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What is insomnia?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder. If you ever have a hard time getting to sleep or staying asleep, you may have had short-term insomnia. Insomnia is called short-term when it happens fewer than three times a week, or if it happens for a period of less than a month. If it happens for more than that, it is known as chronic insomnia.

Insomnia can have a variety of causes. These include stress, anxiety, depression, a headache, or a weak bladder. Sometimes insomnia is caused by having too much caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, or food before bedtime. In some cases, starting or stopping a medication can interfere with sleep.

Insomnia, the most common sleep disorder, is defined as difficulty falling asleep or difficulty maintaining sleep every night or most nights, despite an adequate opportunity to sleep. Other symptoms of insomnia include waking too early in the morning and being unable to fall back to sleep and experiencing an unrefreshing night's sleep. As a result of a poor night's sleep, you typically feel tired and irritable the next day and have trouble concentrating on everyday tasks.

The key to accurately diagnosing insomnia is talking with your healthcare professional about your overall health. If you experience chronic insomnia (insomnia occurs most nights and lasts one month or more), one or more of the following conditions may be the cause:

  • medical, emotional and psychological problems
  • depression, anxiety and emotional crises such as a death, illness, divorce or other stressful events
  • physical conditions such as arthritis, kidney disease, heart failure, heartburn, asthma, Parkinson's disease and hyperthyroidism
  • circadian rhythm disruptions such as shift work
  • prescription or nonprescription medications
  • stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine
  • alcohol and other drugs
  • other specific sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome (RLS) or sleep apnea

Intermittent and transient insomnia (insomnia that lasts only for a few nights and returns from time to time) can result from:

  • temporary changes in the surrounding environment
  • stress
  • extreme temperatures
  • circadian rhythm disruptions such as jet lag
  • side effects from medication taken on a short-term basis

Insomnia is a common condition in which you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or returning to sleep after you awaken. It can be a chronic (long-term) problem if it lasts more than 3 nights per week for more than a month. Or it may be an acute (short-term) problem if it lasts less than that. Either way, it can be very disruptive to your daily routine. Most people (8 out of 10) have insomnia that is caused by a medical condition, medicines, or other substances.

Insomnia is more than just a nuisance that may leave you feeling tired the next day. If it is a chronic problem, it may raise your risk for heart attack and stroke. Research studies have shown a link between fewer than 6 hours of sleep a night and cardiovascular disease. If you have long-term insomnia, your physician can help you identify and treat the cause.

Insomnia is a disorder marked by a lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep. It may be acute or chronic.

The latest studies indicate that nearly a quarter of the American population suffers with insomnia almost every night.

Although anyone can experience insomnia at any time, it is more common in women, and it tends to increase with age. It often, though not always, occurs in conjunction with other health problems.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.