What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleeping disorder where you experience chronic (long-term) disrupted sleep. You may have great difficulty trying to get to sleep, stay asleep, or feel that when you have slept you still feel tired and unrefreshed. The effects of long-term sleep disturbance have consequences for your everyday life, causing problems with concentration, motivation, feeling listless and lethargic. This can impact on your relationships, family life, and your ability to function at work, and so on.

People with insomnia may have plenty of opportunities to sleep and rest but, can’t take advantage of it as getting to sleep is very difficult. In addition, they do not feel as if they could drop off to sleep at any time. Insomnia is different to having short periods of disturbed sleep because this sleep disorder's symptoms persist over months and occur on most nights of the week.

 This article on insomnia treatment is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

Two types of insomnia

Primary insomnia – disrupted sleep not caused by any underlying physical or psychological condition. Most common causes include general anxiety, noise, extreme temperatures, caffeine, alcohol, and stress.

Secondary insomnia – disrupted sleep caused by a known psychological or physical condition. Common causes include sleep apnoea, pain, restless legs syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, certain medications etc.

Primary insomnia is the most common form of the condition, affecting one in ten people in the UK. It’s more common in women than men, and older people are more likely to suffer than younger people. However, insomnia can affect anyone at any age.

How much sleep do we need?

The amount of sleep we need depends on our age and our personal needs. Babies generally require about seventeen hours, whereas older children need nine to ten. Adults generally report needing anything between five-ten hours sleep per night, although the average is around seven.

The best way to find out how much sleep you need at night is to record how many hours you’ve slept when you’ve had a day where you’ve been able to function efficiently, have not felt tired and woke up in the morning feeling refreshed.

As people get older, sleep becomes more fragmented and lighter, and it generally takes longer to fall asleep.


The main symptom of insomnia is having difficulty falling or staying asleep. In addition, you may:

  • Wake up early in the morning
  • Wake up feeling tired and not refreshed
  • Wake up frequently in the night and have difficulty going back to sleep
  • Have trouble concentrating during the day
  • Feel depressed, anxious, and irritable

What are the treatments?

1. Primary insomnia

Primary insomnia is sleep disruption that’s unlikely to clear up on its own, although occasionally it does. Often you need insomnia treatments such as psychological help or to take medicines, but there is a great deal you can do yourself to try and change your disturbed sleep pattern:

  • Reduce your caffeine intake (tea, coffee, fizzy drinks), especially in the evening
  • Reduce your sugar intake (sugary drinks and food), especially in the evening
  • Avoid drinking alcohol late in the day. Although it may initially help you get to sleep it will reduce the quality of the sleep and may cause you to wake up early
  • Avoid overeating late in the day, especially foods that contain a lot of fat, sugar, and protein. Try a low fat yoghurt or a healthy cereal
  • Give up smoking, as this could contribute to night-time breathing difficulties
  • Exercise regularly through the day but avoid strenuous activity close to bedtime
  • Avoid napping during the day
  • Set yourself a bedtime routine so you go to bed and wake up at regular times. You could have a warm bath and a milky drink, or listen to some soothing music
  • Try doing meditation or yoga in the evenings, as these exercises could help relax your body and prepare you for sleep
  • Make sure your bedroom’s main function is for sleep. Set the temperature to what best suits you, have as many or as few pillows as you need, make sure the room is well ventilated, and is as dark as possible
  • Reading before bed is better than watching television – which can be stimulating rather than calming
  • Stop worrying. Lying in bed worrying about not being able to get to sleep can make things worse. Tell yourself that lying relaxing, calm, and warm is as good as sleep, which helps take the pressure off. If your head tends to be full of thoughts and worries take a notebook and pencil and write it all down before getting into bed. This will help you to stop brooding.

Complimentary medicine

There is limited evidence that the plant valerian can be helpful in inducing sleep. Many people find that inhaling lavender or chamomile oil can help, and some traditionalists use Passiflora and wild lettuce extract, but there have not been any empirical studies to demonstrate their effectiveness as an insomnia treatment.

2. Secondary insomnia

Secondary insomnia is caused by an underlying physical or psychological condition and can be helped in two distinctive ways:

a) Medication – this is usually in the form of sleeping tablets (hypnotics) which can be prescribed by your doctor. These are effective in the short-term but should not be used for more than a month. They can cause drowsiness during the day and can be addictive. Sedatives are also sometimes used to help treat secondary insomnia but they can cause you to feel “hungover” in the morning.

b) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – a type of psychotherapy that has proven to get good results for people with insomnia. You will need to see a specially trained therapist over a number of weeks, and he or she will help you radically change your attitude to sleep.

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