Nearly everyone has a restless night now and again. Maybe you're worried about a project at work or had too much caffeine so you just can't sleep.
But about one in four Americans experiences acute insomnia each year. According to a University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine study, that means difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for three nights a week for at least two consecutive weeks.
People with insomnia sometimes dread going to bed because they know there's a good chance they won't get much rest. There are many symptoms, several causes and a few suggested solutions that might help people with insomnia get some sleep.
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by either difficulty falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep. Some people with insomnia might be able to fall asleep right away, but then wake up wide-eyed in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep. Others might struggle forever to even fall asleep.
Acute insomnia is short-term while chronic insomnia can last for a month or more. According to the University of Pennsylvania study, insomnia becomes chronic when it occurs at least three nights a week for more than three months.
You can have primary insomnia, which means the sleep disorder isn't related to any other health condition, says WebMD. Or you can have secondary insomnia, which means that another issue such as asthma, depression, heartburn or medication might be triggering sleep issues.
Besides having trouble falling or staying asleep, you might also wake up earlier than you'd like. There are several other symptoms of insomnia, according to the Mayo Clinic. They include:
- Sleepiness during the day
- Overall tiredness and not feeling well-rested
- Irritability or anxiety
- Problems with concentration or memory
- More errors or accidents
- Worry about getting sleep
Causes of insomnia
There are so many reasons you can be wide awake when your head hits the pillow at night. Insomnia can be caused by stress, medical conditions or environmental factors. Sometimes when these things go away, you're able to sleep again.
Some common causes of insomnia include:
- Stress, including major stressful life events (job loss, death of a loved one, moving) and worries about family, work, health or money
- Illness, such as arthritis, gastrointestinal issues, chronic pain or asthma
- Medications, like those used to treat allergies, colds, depression, asthma and high blood pressure
- Depression or anxiety
- Environmental factors that interfere with sleep (noise, light, room temperature)
- Changes in your normal sleep schedule
- Emotional or physical pain or discomfort
- Caffeine and nicotine use
Aging also plays a role in sleep. It's often more difficult to get a good night's sleep as you get older. You're more easily disturbed by noise and changes in your environment, says the Mayo Clinic. In addition, you may not be as active and you may have more health concerns — both of which can affect quality of sleep. Women who are going through menopause can also be at risk of insomnia due to hormonal changes.
Preventing and curing insomnia
If only the brain had an on/off switch. That would be one way to help some insomniacs get to sleep.
But without that, the first step is to figure out exactly how long you've not been sleeping. If it's only a few nights here and there and you can figure out why, then it's likely nothing to be concerned about. But if you find that your sleeplessness is chronic and has been going on for weeks or months, it's probably smart to check in with a doctor. They'll help you rule out any underlying health issues.
Some of the best steps you can take are to practice good "sleep hygiene," which means having a comfortable bedroom, a regular sleep schedule and no electronics before bedtime.
It's also smart to take advantage of natural insomnia remedies like exercise and meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy and journaling. Instead of taking medication to try to sleep, you may want to try natural alternatives like melatonin.
The problem with not sleeping is that it's hard to stop thinking about it and just do it. When you wake up in the middle of the night, it's hard to shush your mind when all you want to do is sleep.