What Is Insomnia?

Reviewed Jan 19, 2017

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Summary

  • Acute insomnia can be caused by stress and traumatic events.
  • Ongoing insomnia is most often caused by another health condition, a sleep disorder or substance use.
  • CBT can be an effective treatment for insomnia.

If you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or both, you may have insomnia. People who have insomnia may not get enough sleep or get poor quality sleep. They may also wake too early. Insomnia is common, affecting about 10 percent of people in the United States. People who have insomnia lack enough or good quality sleep each night for at least two weeks.

Insomnia can lead to fatigue during the day and low energy. As a result, you may have a hard time with tasks, learning and remembering. Insomnia can also lead to depressed and anxious feelings. What’s more, lack of sleep can lead to harmful accidents behind the wheel or on the job.

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia can be short-term, or acute. Stress or traumatic events can cause the acute kind. Acute insomnia often lasts for days or weeks and is common. Ongoing insomnia—or chronic insomnia—lasts for one month or longer. Chronic insomnia is most often caused by something else. Causes include health conditions, medicines, sleep disorders and substance use.

In fact, many health conditions can cause insomnia, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Chronic pain, such as from arthritis or headaches
  • Asthma
  • Heart failure
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Heartburn
  • Stroke
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Sleep apnea and other sleep-related breathing problems
  • Menopause and hot flashes

Insomnia that is not due to another problem is primary. It is its own disorder. It can be linked to long-term stress or emotional troubles.

Insomnia’s toll

Insomnia can be very taxing for those who have it, more of whom are women. Lucy Welch, 40, has dealt with four bouts of insomnia that have each lasted longer than one month. One of these bouts hit after having her daughter. Her sleep patterns were so altered that it was easy for insomnia to creep in. “You can’t function during the day. You truly exist in a haze. You dread the night when everyone else is asleep and you’re not,” says Welch. Now, if she has a couple of rough nights, she faces anxiety about whether she will be able to fall and stay asleep. As Welch notes, “It only takes two to three days to get back to full-blown insomnia, and you feel doomed.”

First steps

Make sure to see a doctor if you are sleepy during the day or can’t fall asleep at night. He or she may suggest you see an expert, who may suggest an overnight sleep study to get to the root of the problem. You will also need to work with a doctor to treat other health problems that can affect sleep. You can also help yourself with healthy sleep habits. Try to keep a sleep schedule and skip caffeine. Relaxing before bedtime can also help.

Treating insomnia

For acute insomnia, medicines can provide relief but should only be used for short periods of time. This can be helpful if you are dealing with a very stressful life event. If you have the chronic kind, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help. Also called CBT, this therapy teaches you to adjust habits that cause sleep trouble. Often, experts suggest CBT over medicine. It can also be a good choice for people worried about becoming dependent on medicine. But your doctor may still suggest certain medicines on top of CBT. If medicines and CBT don’t work, you may need to go to a sleep center for more tests and treatment.

Whichever treatment is right for you, the important thing is to ask for help. As Welch warns, it can only get worse if you don’t. Don’t suffer alone—help is available.

Resources

National Sleep Foundation
www.sleepfoundation.org

American Academy of Sleep Medicine
www.yoursleep.aasmnet.org

By Sarah Stone
Source: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/inso/; Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/in-depth/insomnia-treatment/art-20046677; Office on Women's Health, www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/insomnia.html; U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health; www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000805.htm; Ramar, M.D. Kannan and Olson, M.D., Eric. J. (2013) "Management of Common Sleep Disorders." American Family Physician, Volume 88(4);231-238.
Reviewed by Gary R. Proctor, MD, Associate Chief Medical Officer, Beacon Health Options

Summary

  • Acute insomnia can be caused by stress and traumatic events.
  • Ongoing insomnia is most often caused by another health condition, a sleep disorder or substance use.
  • CBT can be an effective treatment for insomnia.

If you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or both, you may have insomnia. People who have insomnia may not get enough sleep or get poor quality sleep. They may also wake too early. Insomnia is common, affecting about 10 percent of people in the United States. People who have insomnia lack enough or good quality sleep each night for at least two weeks.

Insomnia can lead to fatigue during the day and low energy. As a result, you may have a hard time with tasks, learning and remembering. Insomnia can also lead to depressed and anxious feelings. What’s more, lack of sleep can lead to harmful accidents behind the wheel or on the job.

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia can be short-term, or acute. Stress or traumatic events can cause the acute kind. Acute insomnia often lasts for days or weeks and is common. Ongoing insomnia—or chronic insomnia—lasts for one month or longer. Chronic insomnia is most often caused by something else. Causes include health conditions, medicines, sleep disorders and substance use.

In fact, many health conditions can cause insomnia, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Chronic pain, such as from arthritis or headaches
  • Asthma
  • Heart failure
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Heartburn
  • Stroke
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Sleep apnea and other sleep-related breathing problems
  • Menopause and hot flashes

Insomnia that is not due to another problem is primary. It is its own disorder. It can be linked to long-term stress or emotional troubles.

Insomnia’s toll

Insomnia can be very taxing for those who have it, more of whom are women. Lucy Welch, 40, has dealt with four bouts of insomnia that have each lasted longer than one month. One of these bouts hit after having her daughter. Her sleep patterns were so altered that it was easy for insomnia to creep in. “You can’t function during the day. You truly exist in a haze. You dread the night when everyone else is asleep and you’re not,” says Welch. Now, if she has a couple of rough nights, she faces anxiety about whether she will be able to fall and stay asleep. As Welch notes, “It only takes two to three days to get back to full-blown insomnia, and you feel doomed.”

