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What Causes Insomnia?

by | Apr 26, 2022 | Guides

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder characterised by an inability to fall asleep, remain asleep, or achieve restful sleep. On a daily level, lack of sleep can interfere with the body’s sleep wake cycle, causing daytime sleepiness, irritability, stress, and anxiety. Over time, chronic insomnia can increase the risk of developing serious health problems like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

How much sleep is considered enough?

For the average adult, 8-hours is the magic number for optimal physical and mental health. If your sleep patterns aren’t quite hitting 8-hours a night, it’s time to replace counting sheep with learning what causes insomnia, so you can start treatment as soon as possible.

What is insomnia?

Affecting the sleep quality of 13-33% of Australian adults, insomnia is a sleep disorder characterised by:

  • Difficulty falling asleep

  • Difficulty staying asleep

  • Difficulty achieving restful sleep

Many people find it hard to get adequate sleep, no matter how tired they are. Many others experience disrupted sleep throughout the night as they lie awake anxiously worrying about the world. Then there are those who wake up feeling fatigued and restless after a complete 8-hours of sleep.

Despite the recommendation of 8-hours per night equating to what’s considered a good night’s sleep, every person is unique. So, an insomnia diagnosis is based on quality of sleep and restfulness rather than duration. If you’re sleeping a solid 8-hours or more every night and still waking up feeling drowsy and fatigued, sorry to be the bearer or weary news, but you may have insomnia.

Symptoms of insomnia

Insomnia symptoms include:

  • Finding it hard to fall sleep or stay asleep at night

  • Waking too early and finding it hard to fall back asleep

  • Irregular sleep patterns

  • Interrupted or broken sleep

  • Not feeling refreshed after a night’s sleep

  • Daytime fatigue or tiredness (you always feel sleepy)

  • Irritability or mood swings

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Relying on sleeping pills or alcohol to sleep

  • Difficulty concentrating or staying focused on specific tasks

  • Increased mistakes, errors, or accidents

  • Persistent worry about sleep

Types of insomnia

Sleep problems manifest in different ways for different people. There are five types of insomnia to align with varying criteria of sleep problems.

Acute insomnia refers to a form of short-term insomnia typically triggered by stress, lasting no more than a few weeks and disappearing on its own.

Chronic insomnia disorder is characterised by poor sleep habits or trouble sleeping for 3 or more days each week for 3 months or longer.

Onset insomnia refers to difficulties trying to fall asleep as a result of caffeine use or other insomnia triggers. Onset insomnia can occur independently or alongside other sleep disorders.

Maintenance insomnia relates to sleepless nights due to difficulties remaining asleep, or waking up too early. Maintenance sleep disorders can be caused by underlying mental and physical health conditions, or general worry about getting enough sleep.

Behavioural insomnia is mostly experienced by children and involves consistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep via refusal. Relaxation techniques and self-soothing are the key to achieving healthy sleep habits in this instance.

Insomnia also falls into categories of primary insomnia and chronic insomnia. Primary cases of insomnia are independent and don’t relate to pre-existing conditions. Whereas cases of secondary insomnia relate to underlying causes, such as chronic pain, illness, mental disorders, shift work, and certain medications.

Insomnia causes

Causes of insomnia in males vary depending on underlying health conditions, daytime habits, sleep routine, and physical and mental health. To determine the best treatment for insomnia, it’s important to first identify the root cause.

Questions to consider in determining the root cause of insomnia include:
  • Are you currently experiencing a lot of stress?

  • Are you depressed?

  • Are you experiencing anxiety or worry?

  • Are you taking any medications that may affect your sleep quality?

  • Have you recently experienced a traumatic event?

  • Do you have any exiting health problems that may affect your sleep?

  • Is your sleep environment quiet, dark, and comfortable?

  • Do you follow a sleep schedule where you rise and sleep at the same time every day?

Psychological and medical causes of insomnia

Acute insomnia is caused by temporary factors like stress, shift work, or jet lag. It typically lasts a few days or weeks and disappears on its own.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, chronic insomnia is a long-term sleep disorder linked to underlying physical or psychological health issues.

Mental health conditions, like an anxiety disorder or depression, are leading causes of chronic insomnia. And in a reciprocal fashion, having insomnia can worsen the symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression. Talk about a double-edged sword! Other psychological causes of insomnia include worry, grief, anger, bipolar disorder, and trauma.

Medical conditions, illness, and disease can also play a role in causing insomnia. These include asthma, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, allergies, and chronic pain.

