What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that can affect people in one or both of two ways – either they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.  Either way it means they don’t get enough good quality sleep and don’t feel refreshed when they get up in the morning.


Insomnia is generally said to be either acute or chronic, the first being a short-term condition while the second is an ongoing condition.  Acute insomnia can be caused by things such as stress, family or work pressure or a traumatic event.  It typically lasts from days to weeks.

Chronic insomnia lasts at least a month or longer.  Many times, it is a secondary condition, meaning it is a symptom or a side effect of something else.  Some medical conditions or medicines can cause insomnia.

When insomnia is the primary condition, it isn’t because of a medical problem but tends to be triggered by a life event.  This can be long-lasting stress or emotional issues though the complete causes are uncertain.


Insomnia causes daytime sleepiness as well as a lack of energy.  It can bring on feelings of anxiety and depression and make people irritable.  Focusing on tasks can become difficult and attention span, ability to learn things and to remember things can all be effected.  This means it can have a serious effect on work or school life.

Insomnia can also lead to other serious problems.  For example, the lack of concentration can effect ability to drive leading to an accident.  Or operating machinery when suffering from daytime sleepiness could lead to an injury.


The first step to treating insomnia is to identify the underlying cause of the problem if it is a secondary condition.  It may be something as simple as caffeine before bedtime causing you to be unable to fall asleep so by cutting out caffeine around three to four hours before bedtime, this can be alleviated.

Some of the main medication conditions that see insomnia as a secondary effect can include:

  • Conditions that cause chronic, ongoing pain including arthritis and headache problems
  • Respiratory conditions such as asthma
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Gastrointestinal disorders including heartburn
  • Stroke or heart failure
  • Menopause including hot flashes
  • Other sleep disorders including restless leg syndrome and sleep-related respiratory problems

Emotional disorders are another likely cause of insomnia with conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD being major issues.  Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease have both been shown to have insomnia as a secondary condition.

Certain medicines have been shown to cause insomnia including asthma medicines such as theophylline and also cold and allergy medicines.  Beta-blockers cause insomnia also.


Doctors use a range of tools to diagnose insomnia and find any underlying causes.  The primary way they understand the condition is by asking about your sleep history.  This can include information about:

  • how often you have trouble sleeping
  • how long it takes to fall asleep or how often you wake during the night
  • whether you snore loudly or wake with feelings of gasping
  • how refreshed you feel when you wake
  • if you doze off during the day or have trouble doing tasks because you are not properly awake

Doctors will often ask you to keep a sleep diary for a week or two detailing when you go to sleep, naps taken and when you wake up.  If you think you have problems, it can be worth starting this immediately.


Obviously, treatment is wholly dependent on what type of insomnia you have and any underlying causes that are uncovered.  Treatment can be as simple as changes to lifestyle such as the caffeine tip mentioned earlier, changing sleep routines or the make-up of your bedroom.

Another method used is CNT – Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.  This is designed to target thoughts and actions that disrupt sleep and alter them in a positive way.

Sometimes over the counter medicines can help the conditions and herbal remedies such as some teas can be beneficial.  As a last resort, doctors will sometimes prescribe medication for short or long-term use to get you sleeping once more.

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