man laying in bed suffering from insomnia

What Is Insomnia? Everything You Need To Know

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    Last Updated
    September 13, 2022
    min read

    Studies suggest that approximately 30% of the general population experience insomnia. The most common sleep disorder, it makes falling and staying asleep quite difficult.

    Experts agree that sleep is critical for optimal well-being. Unfortunately, many people fall short of achieving the right amount of sleep due to insomnia. 

    In this article, you'll find out why insomnia keeps you up all night, its causes and symptoms, and how to treat it.

    What Is Insomnia?

    Affecting millions of Americans, insomnia is a sleep condition that directly impacts sleep quality. This disorder causes an inability to fall or stay asleep. People diagnosed with insomnia – appropriately called insomniacs – remain wide awake all night, wake up several times at night, and/or feel exhausted during the day.

    While the condition is very common, insomnia can significantly impact your concentration, recollection, productivity, and overall cognitive ability. Multiple studies prove that chronic sleep disturbance can also escalate into negative emotional processing – resulting in irrational aggression, despair, and suicidal ideation.

    Types Of Insomnia

    While many insomniacs have similar symptoms, not all cases are exactly the same. People can be affected by insomnia in different ways – if you want accurate treatment and prevention, you need to know which subtype you fall under.

    The subtypes of this condition are classified based on age, sleep experience, and underlying medical conditions. Here’s a breakdown of this sleeping disorder’s different types.

    Acute Insomnia

    Widely known as short-term insomnia or adjustment insomnia, acute insomnia is a short-lived episode of sleep disturbance. Acute insomnia is usually caused by stressful life circumstances, such as the demise of a loved one, unexpected health conditions, job loss, relationship changes, or a drastic shift in lifestyle. For most people diagnosed with the condition, acute insomnia lasts anywhere from a few weeks to not more than three months. 

    As you learn to cope with stressful events in your life, the sleep disturbance may gradually fade. However, symptoms may come and go depending on how you deal with your circumstances. If the symptoms persist for more than three months, acute insomnia may become chronic. 

    Chronic Insomnia

    Chronic insomnia, also called long-term insomnia, is a prolonged pattern of sleep disturbance. Insomnia is described as chronic if you experience difficulty falling and staying asleep for three or more nights a week for more than three months. Chronic insomnia is also divided into two subtypes: primary and secondary.

    • Primary chronic insomnia, also called idiopathic insomnia, doesn't necessarily have an underlying medical condition or apparent cause. 
    • Secondary insomnia is more prevalent. It is a type of chronic insomnia that co-occurs with another condition. 

    Both types of chronic insomnia may be caused by irregular sleep schedules, poor sleeping hygiene, mental health issues, certain medications, existing neurological disorders, or even your bed partner.

    Onset Insomnia

    If you have trouble initiating quality sleep, that could be a symptom of onset insomnia. This type of insomnia is closely associated with both acute and chronic insomnia. 

    According to research, psychological and psychiatric problems are the most apparent causes of onset insomnia. This includes anxiety, depression, or even stress – all strong triggers for sleep disturbances. 

    Reports also suggest that having another sleep disorder, such as periodic limb movement condition or restless leg syndrome, could result in onset insomnia.

    Sleep-Maintenance Insomnia

    If you find it difficult to stay asleep or you wake up prematurely, you may have maintenance insomnia. People with maintenance insomnia find it hard to get back to sleep after waking up and may experience anxiety about not getting enough sleep. Your anxiety will then trigger your sleep disturbance, further perpetuating the cycle.

    People with mental health problems, such as severe anxiety and depression, often suffer from maintenance insomnia. Sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disease, periodic limb movement disorder, and asthma are among its possible causes.

    Behavioral Insomnia Of Children (BIC)

    Studies show that approximately 25% of children are affected by BIC or behavioral insomnia in children. If your child has trouble getting a good night's sleep, the sleep disturbance may be linked to behavioral causes.

    Behavioral insomnia in children has three subtypes:

    • BIC sleep-onset: This is when your child develops negative associations with the idea of sleeping – for example, when parents have to nurse or force a child to sleep.
    • BIC limit-setting: If your child refuses to go to sleep or continuously rejects the idea of sleeping, this can be a manifestation of BIC limit-setting.
    • BIC combined type: This is a combination of both BIC sleep-onset and BIC limit-setting.

    Parents can usually resolve BIC through behavioral changes, such as encouraging sleep with a reward, creating a fun sleep routine, establishing a relaxing bedroom, or buying a more appropriate mattress.

    Symptoms And Causes Of Insomnia

    The symptoms of insomnia vary widely among those who experience it. These symptoms may also change over time, especially if the person has existing physical or mental health conditions that coexist with the sleep disturbance. 

