What is Insomnia? A Basic Definition

The meaning of insomnia is any sleep disorder that makes it difficult for someone to fall asleep or remain asleep. When most people think of sleeping difficulties, they usually think of what is called sleep onset insomnia -having a problem falling asleep in the first place. However, sleep maintenance insomnia, where you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, can be just as troubling.

Insomnia is a very common problem that most people experience from time to time. Yet some people have chronic insomnia, which can be harmful to your emotional as well as physical health. As more and more research is showing, getting enough sleep is absolutely critical to our well being.

Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, but most of us require between seven and eight hours per night to feel our best. If we get much less than this, it can drain our energy and put us at risk for a variety of health problems.

Types of Insomnia

There are actually many varieties of insomnia. There’s a big difference, for example, between someone who has an occasional problem falling asleep and someone who has severe insomnia almost every single night. Some of the various kinds of insomnia include:

Transient or Intermittent Insomnia

Short term insomnia that lasts for a few nights, usually brought on by some event, new circumstances, new medication or other change.

Paradoxical Insomnia

A condition in which people believe they aren’t sleeping when in fact they are. Someone might complain of insomnia, but when examined objectively, as in a sleep laboratory, it’s found that they’re sleeping more than they believe.

Psychophysiological Insomnia

Psychophysiological Insomnia is the technical name for insomnia not caused by any known medical condition. This is actually one of the most common forms of insomnia.

Fatal Familial Insomnia

A rare genetic disorder of the brain that causes insomnia that gets progressively worse over time, leading to hallucinations, mental confusion and eventually death.

Idiopathic Insomnia

This is a lifelong insomnia that begins in childhood and continues throughout life that’s not connected with any medical or psychiatric disorders.

Hypothyroidism Insomnia

As the name suggests, this is insomnia caused by a thyroid disorder.

Bipolar Insomnia

Bipolar Insomnia occurs during manic phases of bipolar disorder.

The above are some of the many varieties of insomnia, which gives you an idea of how many different factors can cause sleep disorders. It’s important to identify the type of insomnia you have, because if there’s a medical cause (such as a thyroid disorder), this needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

The signs and symptoms of insomnia, then, will vary depending on what type you have. It can mean difficulty falling asleep in the first place, or waking up and remaining awake in the night. There may or may not be an obvious cause, such as an illness, stress, lifestyle change or other event.

Facts About Insomnia

Quite a bit of research has been done on insomnia in recent years. Whether you read popular health magazines or search online, you can find hundreds of articles, medical journals and books that contain information about sleep disorders.

While it’s easy to think of insomnia as a problem that’s unique to modern society, some people have always had trouble falling or staying asleep. The word “insomnia” comes from Latin, and dates back to the 17th Century, so we can be sure the problem is at least a few hundred years old. Some very famous people, including Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin were insomniacs.

As with many health problems, insomnia may be hereditary in some cases. However, it’s just as likely to be due to psychological or lifestyle factors rather than anything genetic. Hormones can also play a role, as many women have this problem around the time of menopause.

Since insomnia is so often related to the way our minds and emotions work, anxiety or fear about the problem can actually make it worse. This is a dilemma for many insomniacs. They start to worry so much about their difficulty that it adds to their insomnia.

Insomnia Statistics

When you’re tossing and turning in bed in the middle of the night, it’s easy to believe that this is a rare problem. It’s a lot more common than you might think, though. Here are some revealing statistics about insomnia:

  • Over 30% of the population has insomnia

  • Close to 10 Million people in the United States use prescription sleep medication

  • About half of all people over age 60 experience insomnia

  • Women are almost twice as likely to experience insomnia than men

  • If you are sleep deprived, you’re 27% more likely to be overweight

As we can see, then, insomnia is not a rare phenomenon but a major health issue for many people. It’s also something that can occur at any age.

Even infants and toddlers can suffer from insomnia, and this can be quite troubling to parents. It’s often difficult to diagnose this problem in very young people. Babies under one year old need about 12 hours of sleep per night, while toddler up to three years old can sleep even more, up to 14 hours. Lack of sleep in infants and toddlers can cause many difficulties, such as shortened attention span, irritability and mood swings.

If a medical cause can’t be identified in childhood insomnia, parents are usually advised to make sure their kids follow a regular schedule. Certain foods, medications or too much time in front of the TV or computer may contribute to the problem.

Insomnia in teenagers is quite common, and this can have a variety of causes. Natural hormonal changes that occur during puberty can be a factor, and teens often start staying up later even though they still have to get up early for school. Additionally, many teens today drink caffeinated beverages that are a common cause of insomnia. Just as lack of activity can contribute to teenagers being overweight or obese, it can also make it harder for them to fall asleep at night.

As mentioned above, women are more prone to insomnia than men, and there are certain times when they are especially vulnerable to this condition. It’s very common for women to experience insomnia during pregnancy and, in particular, shortly before labor. This can be caused both by hormonal changes and by the pain and discomfort that often accompanies pregnancy.

