How Insomnia Differs From Occasional Sleeplessness

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation


The causes and treatments for insomnia

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that disturbs not only a person’s ability to sleep at night, but also a person's ability function during the day. Someone who suffers from insomnia will find it difficult to fall asleep and/or stay asleep at night, and during the day, the person may suffer from concentration and memory issues, fatigue, and worries about sleep.

If these symptoms sound familiar, you’re not alone—some 40 million Americans experience insomnia every year, and it’s the most common sleep disorder in the U.S.

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia can come in one of two forms. One type—acute insomnia—lasts anywhere from one night to a few weeks, and is often associated with some kind of stressful life event, like a death in the family. Normally this form of insomnia goes away on its own without any need for medical intervention.

The other, more serious type is called chronic insomnia. This occurs if you have disrupted sleep at least three nights per week for at least three months. Various treatments (more on those in a minute) can often help people who suffer from chronic insomnia.

Determining whether a person is suffering from actual insomnia or just sleeplessness can be tricky, but in general people with insomnia will encounter at least one of these symptoms.

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up during the night, along with trouble falling back to sleep
  • Non-restorative sleep
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Mood problems
  • Interpersonal relationship problems
  • Difficulty at work or school
  • Behavioral issues

In many cases, a sleepless night here or there won’t be too harmful, as long as it doesn’t turn into a pattern. Consider how your form of insomnia affects your day-to-day life, and if troubleshooting the problem alone isn’t working, seek professional help.

Common Causes

Insomnia is associated with or caused by many different factors. A few of the most common associations and causes include:

  • Depression: It's not clear whether insomnia causes depression or vice versa, but there's an association between insomnia and people with depressive disorders.
  • Anxiety: Experiencing tension, worrying excessively, or feeling overwhelmed can all make it difficult to sleep.
  • Lifestyle: Working late into the night, taking long naps in the afternoon, or working shift hours can all make it harder to establish solid sleep routines.
  • Food and drink: Certain substances like alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and heavy meals near bedtime can all contribute to insomnia.

Getting a Diagnosis

While there are no definitive tests for insomnia, your doctor may use one of many different tools to diagnose you. Blood tests, sleep logs, and sleep studies are some of the more popular options.

Treating the Condition

Treatments may be non-medical or medical. Some non-medical treatment options include relaxation training and cognitive behavioral therapy, while medical options include over-the-counter and prescription medications.

If you think you could be suffering from insomnia, it’s important to see a doctor. After all, why waste another good night’s sleep when you don’t have to?