    Because insomnia has many potential causes, alleviating its signs and symptoms can be a challenge. You have to consider the other possible overlapping conditions and your medical history before treatment. 

    While understanding your symptoms is imperative, self-diagnosis is not recommended. If you want to address the root cause of symptoms and possible underlying condition, get help from a sleep specialist.

    What Are The Symptoms Of Insomnia?

    A person who suffers from insomnia may experience the following symptoms:

    Before Bedtime

    • Struggling to fall asleep during bedtime
    • Tossing and turning on the bed
    • Repeatedly waking up during the night
    • Overthinking before bed
    • Waking up early, even if you fall asleep late

    During The Day Or Wake Time

    • Feeling drowsy after waking up
    • Not feeling refreshed and rested, despite staying in bed all night
    • Difficulty taking a nap during the day
    • Struggling to focus and concentrate on tasks
    • Feeling anxious and disappointed throughout the day
    • Feeling unproductive
    • Headaches
    • Poor memory and judgment
    • Irritability or negative moods
    • More errors and mistakes
    • Becoming aggressive or impulsive
    • Losing motivation and energy
    • Decreased interest in activities

    What Are The Causes And Risk Factors Of Insomnia?

    While insomnia appears to be a simple condition on the surface, its causes can be quite complex, ranging from environmental influence and medical history to mind-body and external factors. 

    Here are the common causes and potential factors that play a role in the sleep condition: 


    Stress may trigger an immediate bodily and mental reaction, impacting your quality of sleep. The stress response could result from various external factors such as school, work, family, and other social relationships. Getting exposed to traumatic and shocking situations can also result in chronic stress. 

    With chronic stress, your insomnia may escalate into a more severe condition, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Plus, your inability to sleep can be a source of stress, creating a hostile cycle of stress and insomnia.

    Irregular Sleep Schedules

    Your internal body clock, also known as your circadian rhythm, regulates your sleep-wake cycle. This internal clock helps you manage behavior and follow a healthy pattern of day and night. However, many people occasionally disrupt their sleep schedules, causing a misalignment of the circadian rhythm.

    For shift workers, insomnia is especially prevalent nowadays. If you work the night shift, chances are you struggle to sleep during the daytime, as your body is hard-wired to doze off at night. While your body clock can adjust in the long run, you may find it difficult to cultivate healthy sleep patterns and improve your sleep quality.

    Lifestyle & Diet

    Your daily habits and diet dictate the quality of sleep you are getting. Certain activities and unhealthy foods can increase your risk of insomnia and other conditions, which is why your lifestyle choices are critical to your health.

    Here are some activities and diets that can bring about sleeping disorders:

    • Consistently working overtime with minimal to no rest
    • Stimulating your brain late at night by playing video games or using electronic devices
    • Using your bed for extra activities, disrupting the barrier between sleep and wakefulness
    • Taking multiple long naps during the day, confusing your body's circadian rhythm
    • Drinking too much caffeine
    • Smoking nicotine products like cigarettes
    • Drinking alcohol
    • Consuming heavy meals before bedtime


    Studies show that insomnia is more prevalent in older ages, affecting 30-48% of older adults. While younger people are also susceptible to stress, mental and physical ailments, and poor sleep habits, the elderly are more vulnerable due to prescription drugs and chronic health conditions that may cause sleep disorders. 

    People who are over 60 years old also have diminished sleep efficiency. They are easily disturbed during sleep, as they spend less time in both REM sleep and deep sleep.

    Other Insomnia Causes

    Some physical and mental health disorders contribute to sleep disturbance. Certain types of medications also have side effects that trigger both short-term and long-term insomnia. This includes:

    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Bipolar disorder
    • Dementia
    • Neurological disorders
    • Body pain
    • Type II diabetes
    • Rapid blood sugar changes
    • Blood pressure drugs
    • Anti-asthma medications
    • Antidepressants
    • Recreational drugs
    • Hot flashes
    • Pregnancy

    What Are The Consequences Of Insomnia?

    A study from the National Institute for HealthTrusted Source strongly suggests that insomnia can lead to serious health risks. Furthermore, the research shows that you can increase your risk of mental and physical health issues if you don't take active steps to prevent insomnia.

    When acute insomnia develops into chronic or long-term insomnia, you may suffer from the following:

    • Over fatigue
    • Anxiety disorder
    • Depression
    • Mood swings
    • Weight gain or obesity
    • Stroke
    • Inflammation
    • Asthma attacks
    • Decreased libido
    • Weaker immune system
    • Gastrointestinal issues
    • Memory issues
    • Diabetes
    • Heart disease
    • Higher risk of accidents
    • Shortened life expectancy

    How Common Is Insomnia?

