Insomnia refers to inadequate or poor-quality sleep. Insomnia may be due to difficulty falling asleep, or problems with middle-of-the-night or very early morning awakening. Insomnia lasting from a single night to a few weeks is referred to as transient. If episodes of transient insomnia occur from time to time, the insomnia is said to be intermittent. Insomnia is considered to be chronic if it occurs on most nights and lasts a month or more.
There are many causes of insomnia. Transient and intermittent insomnia generally occur in people who are temporarily experiencing one or more of the following:
- A life crisis or stress
- Environmental noise
- Extreme temperatures
- Change in the surrounding environment
- Sleep/wake schedule problems such as those due to jet lag
- Hormonal shifts during the menstrual cycle, during pregnancy, or during perimenopause or menopause
- Side effects of medicine
- Nonprescription: diet aids, decongestants, cold and cough remedies
- Prescription: steroids, theophylline, phenytoin, levodopa
Chronic insomnia sometimes results from the following conditions:
- Kidney disease
- Liver failure
- Heart disease
- Sleep apnea
- Restless legs syndrome
- Parkinson's disease
- Alzheimer's disease
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or ulcer
Chronic insomnia may also be due to behavioral factors, including:
- Misuse of caffeine, alcohol, or other substances
- Disrupted sleep/wake cycles from shift work or other nighttime activities
- Chronic stress
In addition, the following behaviors have been shown to perpetuate insomnia in some people:
- Expecting to have difficulty sleeping and worrying about it
- Smoking cigarettes before bedtime
- Excessive napping in the afternoon or evening
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
- Age: 50 or older
- Sex: Female (especially during and after menopause)
- A history of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression
- Chronic pain
- Alcohol, drugs, or certain medicines
- Shift work
- Use of multiple medications
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Waking up frequently during the night with difficulty returning to sleep
- Waking up too early
- Feeling unrefreshed after sleep
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. You will also be asked about your job, eating habits, schedules, and travel patterns.
Sometimes with certain types of insomnia or, especially, severe daytime sleepiness your doctor may ask you to spend a night sleeping in a “sleep lab.” This experience may allow your doctor to identify a treatable condition that is affecting the quality of your sleep.
Treat Underlying Medical Conditions
A number of physical and mental disorders can disrupt sleep. Diagnosis and treatment of underlying illness may help alleviate insomnia.
Identify and Modify Behaviors That Worsen Insomnia
Reduce or avoid caffeine, alcohol, and drug use. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. If you must take naps, keep them short. Do not smoke close to bedtime.
Sleeping pills are available by prescription or over-the-counter. Some doctors advise against the long-term use of sleeping pills for treating chronic insomnia because they may cause dependence. Properly chosen prescription sleep medicine can be effective and should not interfere with memory, work functioning, or daytime drowsiness (very important for driving safety).
Most over-the-counter sleep medications contain diphenhydramine. This antihistamine will help many people fall asleep more rapidly and probably improves subjective sleep quality. Elderly persons may experience a variety of adverse effects from diphenhydramine and should discuss its use with their physician.
Herbal Therapies and Supplements
Some people use the herb valerian to reduce insomnia. Others take supplements of melatonin. In the United States, herbal products and dietary supplements do not undergo the same testing as drugs. Their long-term impact, side effects, and possible interactions with other drugs or medical conditions are often unknown.
Techniques such as deep breathing, stopping thought, and progressive relaxation may reduce or eliminate anxiety and body tension. This stops the mind from "racing" and allows the muscles to relax so that restful sleep can occur.
A sleep restriction program at first allows only a few hours of sleep during the night. Gradually the time is increased until a more normal night's sleep is achieved.
Reconditioning helps people to associate the bed and bedtime with sleep. This means not using the bed for activities other than sleep and sex. As part of the reconditioning process, the person is usually advised to go to bed only when sleepy.
To reduce your chance of having insomnia:
- Minimize intake of caffeinated food and drinks (coffee, tea, chocolate, cola drinks) after lunch.
- Avoid eating too fast, too much, or too close to bedtime.
- Avoid drinking fluids before bedtime.
- Don't smoke.
- Exercise regularly, but not within less than three hours of bedtime.
- Use the bedroom only for sleep and sex.
- Schedule relaxing bedtime routines. Listen to quiet music or soak in warm water.
- Make sure that the bedroom is not too cold or too hot.
- Use a humidifier or dehumidifier as needed.
- Get more sunlight or ultraviolet light during the day.
- Use shades, lined drapes, or wear an eye mask to reduce sleep disruption.
- Use earplugs or listen to relaxing music or white noise. This helps reduce the disturbing effects of noise.
- Make sure your mattress is supportive and the bedding is comfortable.
- Avoid "clock watching" after going to bed.
- Keep bedtimes and wake-times consistent throughout the week.
- If you cannot avoid naps, keep them short