What is Insomnia, and Why Can’t I Sleep?
It’s quite natural to have a rough night tossing and turning, when one can’t sleep because of stress — or seemingly no reason at all. Then there’s the old waking up in the middle of the night, wide-awake and exhausted, only to get no sleep before the alarm goes off and the day begins anew.
As we know it, we’re all bound to have at least some sleep problems once in a while, and this is perfectly normal. Chalk it up to having too much coffee or sugar during the day, being a bit too jittery about that early morning interview, or what have you. However, for some people, the rest of us sure know how to take a good night’s rest for granted. When sleepless nights and uncommon sleep problems become all too common, what you actually have is a sleeping disorder known as insomnia.
I’m an Insomniac, and I Can’t Sleep!
Poor thing, you must be tired! If this article doesn’t put you to bed, hopefully it can help you learn more about your condition and discover ways to get the proper rest you deserve.
So what’s the insomnia definition, anyway?
Simply put, insomnia means having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep on a regular basis. But in medical terms, chronic insomnia is defined by having difficulty sleeping at least 3 nights a week, for at least 3 months. If your insomnia lasts less than 3 months, it is considered short-term insomnia, while chronic insomnia (3 months or longer) has been known to last for years, and even decades.
Insomnia has 2 general forms:
Sleep onset insomnia: when you can’t fall asleep
Sleep maintenance insomnia: when you can’t stay asleep
To better understand insomnia causes, it’s often defined by its subtypes, which highlight the insomnia symptoms. If you can’t sleep on a regular basis, it may be best to begin with identifying which insomnia subtype you’re suffering from before looking for a solution.
Subtypes of insomnia include:
Psychophysiological Insomnia: this is usually defined by having an obsessive focus on going to sleep, usually resulting in the opposite.
Poor Sleep Hygiene: Poor sleep hygiene refers to sleep-disturbing habits, such as drinking too much caffeine during the day, taking long naps, having an inconsistent sleeping schedule, and making a habit of staying awake in bed (using your phone, computer, etc).
Behavioural Insomnia in Children: As many new parents know, infants often suffer from sleep onset insomnia and have difficulty falling asleep, while toddlers and older kids tend to have what is known as limit-setting insomnia — or the dreaded bedtime resistance.
Idiopathic Insomnia: This is considered a genetically-based type of insomnia that usually begins during childhood and can persist into adulthood. It is one of the least understood forms of insomnia today, and is best diagnosed by a specialist using insomnia tests.
Paradoxical Insomnia: This is when you think you didn’t sleep, but you actually did. That’s why it’s called paradoxical insomnia.
Pregnancy Insomnia: Normally caused by hormone fluctuations and discomfort during pregnancy.
Insomnia Caused by a Medical Condition: Chronic pain, discomfort, sleep apnea, and other medical conditions are all common reasons why a person can’t sleep.
Insomnia Caused by a Mental Disorder: Anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses can play a major role in insomnia.
Insomnia Caused by Drug or Substance Use: Recreational drugs such as alcohol and others as well as many prescription drugs can cause insomnia.
For some, getting to the root cause of their sleepless night may be easier than for others. For instance, if you’re an insomniac because you work late while drinking coffee and sugary drinks, then treating your condition may be as easy balancing your sugar and caffeine intake while taking a few extra steps to make sure you wind down a little before bed.
For others, insomnia is more complicated, and a general practitioner or sleep specialist may help them determine its cause and narrow down the proper insomnia treatment for their condition. While most doctors nowadays avoid prescribing medication for insomnia, some may suggest taking sleeping pills. We don’t recommend sleeping pills for insomnia, as they tend to have negative side-effects and you may become dependent on them for sleeping, as we explain in our article on The Truth About Sleeping Tablets.
As you’ve learned by now, insomnia is a broad sleeping disorder with many different causes. For each person, how to cure insomnia can have a completely different meaning. Here are some steps to better understanding and treating insomnia:
- Study the different insomnia subtypes and which one best describes your sleeping disorder.
- If you can’t figure out which subtype applies to you, see a general practitioner and describe your symptoms, medical history, current situation, etc.
- Try visiting a sleep specialist to identify your insomnia subtype. There are also various insomnia tests you can take with the help of a sleep specialist, which include a polysomnography and actigraphy. Sleep specialists often refer their patients to cognitive behavioural therapy and other natural treatments to help them with insomnia.
- Unless your insomnia is rooted in a medical or psychological condition, it can usually be treated by simply addressing poor sleep hygiene and practicing healthy preparation for bed.
- Your physical health and environment play a big role in your ability to sleep, and people often suffer from insomnia which can be prevented by simply exercising more, eating balanced meals, and having an ideal sleeping environment.
Try following these tips for a better sleeping regimen:
- Maintain a consistent sleeping schedule by waking up and going to bed at the same time every day.
- Sleep in a dark, cool, and quiet environment.
- Make yourself sleepy before bedtime by reading a book in a comfortable position.
- Exercise during the day, and on a daily basis.
- Invest in a comfortable mattress, pillows, and covers for better sleep.
- You should always avoid things that have a negative impact on your ability to sleep — of which there are plenty. Things that can cause a disrupted sleeping regimen include:
- Smoking, alcohol, and caffeinated drinks 6 hours before bedtime
- Sugary snacks and eating big meals late in the evening and at night
- Phones, computers, and television screens before bedtime
- Exercise 4 hours before bedtime
- Daytime naps, which can disrupt your sleep schedule and cause sleeplessness at night
For insomnia treatment and general sleeping difficulties, you can also try several helpful tips on How to Get to Sleep.