Insomnia: Treatment, Symptoms, and Causes

Sleep is one of the fundamentals of a healthy, satisfying lifestyle. Not getting enough of it can lead to a worsened quality of life, the inability to perform your daily tasks in a satisfactory way, or even the increased risk of developing serious health conditions. 

Every day, countless Americans struggle with the inability to sleep through the night and get up well-rested in the morning. It is estimated that about one-third of the entire global population struggles with unsatisfying sleep. Of course, there is a vast difference between not feeling completely rested after a night and fully-blown insomnia. 

Although it is most commonly associated with old age, all age groups can develop this disorder at various stages of their lives. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 15-20% of American adults struggle with short-term insomnia, while as many as 10% have to deal with chronic insomnia disorder. The medical understanding of insomnia disorders has vastly improved in recent years, but for the general population, it is still a buzzword, clouded by misconceptions and lacking a clear definition. 

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What Is Insomnia? 

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine defines insomnia as “trouble falling asleep or staying asleep even though you had the opportunity to get a full night of sleep.” The AASM goes further by identifying that in order for a sleep disorder to be classified as insomnia, negative daytime consequences need to persist alongside the sleep disturbances. These can range from relationship problems to impaired work performance or lower capacity for decision-making.

Many people tend to think of insomnia as a neat umbrella term that lumps all of the possible sleep problems together and magically turns them into a diagnosable, treatable medical condition. The truth is that insomnia is actually a broad spectrum of sleep disturbances that vary in terms of severity, consequences, and duration. 

Different Insomnia Types 

To reiterate what we stated above, insomnia exists on a spectrum. It means that it can take up many shapes and forms, making it quite difficult to diagnose at first. Every single person in the world has faced or will face sleeping problems throughout their lives, but not all of these problems can be categorized as insomnia. While they have their differences, the insomnia types listed below share certain characteristics, the most important one being the persistence of symptoms and the fact that they negatively impact the patients’ day-to-day lives.

Short-term Insomnia Disorder

One of the most common insomnia disorders out there, the short-term insomnia disorder is characterized by having trouble falling asleep, the inability to stay asleep through the night, and waking up much too early in the morning. In the case of short-term insomnia, these symptoms persist for up to three months, with a varied frequency that does not, however, exceed three times per week. 

Chronic Insomnia Disorder

The symptoms of chronic insomnia are the same as short-term insomnia symptoms, with one key exception: they continue for much longer periods, with many cases dragging on for years on end. In order to be classified as a chronic insomnia disorder sufferer, a patient has to experience insomnia symptoms for at least three nights per week over a period that exceeds three months. 

Is Insomnia the Same as Occasional Sleeplessness?

It may be easy to jump to conclusions and claim that you’re suffering from insomnia after one or two sleepless nights. After all, they do tend to make us feel horrible and unprepared to face the challenges of the day. However, random bouts of sleeplessness are not the same as insomnia. 

In order for your sleepless nights to be diagnosed as an insomnia disorder, they need to persist for weeks and negatively impact your work life and relationships – and we don’t just mean feeling groggy and slightly annoyed in the mornings! 

Common Risk Factors for Insomnia

Although there are no clear-cut causes of insomnia, scientists have been able to identify quite a few common factors that put you at a higher risk of developing insomnia. 

  • Recent life stressors (e.g. losing a job, divorce, death of a loved one) 
  • Alcohol or drug abuse 
  • Immediate family members suffering from insomnia
  • Lack of a consistent sleep schedule 
  • Older age 
  • Being a female 
  • Restless leg syndrome 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Being a light sleeper
  • Mood disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Excessive caffeine use 
  • Experiencing domestic abuse 

Insomnia Symptoms: What to Look Out For

The symptoms of insomnia can be split into two categories: nighttime and daytime symptoms. While the nighttime signs are quite easy to identify and will generally come to most people’s minds when talking about insomnia, the daytime symptoms are much less consistent across different groups of patients, and identifying them in yourself can be a bit more difficult. Nearly all of the symptoms listed below are applicable to both chronic and short-term insomnia disorders. 

Nighttime Symptoms 

  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Difficulty maintaining sleep throughout the night
  • Unwanted early morning wake-ups 
  • Reluctance to fall asleep without a partner or an external stimulant 

Daytime Symptoms 

  • General fatigue 
  • Worsened school or work performance 
  • Social interaction difficulties 
  • Hyperactivity 
  • Aggressiveness 
  • Irritability 
  • Distorted mood, mood swings 
  • Lack of motivation 
  • Impaired attention span 
  • Trouble remembering things 
  • Drowsiness at random times of the day 

Insomnia Treatment Methods 

Treating insomnia disorders is a highly individual matter. The diagnosis process should not be rushed, and the patient’s full commitment and honesty with their doctor are required to arrive at the right conclusions. Sometimes, simple lifestyle changes are all that is needed to bring about improvement, whereas other people require additional treatments. Below are three of the most common insomnia treatment methods. 

Increased Understanding of Sleep Cycles 

Education is one of the best ways to combat insomnia and other sleeping disorders, especially in this day and age. Nowadays, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain proper sleeping habits, with all of the distractions and stresses of the modern lifestyle. Speaking to a sleep specialist and understanding your own harmful habits can go a long way in terms of combatting insomnia and coming closer to getting a full night’s sleep. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia has become one of the most preferred methods of fighting this disorder in recent years. It entails relaxation training, sleep restrictions, and tight stimuli control mechanisms designed to build better, long-lasting habits and help patients relieve the anxiety they may feel with regard to their sleep schedules. 

Sleep Medication 

Often considered to be a simple, easy solution to insomnia disorders, sleep medication is actually a last-resort alternative for patients with the most severe cases. It can provide immediate relief by promoting sleep and radically decreasing the daytime symptoms, but it can make you dependent on the medication in the long run and cause increased daytime drowsiness. 

Quick Sleeplessness Treatment Tips

If you’ve been experiencing sleep problems in the past couple of days but aren’t exactly sure whether they are caused by insomnia or due to certain stressful developments in your life, you might want to consider implementing these few simple changes in your lifestyle to combat sleeplessness: 

  • Refrain from using screens before bedtime (at least 30 minutes prior) 
  • Reduce your caffeine intake 
  • Refrain from drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes (especially close to bedtime)
  • Make sure you sleep in a dark, quiet environment 
  • Only use your bed for sex and sleep 

When to Reach Out to Your Doctor

Don’t underestimate any extended bouts of sleeplessness. While a lot of the sleep problems people experience on a day-to-day basis don’t tend to develop into insomnia, if you have been struggling with sleep for an extended period of time, it might be time to visit your GP. Generally, the most commonly accepted “critical threshold” is when your poor quality of sleep starts to affect your daytime activities and relationships. 

Your general practioner will work with you to create an individualized treatment plan to help you get your sleeping schedule back on track. 

Final Thoughts 

Insomnia is a very complex, layered disorder. With over 35% of Americans experiencing brief symptoms of it at any given time, it can be difficult for yourself as an individual to determine whether or not your sleeplessness is something to be worried about or a brief hiccup that can be fixed by a simple lifestyle change. Hopefully, this article has increased your understanding of insomnia disorders and cleared up some of the misconceptions that surround it. 

If you find yourself struggling with staying or falling asleep multiple times per week for longer than two weeks, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. Remember that you should never brush your sleeping problems off as something insignificant, as it can not only result in impaired day-to-day functioning but can also lead to other medical conditions.

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