Insomnia: Symptoms, causes, and self-help tips

Do you have insomnia? From symptoms and risks to treatments and self-help tips, here’s everything you need to know about the sleep disorder:

woman awake due to insomnia

by Kayleigh Dray |
Published on

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder, which makes it difficult for sufferers to fall asleep, or to stay asleep for as long as they desire.

Who does insomnia affect?

According to the NHS, insomnia is a very common problem, affecting around one in every three people in the UK.

It is particularly common in elderly people.

What are the main symptoms of insomnia?

The most obvious symptom is finding it difficult to fall asleep at night, but there are other insomnia symptoms which you may not be aware of.

These include:

  • lying awake for long periods at night

  • waking up several times during the night

  • waking up too early in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep

  • feeling groggy / unrefreshed when you wake up

  • feeling tired and irritable throughout the day

  • finding it difficult to concentrate or pay attention

  • finding it difficult to remember things

  • making more mistakes - or being more accident prone - than usual

Other symptoms include:

  • tension headaches

  • stomach pains

  • intestinal discomfort

  • ongoing anxiety about sleep

How much sleep will someone with insomnia usually get?

It varies depending on the person. However, according to medical experts, someone with insomnia will often take 30 minutes or more to fall asleep and may get only six or fewer hours of sleep for three or more nights a week over a month or more.

How much sleep should I get per night?

There is no ‘normal’ when it comes to sleep; everyone is different, and it really depends on how refreshed you feel.

However, as a rough guideline, adults are usually expected to feel refreshed after around seven to nine hours a night.

REMEMBER: Children and babies may sleep for much longer than this, and older adults may sleep for less.

Try the NHS’s sleep self-assessment calculator to see if you are getting enough sleep.

What causes insomnia?

There are many triggers for insomnia, as everyone is different.

However common causes of insomnia include:

  • stress

  • anxiety

  • post-traumatic stress disorder

  • grief / bereavement

  • a poor sleeping environment (temperature, noise, and comfort all play a part)

  • mental health conditions, such as depression or schizophrenia

  • physical health conditions, such as heart problems, arthritis, cancer, heart failure, lung disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), overactive thyroid, stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, urinary incontinence, an enlarged prostate, and long-term pain

  • change to work schedule

  • sleep disorders, such as snoring, narcolepsy, sleep apnoea, and night terrors

  • jet lag

  • poor sleep routine (napping during the day, inconsistent bedtimes, etc.)

  • certain medications and prescription drugs, including antidepressants, some pain relief, heart and blood pressure medications, epilepsy medicine, steroid medication, allergy medications, stimulants (such as Ritalin), some decongestants, and corticosteroids

weight loss products (many contain caffeine)

too much caffeine (found in tea, coffee, and energy drinks)

  • eating too late

  • drinking alcohol before bed

  • nicotine (found in cigarettes)

  • recreational drug use

  • childbirth

  • change in activity (becoming less physically or socially active can interfere with sleep at night)

  • ageing (insomnia is more common in those over 60)

These are just some of the causes of insomnia - and sometimes it's not possible to identify a clear cause.

What are the main health risks of insomnia?

Sleep is just as important for your wellbeing as a healthy diet and regular exercise - and losing sleep can affect you both physically and mentally.

According to the NHS: “Regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes – and it shortens your life expectancy.”

A lack of sleep can also wreak havoc with your sex life, as it lowers your libido.

Other risks of insomnia include:

  • higher blood pressure

  • irritability

  • reduced fertility

  • increased weight gain / obesity

  • lower performance at work or at school

  • slower reaction times when driving

  • psychiatric problems, such as depression or anxiety

  • higher risk of accidents

  • weaker immune system

  • increased risk and severity of long-term diseases or conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes

  • substance abuse

What self-help tips are there for dealing with insomnia?

There are small changes you can make to your day-to-day life which may help with your insomnia struggle.

These include:

  • sticking to a strict bedtime schedule

  • avoiding daytime naps

  • exercising for 30 minutes each day - but not close to bedtime

  • avoiding tea and coffee for a few hours before bed

  • avoiding alcohol and smoking (particularly in the few hours before bed)

  • avoiding big meals just before bedtime

  • not using televisions, phones, tablets, and computers shortly before going to bed

  • using lavender oil on your pillowcase

  • not using your bedroom for anything other than sleeping or sex (avoid watching television, making phone calls, eating, or working while in bed)

  • taking a bath before bed

  • drinking a warm, milky drink each night before bed (almond milk is often associated with good sleep)

  • listening to soft music before bed

  • avoiding over-the-counter sleeping tablets

  • keeping a sleep diary, to help gain a better understanding of your sleep patterns (your GP will also find this useful should you need medical assistance with your insomnia)

  • sleeping with your mobile phone on the other side of the room and face down, so that it does not light up and wake you during the night

You should also evaluate your bedroom to ensure that it is:

  • clean

  • comfortable

  • quiet

  • dark

  • warm (it should be around 18C)

If there is a great deal of noise coming from inside or outside your home, try using a sound machine or fan to block it with white noise, or use ear plugs.

Blackout blinds can help stop the glare of streetlights and morning light, or, failing that, try using an eye mask.

When should I see my GP about my insomnia?

If you have tried the above tips and have found them to make no difference, then it is time to make an appointment with your GP.

Your doctor will ask you many questions in a bid to get to the bottom of your insomnia, including questions about your day, about your lifestyle, about your bedtime regime, and about your insomnia.

They may also ask you about other issues which could be affecting your sleep, including whether you smoke, drink, use recreational drugs, travel for work, use any medications regularly, or have experienced any stressful events.

What treatments will my GP prescribe for my insomnia?

Your GP may suggest self-help techniques that you can try at home, or recommend a special type of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Prescription sleeping tablets will only be considered as a last resort, and, if so, only for a short period of time.

Read more about treating insomnia on the NHS’s website now.

Where can I find more information on insomnia?

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