What Is Insomnia? Symptoms, Treatment, and Sleep-Saving Tips

The insomnia definition most of us know involves an inability to fall asleep at bedtime. But what is insomnia? There’s more to this common condition than you may think.

what is insomnia

Can't sleep? We've got some simple suggestions that might get into the routine of enjoying a full night's rest. But first, we answer the question, "What is insomnia?"

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What does insomnia mean? You might picture someone tossing and turning in bed, trying to get comfortable and relaxed enough to fall asleep. Or maybe you see a vision of yourself just lying awake in bed, feeling tired, but not enough to drift off to sleep. But what is insomnia beyond the inability to fall asleep? The condition also involves difficulty staying asleep once you have dozed off—and difficulty returning to sleep once you awaken in the middle of the night.

Whether your challenge is falling or staying asleep, the consequences of poor sleep are often the same. Insomnia symptoms can affect every aspect of your life, causing daytime fatigue and sleepiness (leading to drowsy driving), making you irritable and anxious, lessening your ability to concentrate and make decisions, and raising your risk of falls and injuries. All of these symptoms may mistakenly be attributed to aging and worsening medical problems. The answer may lie, simply, in better sleep hygiene.

What Is Insomnia? Chronic Symptoms

Some research suggests that the medical impact of chronic insomnia—for example, weight gain or obesity—has been underestimated. Chronic insomnia also increases nighttime blood pressure, which can result in heart problems.

Chronic insomnia also is associated with an increased risk of premature death, according to research. Researchers say the findings emphasize the need for physicians to provide effective treatments for insomnia even in people who don’t have coexisting health problems.

Resolving the underlying problem causing the insomnia can help restore normal sleep patterns. For example, if pain is keeping you awake, taking pain medication—either over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription—can help you get the sleep you need. Lifestyle changes such as regular exercise can also help.

If your primary problem seems to be difficulty falling asleep, a simple solution is to try going to bed at a later hour, when you’re more likely to be sleepy. If your problem is staying asleep, you may have a coexisting sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea. Or, you may be taking medications such as antidepressants, decongestants, steroids, and some drugs for hypertension or asthma that can cause insomnia.

Q & A


The experts at Duke Medicine Health News answer an insomiac’s plea for advice with tips on sleep hygiene.

Q: Help! I have such trouble going to sleep at night, and when I do finally get to sleep, I can’t stay asleep. Are there any strategies or things I can do that could help me get a decent night’s sleep?

A: It’s important, as we know, to get a good night’s sleep. Most people don’t realize that poor sleep can contribute to health problems as well as memory and attention issues, reaction time, and the way your brain processes information.

There are a number of sleep strategies you can use, but first examine what may be affecting sleep—for example, medications you take, being overweight, or having an overactive bladder (causing you to get up several times during the night. Consider also dietary habits that may be keeping you awake, such as drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages, which can interrupt your sleep cycle. Also, try not to eat dinner close to bedtime—allow several hours in between so your body can get into a relaxed state.

Other strategies you can use:

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule—try to get up and go to bed at the same time every day.
  • Relax by taking a warm bath, reading, or listening to soothing music.
  • Don’t use electronic devices just before bed—you’re trying to free your mind to relax.
  • Lastly, keep the “office” out of your bedroom, and keep your room dark, quiet, and cool.

Difficulty Falling Asleep? Try These Simple Sleep Hygiene Tactics

If insomnia symptoms are making it difficult for you to fall asleep, your doctor may have you try a sleep medication or cognitive behavioral therapy. But before you pursue those routes, consider some simple suggestions for how to beat insomnia:

  • Stick to the same wake-up and bedtime schedule. For some people, the answer to “what does insomnia mean?” is that it’s an inability to establish a body clock that knows when it’s time to sleep and when to be awake. You may be lying awake because your body doesn’t need sleep yet. If you try going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, and can avoid naps (especially late in the afternoon), you may be able to set your personal clock to the sleep/wake schedule you need.
  • Stop looking at a screen (TV, cell phone, computer, tablet…) at least an hour before bedtime. The light from these screens can signal the brain that it’s time to be alert, and the result is insomnia.
  • Exercise during the day, preferably in the morning. It’s no surprise that sleep is essential to help a tired body recover. So the more physical activity you engage in, the more your body and mind will crave sleep at the end of the day. If you’ve been sedentary, start with a simple walking program; our post “The Benefits of Walking” will help.

By trying some of these and other tips on falling asleep in this section (see links below), you may notice a change in your insomnia symptoms. If you do, continue with these positive improvements. If not, tell your doctor about your sleep issues. Sleep is not often brought up at routine appointments, so it may be up to you to discuss the issue and even ask for a referral to a sleep specialist if your symptoms become chronic.

For more tips on beating insomnia and adopting effective sleep hygiene, please see these University Health News posts:

Originally published in 2016 and regularly updated.

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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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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