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by Amy Scholten, MPH
Insomnia is a sleep disorder. It may cause a number of sleep problems including trouble falling asleep, waking in the middle of the night, or waking very early in the morning. It may also be a sleep that is not restful. Insomnia can be a short-term problem, or it can be chronic. Chronic insomnia lasts for more than 4 weeks.
Insomnia can occur for many reasons. Short-term insomnia is often caused by temporary situations or problems with the environment. They may include:
There may be no clear reason for chronic insomnia. It may also be due to other medical or psychiatric conditions. Examples of conditions that can lead to sleep problems include:
Both chronic and short-term insomnia may be due to
Risk Factors TOP
Insomnia is more common in women during and after menopause. It is also common in adults 50 years of age or older.
Other factors that increase the risk of insomnia include:
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call your doctor if you are having frequent insomnia. Let your doctor know if the insomnia is making it hard for you to do your daily activities.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. You will also be asked about your job, eating habits, and drug and alcohol use.
You will also be asked about your schedule and sleep patterns. You may be asked to keep a sleep diary. This will include information about your naps, bedtime, and how often you wake during the night. Your doctor will review the medications you take, including over-the-counter medications and herbal supplements. These questions will help your doctor understand what is causing your insomnia.
Observation in a sleep lab may be advised. This may be done if the diagnosis is uncertain or if other sleep disorders are suspected. You will need to spend the night in a special center. Your movements, breathing, and brain activity will be monitored. This will allow your doctor to identify a treatable condition that is affecting your sleep.
Treat Underlying Medical Conditions
A number of physical and mental disorders can disrupt sleep. Diagnosis and treatment of the underlying illness, may fix the insomnia.
Identify and Modify Behaviors That Worsen Insomnia
There are steps you can take to improve your chance of a good night's rest. You may be advised to reduce intake of certain items or avoid them to see if your sleep improves. You may be asked to:
Your sleep habits can also affect how well you sleep. Steps that may help you sleep better include:
Sleeping pills are available by prescription or over-the-counter. Some doctors advise against the long-term use of sleeping pills. They may cause dependence. This is a physical change in your body. It makes your body dependent on the drug for sleep.
Proper use of prescription sleep medication may increase sleep. Most of these medications are only approved for short-term use. They can cause drowsiness, lightheadedness, and headache. Serious side effects can include abnormal thinking or behavior changes, including having suicidal thoughts.
Many over-the-counter sleep medications contain diphenhydramine. This medication can make you feel groggy and might help you fall asleep. However, this drug can have serious side effects. Most people should avoid using this drug regularly.
Exercise can help you get a better sleep. It can reduce stress and allow your body to reach a deeper state of relaxation. The timing of exercise is important. Exercising early in the day may be best if you are having trouble sleeping. If you have to exercise later in the day, make sure you are done exercising at least a few hours before bedtime.
Herbal Therapies and Supplements TOP
Some people use the herb valerian to reduce insomnia. Others take melatonin. It is not clear that these supplements help. Talk to your doctor before taking any herbs or supplements.
Relaxation Therapy TOP
This therapy may reduce or eliminate anxiety and body tension. It stops the mind from racing and allows the muscles to relax. This can support a restful sleep. The therapy may include deep breathing and progressive relaxation.
Sleep Restriction TOP
A sleep restriction program is a strict sleep program. It limits the amount of time in bed to only the time that you are actually sleeping. Previous sleep logs will determine the amount of time allowed in bed. The time you spent sleeping will be used to determine the amount of time you can spend in bed. At first, your time in bed may seem short, usually about 5 hours. Gradually, the time is increased until a more normal night's sleep is achieved.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy TOP
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy. This means that you discuss your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with a mental health professional. CBT focuses on how the way you think affects the way you feel and act. CBT may have more lasting effects than medication.
Reconditioning helps people associate the bed and bedtime with sleep. This means not using the bed for activities other than sleep and sex. As part of the reconditioning process, the person is usually advised to go to bed only when sleepy.
To reduce your chance of having insomnia:
National Center on Sleep Disorders Research
National Sleep Foundation
Better Sleep Council Canada
Canadian Sleep Society
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Accessed June 20, 2016.
Insomnia. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at:
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Updated April 2014. Accessed June 20, 2016.
Morin CM, Vallieres A, et al. Cognitive behavioral therapy, singly and combined with medication, for persistent insomnia: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2009;301(19):2005-2015.
Sleep insomnia, lack of sleep. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at:
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Updated December 13, 2011. Accessed June 20, 2016.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Last Updated: 5/11/2013
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