Nor does this problem necessarily fade away after the child is born. Many women experience post natal insomnia after childbirth. While some of this can be attributed to the demands of the newborn baby, it goes beyond this. After giving birth, the body is still going through hormonal changes that can make it harder to sleep.

Insomnia in the elderly is also very common. While this is sometimes caused by health problems and the medications that are taken for these, there can also be psychological and lifestyle factors involved. After retirement, many people are not accustomed to the lack of activity and this can make it harder for them to sleep. Depression is also quite common among the elderly, and when people are depressed they’re very likely to experience insomnia.

Causes of Insomnia

The reasons for insomnia are numerous, and even doctors and medical researchers can’t always explain the cause. Insomnia is not really a single disease, but a symptom that can have all kinds of underlying causes. Here are just a few of the conditions and causes that might contribute to insomnia:

  • Depression, anxiety or stress

  • Jet Lag

  • ADD or ADHD

  • Consumption of alcohol or caffeine

  • Inactivity or sedentary lifestyle

  • Prescription medication

  • Medical causes -thyroid disorders, heart problems, diabetes, others

This includes quite a few factors, and even this list is far from complete. Modern life can make it difficult to avoid some of the causes. For example, some people have jobs that compel them to work unusual hours, or to travel frequently, and this can disrupt their sleep cycles.

Getting a Diagnosis for Insomnia

If you’re experiencing long term insomnia, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor. You can find lots of information online, such as a symptom questionnaire that can help you in identifying the cause of your insomnia. Yet it’s still good to get a professional diagnosis as well. That way, if there’s a medical cause you can get the proper treatment.

Occasional insomnia, which might be caused by a stressful situation, jet lag or overindulgence of some kind is nothing to worry about. It’s the more persistent kinds that become a threat to our well-being.

Effects of Insomnia

Even though insomnia can be a disturbing symptom all by itself, it can also lead to other consequences.

  • Stress, Irritability, mood swings, depression

  • Lack of energy

  • Poor job performance or difficulty concentrating in school

  • At risk when driving or operating equipment

  • Compromised immune system

  • Obesity

When it comes to stress and mood disorders, you can get caught in a vicious cycle, as these can all be a cause of insomnia. Yet chronic insomnia can also make them worse, as lack of sleep has an impact on your moods and stress levels.

The link between obesity or being overweight with lack of sleep is a relatively new finding. It appears that not getting enough sleep has an effect on the metabolism, and on the part of the brain that influences your appetite. People who sleep less are inclined to eat more, not only because they’re up longer hours but because their brains are giving them the message that they’re hungry.

The long term effects of insomnia can be dangerous. Not only is it unsafe to drive and perform many everyday tasks when you’re sleep deprived, but the body’s immune system can become harmed. In extreme cases, such as with fatal familial insomnia, lack of sleep can literally be fatal. Fortunately, this extreme type of insomnia is very rare.

Treatment Options

What solutions are available to treat insomnia? There’s no one single cure for insomnia, and the approach for overcoming it depends on the cause. There are a wide variety of treatments that doctors and alternative practitioners recommend as solutions for insomnia. These include:

  • Sleep medications, either prescription or over-the-counter

  • Herbal remedies -especially valerian, skullcap and St. John’s Wort

  • Hypnotherapy

  • Aromatherapy

  • Dietary Supplements, such as melatonin, magnesium and vitamins

  • Therapy, counseling and support groups

  • Lifestyle changes -more exercise, change in diet

Sleep medications

Prescription medication is usually considered a last resort when it comes to treating insomnia. While many drugs, including antidepressants such as Trazodone and Zoloft and sedatives such as Ambien and Lunesta can be helpful, they often come with unwanted side effects, especially drowsiness.

Natural remedies

Many alternative therapies for beating insomnia, such as hypnosis and aromatherapy are controversial, but they do seem to help many people. They can usually be safely and inexpensively tried. When it comes to herbs, however, there can be side effects if they are taken regularly. Therefore, you should research any herb and ask your doctor’s advice before self-medicating with herbs.

Lifestyle changes

In some cases, changes in your lifestyle (which may be as simple as exercising regularly and cutting back on your intake of caffeine and alcohol) can make a big difference. Anything that’s useful at reducing stress can help with sleep disorders as well.

Therapy, counseling and support groups

Therapy and support groups can serve a valuable purpose as well. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is sometimes helpful, as are various other types of therapy. It’s partly a matter of finding the right counselor or therapist as well as an effective technique.

Joining a support group can help relieve the stress caused by insomnia, and this can sometimes help to alleviate the condition. Even if this doesn’t happen, however, it can be a relief to talk about your problem with others. You can find insomnia forums and support groups online, and you can also check to see if there are any in your area.

Insomnia is a complex disorder that can be anything from a minor annoyance to a life threatening condition. If it’s having an impact on your life, you should seek medical help and try to determine what’s causing it and how it can be managed or overcome.