What Causes Insomnia?

Chronic health conditions and certain sleep-unfriendly behaviors are among the most common insomnia causes.

what causes insomnia

Acute insomnia can develop into chronic insomnia if the stress that triggers those few sleepless nights doesn’t get resolved.

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In a report that helps to define insomnia, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) identifies two primary categories:

  • Short-term (or acute) insomnia may last a few nights and can be caused by worry, stress, loss of a loved one, or other situations that affect us temporarily. Long-term (or chronic) insomnia lasts a month or longer (sometimes years).
  • Chronic insomnia causes include underlying medical or psychological problems, another sleep disorder, practices and habits of everyday life, or the effects of medications.

Acute insomnia can develop into chronic insomnia if the stress that triggers those few sleepless nights doesn’t get resolved or if it leads to unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol or drug abuse. If you find that temporary stress or anxiety is becoming a longer-term problem, tell your doctor or consult with a mental health professional.

Now let’s look at what causes insomnia of the chronic variety in more detail.

What Causes Insomnia? Consider These Health Issues

Because you need to be relaxed and comfortable to fall asleep, chronic pain due to arthritis or another health condition can be severe enough to keep you awake. Individuals with heart failure or respiratory problems may have difficulty breathing while lying down. If you experience any of these symptoms, even if you haven’t been diagnosed with anything, you should tell your doctor and mention that they are keeping you awake at night. Identifying underlying insomnia causes can be the first step toward improving your sleep.

The same is true if you find yourself having to visit the bathroom one or more times during the night. Nighttime urination (nocturia) is a sign of conditions including diabetes, benign enlargement of the prostate, urinary tract infection, bladder infection, and even menopause. Don’t just assume that waking up at night to go to the bathroom is inevitable as you get older. Medications or lifestyle changes may help you sleep through the night, even if you have one of these conditions.

Interfering Medications

Some medications, however, can do the opposite, and interfere with your sleep. Some common culprits include steroids (such as prednisone), painkillers, antidepressants, weight-loss drugs, allergy medications, and blood-pressure medications (diuretics, in particular).

Medications are among the most common insomnia causes for older adults; sometimes just switching drugs or taking an alternative medication may be very helpful. Talk about these options with your health care provider.

But what causes insomnia for many people is the consumption of too much caffeine and/or alcohol. Some people simply are not affected much by caffeine, while others find that taking a mid-afternoon coffee break makes it tough to get to sleep at night.

How to Beat Insomnia

Most sleep experts advise not having any caffeine in the afternoon or evening. But along with that recommendation is the need to be careful with medications that may contain caffeine, a stimulant that works on the brain and central nervous system. Caffeine can be found in many headache medications and cold medicines. It’s always a good idea to read all the ingredients on every prescription medication, over-the-counter drug, and supplement you consider taking.

Many people believe alcohol-containing drinks relax us, helping us sleep better. In fact, 11 percent of people surveyed by the National Sleep Foundation reported using alcohol to get to sleep a few nights a month. But even one drink before bedtime can have a negative effect on sleep and lead to a condition sometimes referred to as alcohol insomnia.

Originally published in May 2016 and updated.

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Jay Roland

Jay Roland has been executive editor of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory since 2017. Previously, he held the same position with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Advisor, since 2007. In … Read More

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