Insomnia Definition Causes, Treatment, Symptoms & Signs

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What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that regularly affects millions of people worldwide. In short, individuals with insomnia find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. The effects can be devastating.

Research has shown that people who have frequent insomnia are four times more likely to suffer from depression than people who sleep soundly. You’re also more likely to underperform at work and have difficult family relationships. More frightening, you could really hurt yourself (or your loved ones): The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that insufficient sleep contributes to more than 100,000 car crashes annually.


It’s hard to define insomnia because everyone requires different amounts of sleep. The bottom line, sleep experts say, is how you feel the next day. If you frequently wake up feeling dull and unrefreshed’either because it took you forever to fall asleep or you woke repeatedly at night or got up too early’there’s a good chance that insomnia is taking its toll.

Treatment for insomnia

Your doctor will most likely take a three-pronged approach to exploring the causes of your insomnia. The first step is to identify’and correct’any underlying physical or emotional problems that may be keeping you awake. After that, you’ll probably be asked to make a few lifestyle changes to promote better sleep. Finally, you may be given over-the-counter or prescription drugs to break the ‘insomnia cycle’ and help you get some much-needed rest.

Medications for insomnia

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the following medications can cause insomnia in some patients:

  • corticosteroids
  • statins
  • alpha blockers
  • beta blockers
  • SSRI antidepressants
  • ACE inhibitors
  • ARBs (angiotensin II-receptor blockers)
  • cholinesterase inhibitors
  • second generation (non-sedating) H1 agonists
  • glucosamine/chondroitin

Who is at risk for insomnia?

Most insomnia is triggered by temporary upsets’emotional stress, for example, or flare-ups of arthritis or other painful conditions. Once your life returns to normal, the quality of your sleep probably will, too, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Some people get so frustrated when they can’t sleep that they continue to feel anxious after the original problem is long gone. This can result in long-term, or chronic, insomnia’disturbed sleep at least three times a week for a month or more.

Alternative Therapies for Insomnia

Certain herbs have been used for centuries to ease insomnia. Valerian, a natural herbal tranquilizer, works best when rotated with other sleep-inducing herbs. Chamomile is a sweet-tasting herb that depresses the central nervous system the way antianxiety drugs do. Lemon balm (also known as melissa) has a citrusy aroma; its leaves are the plant’s medicinal part.

Lifestyle Changes

Whether you’ve battled insomnia for years or are experiencing it for the first time, the best place to start is with what doctors call ‘good sleep hygiene,’ habits that naturally promote better sleep. An hour before your usual bedtime, for example, get into a relaxing routine. Read or listen to soothing music. Avoid stressful activities, such as paying bills or completing work projects. Consider taking a hot bath. Your core body temperature will rise, then fall. That will help you fall asleep more readily’and stay asleep. Don’t take a bath just before bed, however, because it will temporarily increase blood flow and make you more alert.

Maintain regular sleep habits. Go to bed and get up at the same times every day, even on weekends. And go easy on the naps. They’re fine for catching up on occasional missed sleep, but napping regularly makes it harder to maintain a consistent sleep schedule.


A crucial part of sleep hygiene is to keep stress out of your bedroom. Limit what you do in bed to sleep or sex. Don’t use the room as a second study. If you do, you’ll start to associate going to bed with stress and anxiety. For the same reason, leave the bedroom when insomnia strikes. If you’re going to be frustrated because you can’t sleep, fret in the living room or kitchen. Go to bed only when you think you’re really ready to fall asleep.

Two additional things: Shut out bright light and noise. Install heavy curtains or blinds if you need to. Earplugs will block external sounds, or you can mask noises by running a fan, setting the radio to the fuzz between stations, or using a white noise machine.

Your daytime habits are just as important for beating insomnia as what you do at night. Don’t drink caffeinated beverages after about noon. Limit your alcohol consumption to one or two drinks in the evening. Alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep, but it causes more frequent nighttime awakenings.

Exercise is another key strategy for achieving better sleep. It tires you out and lowers levels of sleep-disrupting stress hormones. Just be sure to work out at least three hours before you turn in.

Another traditional remedy for insomnia is drinking a glass of warm milk, and there’s good evidence that it works. Milk helps prevent hunger from disturbing your sleep; it also contains an amino acid called tryptophan, which is converted in the brain into a ‘relaxing’ chemical known as serotonin. Once you’re in bed, try progressive muscle relaxation, a technique that involves tensing, then releasing all the muscles in your body. Start at your feet and move toward your head.

Finally, try to get a handle on the stressors in your life. If you’re in the throes of anxiety, it’s harder to fall asleep and sleep soundly. Some of the best stress-beating activities include yoga, meditation, and listening to soothing audiotapes.

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