Insomnia is a persistent sleep disorder associated with acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) sleeplessness – usually difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for the desired length of time.

A woman lying awake next to her sleeping partner

Insomnia causes are widespread and it is often itself a symptom of or related to another disorder: links have been found between chronic insomnia and stress, as well as other anxiety disorders and depression. However, causes can also be physical, such as pain at night, illness and the use of certain medications or stimulants. Even the environment you sleep in can affect the quality of your rest if it is too light, too hot or cold, or too noisy.

What are its symptoms?

Insomnia manifests as:

  • Night-time restlessness, including trouble initiating sleep, difficulty staying asleep or frequent waking, poor sleep quality, and awakening early and being unable to go back to sleep.

The effects of insomnia include:

  • Sleepiness during waking hours and depleted energy levels
  • Irritability as a result of lack of sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating or problems with memory.

How is it diagnosed?

While we all experience the odd sleepless night from time to time, if inadequate sleep is affecting your job, relationships or otherwise interfering with your ability to lead a normal life, a diagnosis of insomnia may be considered by your doctor.

The diagnosis will usually involve a physical examination, a medical history and an evaluation of your sleep history. You may be asked to keep a sleep diary or undergo a sleep study. Usually a healthcare practitioner will diagnose chronic insomnia if the condition has persisted for more than a month.

What are your treatment options?

Depending on the cause and severity, insomnia may not require treatment, as acute insomnia will usually resolve on its own and mild cases can be addressed with certain behaviour modifications or by implementing better sleep habits.

Insomnia treatment in more severe cases may include a range of medications such as prescription sleeping pills. However, it is essential to first seek remedies for any other underlying condition that may be contributing to your sleeplessness before resorting to medication. For example, if stress is keeping you up at night, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help you to change this negative stress response.

Can it be prevented?

While insomnia is common, there are ways in which you may avoid those unnecessary hours of lost sleep. Most important is so-called ‘sleep hygiene’ – that is, good bedtime habits. These include going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, especially late in the day, getting regular exercise and establishing a relaxing bedtime routine. If you can’t fall asleep, don’t try to force it: do something non-stimulating until you feel ready to try to nod off again.
For more info
The Sleep Centre Network

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015