What is Insomnia? Symptoms and Treatments
Do you find yourself struggling to sleep? Our expert pharmacists look into the causes, symptoms and treatment for insomnia and suggest useful coping strategies.
One in three people will experience episodes of insomnia during their lives.
So, if you often find it difficult to go to sleep, or spend hours lying awake during the night, you’re not alone. Sleep trouble can leave you feeling tired, irritable and unable to concentrate, but luckily there are things you can do to promote a better night’s rest and alleviate insomnia symptoms.
Our expert pharmacist discusses what insomnia is, how much sleep you need, the potential causes of your insomnia and available treatments, plus how you can get a better night’s sleep.
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that disrupts falling and/or staying asleep. People can suffer from short-term insomnia, which tends to last for less than three months, or from chronic insomnia that can persist for years. There are two main types of insomnia:
- Primary insomnia – sleep problems that aren’t linked to anything else
- Secondary insomnia – sleep problems that are caused by another health condition such as asthma, depression, cancer, pain etc.
What is insomnia caused by?
Insomnia can be caused by a variety of factors, which tend to fall into four categories: external factors, substance use, mental health conditions and physical health conditions.
1. External factors
External factors can often trigger insomnia, for example, sleeping in a room that’s too hot or too cold, loud noises, light filtering in through a window, and an uncomfortable bed. In addition, anything that disrupts your circadian rhythm can contribute to insomnia, such as shift work and jet lag.
2. Substance use
Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine can all adversely affect your sleep patterns, as well as recreational drug use like cocaine and ecstasy.
3. Mental health conditions
It’s quite common for someone experiencing stress, anxiety or depression to suffer from insomnia. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have also been linked to an increased risk of sleep trouble.
4. Physical health conditions
Some physical health conditions such as chronic pain, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, overactive thyroid and menopause can also impact sleep patterns and cause insomnia.
The main symptoms of insomnia include:
- Struggling to fall asleep
- Waking up multiple times during the night
- Lying awake at night
- Waking up early and not being able to get back to sleep
- Finding it hard to nap during the day even though you're tired
- Depression and anxiety
- Feeling tired and irritable during the day
- Difficulty paying attention and focusing
How much sleep do I need?
According to NHS guidelines, children need between nine and 13 hours’ sleep each night, but healthy adults should aim for between seven and nine hours to feel well and rested.
Why is sleep important?
Getting enough sleep is imperative and can have a huge range of mental and physical health benefits. During sleep, our bodies work to repair damaged DNA and cells caused by free radicals and this is a key reason why we need sleep.
Sleep plays an important role in allowing our body to rest and recover its energy levels and supports healthy brain function, so you can wake up feeling recharged and alert. Other sleep benefits include maintaining a healthy balance of hormones, strengthening your immune system, boosting your memory and increasing your capacity for learning and productivity. Sleep also promotes growth and brain development in children.
Poor sleep quality or sleep deficiency over time means the brain cannot function properly and can also increase your risk of weight gain, obesity, and chronic health conditions like strokes. In addition, not getting enough sleep can affect your body’s ability to produce cytokines – a protein that supports your immune system by targeting infection and inflammation – meaning you are more susceptible to diseases. If mental health problems are causing your insomnia, it can be a difficult cycle to break, as sleepless nights can increase stress and anxiety levels, which can further exacerbate mental health issues.
How to sleep better
Whilst the causes of insomnia can differ from person to person, most people will find themselves agonising over how to get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, there is no magic cure for insomnia, but there are a number of insomnia treatments you can try. Here are our best tips on how to sleep:
1. Adopt good sleep hygiene
Start by setting up a sleep schedule, where you aim to go to bed and wake up at around the same time each day to get into a routine. That said, you should only go to bed when you feel tired, as going to bed too early can leave you tossing and turning for hours anyway. To prepare yourself for sleep, start winding down an hour or so in advance. Turn off the television and put your phone on airplane mode or leave it in another room. Mobiles and tablets emit blue light that can suppress the body’s production of the sleep-promoting hormone, melatonin. So, instead of swiping and scrolling, take a bath or read a book. Then, make sure your mattress and pillows are comfortable and the room is quiet and dark – it might help to use an eye mask or earplugs. Following these steps, every night can be a highly effective insomnia remedy.
2. Practise relaxation techniques
Learning how to calm both the mind and body is a useful tool for managing any stress or anxiety that might be preventing you from getting enough sleep. Explore meditation and mindfulness, and spend a few minutes doing some deep-breathing exercises before going to bed. Stand, sit or lie down – whatever feels most comfortable – and take a moment to scan your body from head to toe, encouraging each muscle to relax. Take a deep breath in for five counts through your nose, then exhale gently for five counts through your mouth. Repeat this a few times, while really focusing on the sensation of breathing in a calm and controlled way.
3. Recognise your triggers
Keep a sleep diary and look for patterns forming between what you did during the day and what your quality of sleep was like that night-time. Do you sleep better on the days when you’ve been more physically active? Is your sleep more disturbed when you’ve got an important meeting the next day? Experiment with eating a large lunch and a small dinner; a big meal before bedtime can disrupt sleep as your body is focused on digesting the food rather than winding down. Similarly, try not to smoke, or drink alcohol, coffee or non-herbal tea at least six hours before it’s time to go to bed. Remember, learning to recognise the causes of your insomnia can help you to devise personalised coping strategies of your own.
We hope this guide to what insomnia is, its causes, symptoms and treatments has answered any questions you may have and will help you to get a better night’s sleep.
If you’ve had trouble sleeping for a prolonged period of time, speak to a pharmacist to find out how they can support you. If nothing you try seems to be helping, it’s time to consult your doctor, who may recommend CBT, more medication, or a sleep centre.
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