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Insomnia is a common sleep disorder. People who have insomnia have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. Many people have insomnia. Acute insomnia is short-term trouble sleeping. Chronic insomnia is when your sleeping problem lasts for 4 weeks or longer.
Is insomnia a serious problem?
Getting enough sleep is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Insomnia can affect you mentally and physically. It can make you feel tired, depressed, and irritable. It can also make it hard for you to concentrate or perform tasks during the day. If you have insomnia, you may worry about being able to sleep. Sometimes this can make sleeping harder.
If you don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis, you’re at increased risk of diseases. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
How much sleep do I need?
Most adults need about 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. You know you’re getting enough sleep if you don’t feel sleepy during the day. The amount of sleep you need stays about the same throughout adulthood. However, sleep patterns may change as you age. For example, older people may sleep less at night and take naps during the day.
Symptoms of insomnia
Symptoms of insomnia include:
- Lying awake for a long time before falling asleep on most nights.
- Not being able to stay asleep.
- Waking up very early.
- Feeling like you haven’t slept at all.
- Falling asleep during the day, including while driving.
What causes insomnia?
Some cases of insomnia are a symptom or side effect of another problem. This is called secondary insomnia. Many different disorders can cause insomnia. They include:
- Emotional conditions – depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder
- Neurological disorders – Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease
- Pain conditions – arthritis and headache disorders
- Gastrointestinal disorders – heartburn, GERD
- Sleep disorders – restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea
- Breathing disorders – asthma or heart failure
- Other conditions, including overactive thyroid, stroke, or menopause.
Secondary insomnia can also be caused by some medicines. These include asthma medicines, allergy or cold medicines, and certain heart and blood pressure medicines. Use of certain substances can also cause insomnia. These include caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol.
Primary insomnia is a distinct disorder. It usually lasts at least a month. It isn’t well understood. Things that can cause this kind of insomnia include:
- Life changes.
- Major or long-last stress or emotional upset.
- Travel or work schedules that disrupt your sleep routine.
- Habits that you’ve formed to deal with your lack of sleep. These could include taking naps, worrying about sleep, or going to bed early.
How is insomnia diagnosed?
Insomnia is diagnosed primarily based on your medical and sleep history. Your family doctor may ask you:
- Questions about your sleep habits. This includes when you go to bed and when you get up.
- What medicines you take.
- Your intake of caffeine and alcohol.
- If you smoke.
- About events or problems in your life that may be upsetting you.
- How long you’ve been having insomnia.
- If you have any pain, such as from arthritis.
- If you have a bed partner, your doctor may ask him or her if you snore while you sleep.
If the cause of your insomnia is not clear, your doctor may suggest that you fill out a sleep diary. The diary will help you keep track of:
- when you go to bed
- how long you are in bed before falling asleep
- how often you wake up during the night
- when you get up in the morning
- how well you sleep.
A sleep diary may help you and your doctor identify patterns and conditions that are affecting your sleep. Your doctor may also do a physical exam. This will help him or her rule out other medical problems that could be causing your insomnia.
If your doctor thinks another sleep disorder is causing your insomnia, he or she may order a sleep study. This is when you sleep in a lab overnight. Lab technicians monitor your brain activity, eye movements, oxygen levels, heart rate, and blood pressure while you sleep.
Can insomnia be prevented or avoided?
The best way to prevent insomnia is to develop a good sleep routine. In some cases, it can’t be prevented or avoided.
There are several ways to treat insomnia. It usually depends on what you tell your doctor about your health and sleep history. It also may depend on what kind of insomnia you have.
- Avoid substances that make sleeping harder. These include caffeine, some medicines, and alcohol.
- Adopt better sleep habits. Follow a bedtime routine, keep your room dark and cool, and avoid watching TV or using your phone in the bedroom. Go to bed around the same time and wake up around the same time every day.
- Don’t eat, drink, or exercise close to bedtime.
