What is Insomnia?

Overview  |  Symptoms  |  Causes  |  Diagnosis  |  Treatment

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder, in which the sufferer may find it difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep; people with insomnia tend to also still feel tired upon waking. Everyone has different sleeping patterns and need different amounts of sleep. The average person needs 7-9 hours of sleep per night, although some people may function perfectly fine after just three hours sleep. You will know what is normal for you and how much sleep you require.

Insomnia is often put into two categories: type and duration. There is primary and secondary insomnia. Primary insomnia is described as difficulty sleeping without cause, whereas secondary insomnia occurs as a result of an underlying condition – health or psychological, like depression. In terms of duration, insomnia can be short-term (acute), lasting for 1-4 weeks or long-term (chronic), lasting more than four weeks.

Symptoms of Insomnia

As sleep patterns differ from person to person, it is difficult to know what defines normal sleep. Symptoms of insomnia may include:

  • difficulty falling asleep
  • waking up several times during the night and finding it difficult to get back to sleep
  • waking up early in the morning
  • still feeling tired upon waking
  • feeling exhausted during the day
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feeling irritable and depressed

What causes Insomnia?

There are various factors that can contribute to poor sleep.

Existing health conditions: sometimes insomnia is caused by physical conditions including arthritis, hormonal problems, heart conditions, other sleep disorders, etc.

Psychological factors: stress, depression, grief and anxiety are major causes of difficulty sleeping.

Stimulants: stimulants such as alcohol, drugs, nicotine and caffeine can all cause insomnia. These substances are best avoided if you are suffering from poor sleep.

Jet lag: this can lead to short-term insomnia.

How is Insomnia diagnosed?

Insomnia does not usually require a diagnosis as it tends to resolve after a short period of time. However, if insomnia becomes chronic and affects daily life, it is worth visiting your doctor. It is likely that your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. They may also ask you to keep a sleep diary for a couple of weeks to find out what is causing difficulty sleeping.

Treating Insomnia

Finding what is causing you poor sleep is useful in treating insomnia, it is also important as there may be an underlying medical condition.


There are several ways to treat insomnia, a good place to start is with practising good sleep hygiene, this includes:

  • avoiding having caffeine, alcohol or nicotine six hours before going to bed
  • having a fixed time that you go to bed and wake up
  • no nap during the day as it could interfere with sleep
  • Regularly exercising can help you sleep, although do not do it within four hours of going to sleep
  • having a good sleep environment, which means your bedroom shouldn’t be too hot or too cold. Also, you shouldn’t use your bedroom for work, television or eating.
  • winding down before going to bed. You could try and have a warm drink, bath or read a book. It is best to avoid the TV just before bed as it can act as a stimulant and prevent you from sleeping.


If insomnia becomes chronic and practising good sleep hygiene has proved ineffective, your doctor may recommend medication. This is usually only used as a last resort as they come with a lot of side effects, like drowsiness during the day. Additionally, the dose will continuously need to be increased as it becomes less effective the more you use it; it can also potentially be addictive.