    The numbers prove that insomnia is a relatively widespread sleep disorder, impacting up to 70 million Americans annually. 30% of adults experience short-term insomnia, while long-term insomnia affects at least 10%.

    Research further demonstrates that 40% of people fall asleep during the day due to insomnia. Another 5% fall asleep while driving, which often leads to accidents.

    How Is Insomnia Diagnosed?

    If you’ve been losing sleep for more than a month, it's time to see a doctor. Depending on your situation, your sleep specialist may ask you questions and conduct a series of diagnostic tests. This includes the following:

    Sleep Habits Review

    Aside from asking questions to get to the root of your insomnia, your sleep specialist may ask you to answer a comprehensive questionnaire to determine your sleep pattern and level of sleepiness. To examine your behavior in detail, your doctor may also ask you to document your habits using a sleep diary.

    Physical Exam

    Your doctor may conduct a physical exam to identify signs of underlying medical issues that may be the root of your insomnia. A blood test may be performed to check for thyroid problems or other conditions associated with declining sleep quality.

    Sleep Study

    Also called the polysomnogram test, a sleep study measures how fast you doze off and how long you stay asleep. A sleep study can also notify your doctor of other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome.

    How Is Insomnia Managed Or Treated?

    Acute insomnia may naturally fizzle out as you learn to cope with stressful circumstances. Short-term insomnia can also be addressed through over-the-counter or prescription medication. However, chronic or long-term insomnia may require a complete lifestyle overhaul, medical intervention, or treatment.

    Medical Treatments

    Treatments for insomnia include the following:

    • Transient insomnia treatment: While transient insomnia is short-term, it may be caused by an underlying medical disorder. Your doctor may provide prescriptions depending on your case and needs.
    • Acute insomnia treatment: If you suffer from stress and anxiety due to a particular life event, your doctor may prescribe melatonin – a staple over-the-counter sleep aid.
    • Chronic insomnia treatment: Depending on the severity of your symptoms and medical history, your doctor may endorse you to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or another specialist to treat the underlying condition that causes insomnia.

    Lifestyle Changes

    Modifying your lifestyle to alleviate insomnia takes consistent effort, but most of it can be done at home. Start by reducing caffeine intake, cutting out cigarettes and booze, and avoiding snacks before bedtime. Replace these habits by eating healthy foods, meditating, listening to calm music, and doing moderate regular exercise.

    Establishing an appropriate bedtime routine can also significantly improve insomnia symptoms. Consider pampering yourself with a hot shower, wearing comfortable sleeping clothes, and sleeping on the right mattress.

    Ways To Prevent Insomnia

    Harmful lifestyle habits, bad diet, and irregular sleep schedules can lead to insomnia. Taking a mindful approach to what you do before and during bedtime can prevent you from getting insufficient sleep.

    Here are a few ways you can optimize your sleeping habits and avoid insomnia:

    • Make your bedroom a comfortable sanctuary.
    • Achieve at least 7-8 hours of sleep daily.
    • Set up a consistent and appropriate wake-up time.
    • Avoid overthinking and stressful scenarios before sleeping.
    • Read a book instead of scrolling on your phone before bed.
    • Avoid intense exercise right before bedtime.
    • Do not drink caffeine before you sleep.
    • Close your eyes and give yourself enough time to fall asleep.


    Insomnia isn't just a short-lived inconvenience like a cold or flu – it's a sleep condition that can gravely impact both your mental and physical well-being. Make sure to keep an eye on your symptoms, as chronic insomnia can be caused by a serious underlying medical condition.

    Most importantly, keep your lifestyle habits and diet in check to prevent your insomnia from escalating. If you experience prolonged sleep issues, get advice from your doctor or sleep specialist.

    Frequently Asked Questions About Insomnia

    How much sleep do most people need?

    Teens aged 13-18 should get 8-10 hours of sleep daily. For most grown adults, 7-9 hours is enough to feel energized throughout the day. Older adults aged 65+, on the other hand, need approximately 7-8 hours of sleep. Take our quiz to see how much sleep you need.

    Can insomnia go away?

    Acute insomnia or short-term insomnia can last a few days or weeks but not more than three months. However, this type of insomnia can come and go depending on how you cope with its symptoms. Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, may last longer than three months, and treatment often requires medical intervention. 

    Is insomnia a mental illness?

    Insomnia isn't a mental illness but rather a symptom of an underlying or existing medical condition. It can be caused by a mental illness such as depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. However, in most cases, insomnia is a result of a poor lifestyle, diet, or erratic sleeping schedule.


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