Insomnia: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

Everyone has had trouble sleeping at some point in their lives. Maybe nerves about an upcoming presentation, a late-afternoon nap, or a hefty before-bed snack kept you up into the wee hours of the night. The next day probably wasn’t one of your best–maybe you felt sluggish, exhausted, and irritable. 

But for insomniacs, this experience can become a common one. Here are the signs, causes, and potential treatments for insomnia. 

What does it mean to be an insomniac? 

The gist of insomnia can be summed up in one word: sleeplessness.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, insomnia is the difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even when you have the opportunity to do so and need further rest. 

Causes of Insomnia

The causes of insomnia are potentially infinite. Acute insomnia–a brief disruption in sleep for a few nights–is common, and there are many factors that impact the quality of your sleep on a daily basis. Everything from stress or anxiety, to spending too much time on your laptop before bed, to taking too many naps, to using cold medicine could lead to a bout of restless nights.

Chronic insomnia, or a frequent sleep deficit, can be caused by a wide variety of issues. Here are some examples: 

  • Medical conditions. These include nasal alergies, arthritis, asthma, or chronic pain. 
  • Emotional distress. There is a proven link between depression and insomnia. People with depression are at much higher risk of developing the sleep disorder, and lack of sleep can worsen depression symptoms. Anxiety and stress also lead to sleeplessness. 
  • Lifestyle/sleep patterns. If you have irregular or untraditional sleep patterns, you might be finding it hard to nod off at night. Naps, an irregular sleep schedule, or shift work can mess up your circadian rhythms.
  • Sleep disorders. This is a big one! If you’re chronically not getting the sleep you need or feel tired in spite of having a full night’s sleep, this could be a sign of a sleep disorder, like Restless Leg Syndrome or sleep apnea, that’s disrupting the quality of your rest. 


Here are some signs that you might be battling insomnia: 

  • Having trouble falling asleep
  • Waking up at night and not being able to get back to sleep
  • Waking up too early in the morning
  • Unrefreshing sleep (also called “non-restorative sleep”–a common symptom of sleep apnea)
  • Fatigue or daytime sleepiness
  • Mood swings, irritability, trouble concentrating, or trouble with memory
  • Behavioral problems, such as feeling impulsive or aggressive
  • Difficulty at work or school

Part of the trouble with giving a specific diagnosis for insomnia is how common these symptoms are! Everyone has felt sleepy or irratible at some point in their lives. Therefore, doctors provide guidelines for what constitues chronic insomnia: it must occur at least three nights a week for three months or longer


If you have chronic difficulty sleeping, you should talk to your doctor about it. Your doctor might consider prescribing you a medication to assist with sleeping, or, if the problem has roots in anxiety or depression, referring you to a psychotherapist. He might recommend that you undergo one of these treatment options. If you still have trouble sleeping, ask your doctor to refer you to a sleep specialist for testing.

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Photo Credit: Benjamin Watson


  1. Fred Monty Reply

    Acute insomnia–a brief disruption in sleep for a few nights–is common, and there are many factors that impact the quality of your sleep on a daily basis.

  2. Duck Life Reply

    There was a time when I really had trouble sleeping. I’m very sleepy but when I sleep, I can’t sleep even though I really want to sleep

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