First steps

Make sure to see a doctor if you are sleepy during the day or can’t fall asleep at night. He or she may suggest you see an expert, who may suggest an overnight sleep study to get to the root of the problem. You will also need to work with a doctor to treat other health problems that can affect sleep. You can also help yourself with healthy sleep habits. Try to keep a sleep schedule and skip caffeine. Relaxing before bedtime can also help.

Treating insomnia

For acute insomnia, medicines can provide relief but should only be used for short periods of time. This can be helpful if you are dealing with a very stressful life event. If you have the chronic kind, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help. Also called CBT, this therapy teaches you to adjust habits that cause sleep trouble. Often, experts suggest CBT over medicine. It can also be a good choice for people worried about becoming dependent on medicine. But your doctor may still suggest certain medicines on top of CBT. If medicines and CBT don’t work, you may need to go to a sleep center for more tests and treatment.

Whichever treatment is right for you, the important thing is to ask for help. As Welch warns, it can only get worse if you don’t. Don’t suffer alone—help is available.

Resources

National Sleep Foundation
www.sleepfoundation.org

American Academy of Sleep Medicine
www.yoursleep.aasmnet.org

By Sarah Stone
Source: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/inso/; Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/in-depth/insomnia-treatment/art-20046677; Office on Women's Health, www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/insomnia.html; U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health; www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000805.htm; Ramar, M.D. Kannan and Olson, M.D., Eric. J. (2013) "Management of Common Sleep Disorders." American Family Physician, Volume 88(4);231-238.
Reviewed by Gary R. Proctor, MD, Associate Chief Medical Officer, Beacon Health Options

Summary

  • Acute insomnia can be caused by stress and traumatic events.
  • Ongoing insomnia is most often caused by another health condition, a sleep disorder or substance use.
  • CBT can be an effective treatment for insomnia.

If you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or both, you may have insomnia. People who have insomnia may not get enough sleep or get poor quality sleep. They may also wake too early. Insomnia is common, affecting about 10 percent of people in the United States. People who have insomnia lack enough or good quality sleep each night for at least two weeks.

Insomnia can lead to fatigue during the day and low energy. As a result, you may have a hard time with tasks, learning and remembering. Insomnia can also lead to depressed and anxious feelings. What’s more, lack of sleep can lead to harmful accidents behind the wheel or on the job.

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia can be short-term, or acute. Stress or traumatic events can cause the acute kind. Acute insomnia often lasts for days or weeks and is common. Ongoing insomnia—or chronic insomnia—lasts for one month or longer. Chronic insomnia is most often caused by something else. Causes include health conditions, medicines, sleep disorders and substance use.

In fact, many health conditions can cause insomnia, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Chronic pain, such as from arthritis or headaches
  • Asthma
  • Heart failure
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Heartburn
  • Stroke
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Sleep apnea and other sleep-related breathing problems
  • Menopause and hot flashes

Insomnia that is not due to another problem is primary. It is its own disorder. It can be linked to long-term stress or emotional troubles.

Insomnia’s toll

Insomnia can be very taxing for those who have it, more of whom are women. Lucy Welch, 40, has dealt with four bouts of insomnia that have each lasted longer than one month. One of these bouts hit after having her daughter. Her sleep patterns were so altered that it was easy for insomnia to creep in. “You can’t function during the day. You truly exist in a haze. You dread the night when everyone else is asleep and you’re not,” says Welch. Now, if she has a couple of rough nights, she faces anxiety about whether she will be able to fall and stay asleep. As Welch notes, “It only takes two to three days to get back to full-blown insomnia, and you feel doomed.”

First steps

Make sure to see a doctor if you are sleepy during the day or can’t fall asleep at night. He or she may suggest you see an expert, who may suggest an overnight sleep study to get to the root of the problem. You will also need to work with a doctor to treat other health problems that can affect sleep. You can also help yourself with healthy sleep habits. Try to keep a sleep schedule and skip caffeine. Relaxing before bedtime can also help.

Treating insomnia

For acute insomnia, medicines can provide relief but should only be used for short periods of time. This can be helpful if you are dealing with a very stressful life event. If you have the chronic kind, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help. Also called CBT, this therapy teaches you to adjust habits that cause sleep trouble. Often, experts suggest CBT over medicine. It can also be a good choice for people worried about becoming dependent on medicine. But your doctor may still suggest certain medicines on top of CBT. If medicines and CBT don’t work, you may need to go to a sleep center for more tests and treatment.

Whichever treatment is right for you, the important thing is to ask for help. As Welch warns, it can only get worse if you don’t. Don’t suffer alone—help is available.

Resources

National Sleep Foundation
www.sleepfoundation.org

American Academy of Sleep Medicine
www.yoursleep.aasmnet.org

By Sarah Stone
Source: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/inso/; Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/in-depth/insomnia-treatment/art-20046677; Office on Women's Health, www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/insomnia.html; U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health; www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000805.htm; Ramar, M.D. Kannan and Olson, M.D., Eric. J. (2013) "Management of Common Sleep Disorders." American Family Physician, Volume 88(4);231-238.
Reviewed by Gary R. Proctor, MD, Associate Chief Medical Officer, Beacon Health Options

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