What Causes Insomnia?
June 18, 2022

What Causes Insomnia?

Long-term risks associated with insomnia include depression, anxiety and heart disease. You can improve your quality of sleep by determining the source of your poor sleep patterns.

Insomnia is the inability to sleep enough hours per night despite adequate sleep opportunities. It's having a disturbed sleep routine that causes not only daytime sleepiness, resulting in frequent daytime napping that affects work and school, but also a lower quality of life because you can’t do the things you enjoy.

Each person requires varying hours of sleep, but most of us require at least seven to eight hours. However, due to various factors, such as stressful life events, you may experience shorter sleep time at some point in your life.

People with insomnia usually experience fewer hours of sleep for more than three months. If this sounds like you, read on to learn about the possible causes of insomnia, the different types of insomnia, and how you can improve your sleep quality.

What triggers insomnia?

Insomnia symptoms can affect your daily life by causing fatigue, difficulty concentrating and irritability. If you are having difficulty sleeping, you should consult a sleep specialist to determine the root cause and rule out any underlying medical conditions. Insomnia can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • Poor sleep hygiene or an irregular bedtime schedule
  • A stressful event such as divorce, excessive work, health problems or death of a loved one
  • Anxiety
  • Depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder or other medical conditions
  • Caffeinated drinks
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease as a result of eating too much before sleep time
  • Shift work that affects the body's internal body clock, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle

Five types of insomnia

While insomnia is a common sleep disorder, each person experiences different symptoms depending on the type of insomnia they have. There are several types of insomnia, with the five most common being: chronic insomnia, sleep onset insomnia, sleep maintenance insomnia, early morning awakening insomnia and shift work sleep disorder (SWSD).

Chronic insomnia

If you have trouble falling and staying asleep at least three nights per week for at least three months, you may have chronic insomnia. Often, it is a combination of several factors that contribute to chronic insomnia. Identifying and treating its underlying cause is the best way to improve sleep quality and reduce symptoms. A variety of treatment options are available for chronic insomnia, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), relaxation techniques and medication.

Sleep onset insomnia

One of the most common types of insomnia, sleep onset insomnia is characterised by difficulty falling asleep at night. This can be caused by a number of factors, including stress, anxiety, depression, medication adverse effects and sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. Treatment for sleep onset insomnia usually includes lifestyle changes, such as relaxation techniques, and avoiding stimulating activities before bedtime, as well as CBT. In some cases, medications may also be prescribed to help you achieve deep sleep faster.

Sleep maintenance insomnia

Sleep maintenance insomnia is a type of insomnia characterised by difficulty falling and staying asleep. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including stress, anxiety, underlying medical conditions, or common side effects of medications. Treatment for this type of insomnia usually consists of changing one's lifestyle and diet, and avoiding caffeine and heavy meals before bed. Doctors may also prescribe medication to help people fall and stay asleep in some cases.

Early morning awakening insomnia

This type of insomnia is characterised by difficulty staying asleep until the desired time in the morning, and often results in daytime sleepiness. The cause of this type of insomnia is unknown, but it is thought to be a common sleep disorder. Treatment for early morning awakening insomnia typically includes lifestyle changes and medications. Some people may also benefit from therapy or relaxation techniques.

Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD)

Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) is a type of insomnia that affects people who work night shifts or other irregular hours. The most common symptoms of SWSD are nighttime sleep difficulties, waking up frequently during the night, and frequent daytime napping. There are several ways to help manage SWSD, including following a regular sleep schedule, using sleep aids and getting regular exercise during the day. Long-term risks associated with SWSD include increased risk for accidents and injuries, heart disease and mental health disorders.

The treatment of insomnia is determined by the root cause of the condition. That is why, if you are experiencing symptoms of insomnia, you should consult with a healthcare provider who specialises in sleep management or lifestyle medicine. You'll be doing yourself a big favour because a sleep specialist can help you improve not only your sleep cycle but also your mental and physical health.

Dr Michelle Woolhouse

Integrative GP and Vively Medical Director

Dr Michelle Woolhouse is an integrative GP, with over 20 years experience treating chronic conditions through lifestyle medicine