What is Insomnia?

It’s 2 AM. You’ve been up for hours, possibly days at this point. No matter what you give up—caffeine, working out at night, eating bigger meals before bed—you can’t seem to get the rest you need. Or maybe you passed out hard, hopeful for those precious 8 hours, but you never seem to stay asleep and wake up over and over again. Why is this happening? What can you do about it? Is there a magic cure?

Chronic insomnia plagues roughly 10% of adults, and between 30-35% of adults experience short term symptoms of insomnia. If you think you’re suffering from the condition, you certainly aren’t alone. It’s estimated that workers who have insomnia might be losing nearly a week of productivity each year, and in the US alone that can add up to over $63 billion dollars lost. Productivity in the workplace isn’t the only part of life that insomnia can heavily impact—studies show that insomnia can lead to depression, anxiety, and even high blood pressure. With all of these potential risks, seeking diagnosis and treatment from your doctor should be a priority so you can get the sleep you need to be at your best.

What is insomnia? Let’s start at the basics—what actually is insomnia? It can turn into a bit of a catch-all, but insomnia is generally defined by difficulty falling or staying asleep even though the opportunity is there. Some doctors might even consider non-restorative or poor-quality sleep as a symptom of insomnia. Feeling irritable and restless throughout the day and having trouble concentrating can also stem from insomnia.

Some quick facts about this disorder:

  • More people with children than without report at least temporary symptoms of insomnia
  • People who are just naturally more awake and alert are more likely to have insomnia
  • More women than men suffer from this disorder
  • Elderly people are more likely to have insomnia, as they experience a change to their circadian rhythm
  • Researchers have found that people with insomnia actually have identifiable differences in their brains than those without.

What causes insomnia? Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders and there are a lot of contributing factors that could play a role in the prevalence in adults. Psychological factors can cause insomnia for short stints, but new research indicates that chronic insomnia may be entirely up to genetics.

Acute insomnia is characterized by losing sleep for a short period of time—maybe a few nights or having trouble for a week or two. Usually this is spurred by life circumstances and intense stress, but other things can play a part in losing sleep:

  • Stimulants and consuming alcohol before bed
  • Jet lag, shift work, or an irregular schedule
  • Environmental factors (Bright lights, ambient noise, etc.)
  • Certain foods
  • Certain medications

Acute insomnia is temporary, and often can be eased by eliminating stressors.

Chronic insomnia isn’t as easy to nail down, and can be caused by a variety of things out of your control. If you suffer from a lack of sleep for more than 3 nights a week for a month or longer, you should see your doctor.

Some causes of chronic insomnia include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic stress

Treatments for chronic insomnia can range from medication to cognitive behavioral therapies. Talking with your doctor can help identify what might be causing sleep loss and help make a plan to treat it.

How do I know if I have insomnia? Most people found to have insomnia report having low energy from bad sleep or lack of sleep, cognitive impairment, difficulty with relationships, and irritable moods. If you find that you haven’t been sleeping well, or staying asleep, regularly throughout the week, it might be worth looking at your daily routine and identifying anything that might be causing temporary sleep loss.

*How long does it take you to fall asleep? * Most people are asleep within 30 minutes of getting into bed. If it regularly takes you longer than 30 minutes, or hours, to get to sleep, you should talk to your doctor.

How long do you stay asleep? Everyone knows that 8 hours is supposed to be the magic number, but anything between 7-9 hours a night is pretty normal. If you’re often falling on the shorter end of this spectrum, and waking up after sleeping for only a few hours, you may have insomnia.

How are you doing throughout the day? Even if you think you’re getting adequate sleep, feeling exhausted throughout the day or like you didn’t get any sleep at all isn’t normal. Mood changes and irritability can also point to poor quality sleep, and is worth noting with your primary care physician.

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Shelly Weaver-Cather
Shelly Weaver-Cather

Shelly Weaver is part of the Content Team at Tuft & Needle, leading the writing and editing of our blog. Not quite a Phoenix native, (They take that sort of thing super seriously.) Shelly has spent most of her life in the Phoenix Metro area and has no plans of leaving anytime soon. She made the unexpected jump out of wedding photography and onto T&N’s team in 2016, and found a passion for the people that keep the lights on. She still finds herself shooting in her free time, though these days there are less bridal portraits and more masterpieces of her first child, Duke, a lab-pit mix with an unparalleled love for both T&N mattress hogging and couch destroying.

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