Behavioral therapy for insomnia can teach you about good sleep habits. It usually includes learning ways to relax and not worry as much about sleep. You can also learn muscle relaxation and deep breathing exercises to help you relax. It is often just as effective as prescription sleeping medicines.
You don’t need a doctor’s prescription to get an over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aid. But it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before you try one. OTC sleep aids are not meant to be used for a long period of time. Be sure to follow the directions on the label carefully. Don’t drink alcohol while you are taking an OTC sleep aid.
Certain supplements are advertised as treatments for insomnia. Some examples are melatonin and valerian. There not much evidence about how well these products work. Researchers don’t know what the long-term effects of using them are. Talk to your doctor before you try one of these products.
In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medicine to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Prescription sleeping pills may help you sleep better. Common ones include eszopiclone (Lunesta), zolpidem (Ambien), and zaleplon (Sonata).
These medicines can have side effects. Some may be serious. Side effects of prescription sleeping pills can include:
- excessive drowsiness
- trouble thinking clearly
- problems with balance.
Rare but serious side effects include:
- facial swelling
- severe allergic reactions
- unusual behavior while asleep (such as driving or eating food).
Doctors generally don’t recommend using prescription sleep medicines for long periods of time. They are not a cure for insomnia. Although they can help in some cases, they’re only a temporary form of relief. Regular use may lead to rebound insomnia. This happens when you quit taking sleeping pills, and your insomnia comes back even worse than before.
Sleeping pills can be unsafe to use if you have certain health problems. Ask your doctor if sleeping pills would be helpful for you.
Living with insomnia
Keep in mind that you may need less sleep as you age. Some people need only 5 to 6 hours of sleep a night, but most people do better with 7 to 8 hours. Sleep usually occurs in 3-hour cycles, so it is important to get at least 3 uninterrupted hours of sleep.
These tips can help you develop better sleep habits:
- Go to sleep only when you feel tired.
- Avoid reading, watching TV, or worrying in bed. These can cause your body and brain to associate your bed with these activities, rather than with sleep.
- Develop a bedtime routine. Do the same thing every night before going to sleep. For example, take a warm bath and then read for 10 minutes every night before bed. Soon you’ll connect these activities with sleeping, and doing them will help make you sleepy.
- Use the bedroom only for sleep and sexual activity.
- If you can’t fall asleep after 15 minutes, go to another room. Return to your bed only when you feel tired. You may repeat this as often as needed during the night.
- Go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day, even on weekends. This helps your body develop a sleep schedule.
- Avoid or limit napping. It can disturb your normal sleep rhythm. If you must take a nap, only rest for 30 minutes. Don’t nap after 3:00 p.m.
- Avoid caffeine and tobacco, especially late in the day.
- Avoid eating large meals or drinking a lot of water in the evening.
- Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature.
- Make sure your bedroom is quiet and dark. If noise is a problem, use a fan to mask the noise or use earplugs. If you must sleep during the day, hang dark blinds over the windows or wear an eye mask.
- Try eating a light snack before going to bed, but don’t eat too much right before bedtime. A glass of warm milk or some cheese and crackers may be all you need.
- Exercise regularly, but don’t exercise within a few hours before going to bed.
- Set aside some time to relax before going to bed. For example, spend 30 minutes after dinner writing down what’s worrying you and what you can do about it.
Another good way to relax is to focus on your breathing by taking slow, deep breaths while counting to 5. Then listen to the sound of your breath as you breathe out. You can also try to tighten and relax the muscle groups in your body. Begin at your feet and work your way up to your face and head. A trained therapist can teach you other ways to relax. Listening to relaxation music may also help.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Could my insomnia be a sign of another condition?
- How can exercise help with insomnia?
- Are there herbal supplements that help with insomnia? Are there any side effects to be aware of?
- What types of over-the-counter medicine can help me sleep?
- Are there prescription medicines that treat insomnia?
- What are the side effects of these medicines?
- Does insomnia run in families?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.