Prescription medications such as antidepressants, ADHD stimulants, corticosteroids, high blood pressure medications, and some contraceptives. These medications are used to treat other conditions yet they can also contribute towards insomnia symptoms.

Over-the-counter medications aren’t always your friend when it comes to getting enough quality sleep, either. Some over-the-counter medications contain alcohol or caffeine that can alter one’s ability to get a good night’s sleep.

Sleep disorders are their own worst enemy, and where there’s signs on one sleep disorder, there’s likely to be signs of another lurking in nearby shadows. In this case, insomnia can be a symptom of other sleep disorders, including obstructive sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.

Circadian rhythm disturbances can affect a person’s ability to maintain a regular sleep cycle. People who frequently experience jet lag or work night shifts may struggle to fall asleep at night, and stay awake during the day.

Lifestyle habits that cause insomnia

Observing any underlying psychological and mental health problems is a great place to start when looking to treat insomnia. However, there are also certain lifestyle habits that may contribute towards not getting enough sleep.

Perhaps you’ve self-prescribed sleeping pills to help doze off. Perhaps you’ve consumed multiple afternoon coffees to help yourself feel alert during the day (are you drinking too much caffeine?). Or, perhaps alcohol was your quick-fix of choice to achieve a snooze state.

The problem is that these lifestyle habits you’ve (probably unconsciously) implemented to cope with insomnia could actually be making the matter worse. Other habits to keep an eye on include napping during the day (keep naps to 20 minutes maximum), eating high-sugar foods for an instant energy boost, eating heavy meals close to bedtime, not exercising regularly, or getting your gym fix too late in the day.

The sooner you correct these lifestyle habits, the sooner you can look forward to a refreshing night’s sleep.

Risk factors for insomnia

Insomnia can affect people of any age and gender, however common insomnia risk factors are associated with:

  • Older adulthood

  • Having a mental health disorder

  • High levels of stress

  • Frequent travel through different time zones

  • Taking naps

  • Drinking a lot of caffeine

  • Alcohol use

  • Tobacco use

  • A sedentary lifestyle

  • Difficulty switching off and winding down before bedtime

  • History of sleep disorders, like sleep apnea

Diagnosing insomnia

If you’re experiencing sleep loss, sleep disturbances, or trouble falling asleep, consult with a doctor or sleep specialist for the best treatment plan unique to your situation.

When diagnosing insomnia, your healthcare professional will generally ask a few questions regarding any existing medical conditions, stressors in your personal and professional life, physical and psychological symptoms, and sleep history.

Using information gathered on your sleep difficulties, your healthcare professional may ask you to track details of your irregular sleep schedule in a sleep diary, including notes on what time you go to bed, the approximate time it takes you to fall asleep, how often you wake up during the night, and what time you rise each day.

This information will help to diagnose insomnia and determine the underlying cause of your sleep problems.

Treating insomnia

There’s no one-size-fits-all model for treating insomnia. Common ways to treat insomnia include therapy, medication, supplements, lifestyle changes, and natural remedies.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for insomnia

Cognitive behavioural therapy is considered an effective first-line option for treating chronic insomnia in adults. Through the help of an in-person or online therapist, insomnia sufferers can learn techniques of stimulus control, sleep restriction, and bright light therapy. They can also receive advice on sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques.

Medications and supplements for insomnia

Your doctor may prescribe medical-grade sleeping pills to assist in treating your insomnia. Alternatively, over-the-counter sleep aids like melatonin (the naturally-occurring hormone that triggers sleep) may provide help with minimal side effects.

Natural approaches to insomnia

Natural sleep aids, like meditation, acupuncture, and herbal teas, can be used to promote sound sleep. Results may vary from person to person and in some cases are purely anecdotal. Always speak with your trusted healthcare professional prior to trying natural treatment methods for insomnia.

Preventing insomnia

As per any medical condition, prevention isn’t always possible. However, there are certain habits you can implement into your life to give yourself the best chance of avoiding sleep deprivation. These include:

  • Maintaining a solid sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day

  • Creating an evening routine to wind down and relax before bedtime

  • Avoiding caffeine late in the day (are you drinking too much caffeine?)

  • Eliminating use of electronic devices

  • Dimming the lights in the evening

  • Exercising daily

  • Learning strategies to overcome anxiety

  • Getting some sunshine early in the day to kickstart your body clock

  • Avoiding naps as these can make insomnia worse by keeping you up at night

  • Find a mental health professional early to work through symptoms of anxiety and depression

Struggling to get enough restorative sleep at night? We’re here to help. Start your journey to better help via a chat with one of our doctors today.

 

 


This blog is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your medical practitioner.

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