefits of a good night’s sleep. Since sleeping is so essential to our health and immune system, I took it upon myself to educate people on different aspects of sleep by sharing the valuable information I have learned.