Insomnia is a common condition that causes irregular sleeping patterns. It’s mainly defined by repeatedly having trouble falling or staying asleep, even when you feel physically and/or emotionally exhausted. According to the NHS, one in three people suffer from poor sleep, with people aged between 45 and 54 being the most affected.

Insomnia can be frustrating and emotionally taxing to deal with, especially over a long period of time. But, it’s an important issue to address because, if left untreated, symptoms of insomnia can begin to affect other areas of your life.

The good news is that often, insomnia can be improved with a few simple lifestyle changes, and there’s also medical help available if needed.

Below we’ll cover what insomnia is, what causes it, and how you can handle it.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a common sleep condition that can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. It can also cause you to wake up earlier than you’d like, and not be able to get back to sleep. Not getting enough sleep over a period of time can cause us to feel exhausted throughout the day, or experience low energy and mood levels.

It’s normal for people to have trouble sleeping from time-to-time, for instance, at a time when something exciting or nerve-racking is happening. This is known as acute or short-term insomnia.

However, if you have trouble sleeping at least three days a week for a month or more, this is usually classed as chronic insomnia. Chronic insomnia can either be caused by another condition (secondary insomnia) or have no obvious cause at all (primary insomnia).

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia can be caused by a variety of factors. These include:

  • Stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Distracting noise
  • Jet lag
  • Late work shifts
  • Having an irregular sleep pattern
  • The use of alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine.

Certain conditions can also cause insomnia. For example, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, restless legs syndrome, overactive thyroid, the menopause, and mental health conditions such as bipolar. Lots of medicines used to treat these conditions can also disrupt sleep.

What are the impacts of insomnia?

Getting enough sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. It allows our brains to function, and keeps our bodies healthy enough to fight off diseases. According to the NHS, most adults need around seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

While we all feel tired from time-to-time, people living with insomnia can begin to experience more serious side-effects. Short-term effects of insomnia include feeling tired throughout the day, feeling irritable or down, and/or lacking in focus.

Longer-term impacts can be more serious and put you at risk of medical conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Insomnia can also make you more susceptible to having accidents or developing depression, stress, and anxiety.

Over time, these side-effects can begin to impact other areas of life, for example, your relationships, performance at work, and your general wellbeing.

What is the link between ageing and insomnia?

People tend to have more trouble sleeping as they age. Research shows that 36% of adults struggle to sleep on a weekly basis, and nearly half of the UK have trouble falling asleep at least once a month. Those over the age of 60 are the most likely to be affected.

This is because people become more susceptible to developing conditions linked with insomnia as they age – for example, restless leg syndrome. In addition, the body’s circadian rhythm  (internal clock and sleep cycle) can also become altered because a person’s ability to process circadian signals becomes lower over time. This can impact sleep quality and affect our ability to maintain regular sleeping patterns.

Other changes such as being less physically or socially active are also linked with decreased sleep quality and insomnia.

How can you treat insomnia?

Insomnia can usually be treated by making simple lifestyle changes. However, in some cases where insomnia is persistent and makes no improvement, professional help may be required.

What can I do to improve my sleep?

Making the effort to sleep and wake up at the same time every day can help your body to build a regular sleep routine. Over time, this will allow your internal body clock to settle and make falling asleep and waking up easier.

Studies also show that using electronic devices just before bed can disrupt our sleeping patterns and impact overall health. This is because the artificial lighting emitted by devices can alter the body’s natural 24-hour circadian rhythm (sleep cycle). As a result, it can help to turn off electronics at least half an hour before you sleep.

In addition, research shows that regular exercise can help to realign circadian rhythm and improve sleep quality. If you’re not sure what type of activity might suit you best, then something might catch your eye on the fitness and exercise section of our site.

Other ways to address insomnia include relaxing before bed – for example, by taking a bath or reading a book – and creating a comfortable sleeping environment by making sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and comfortable. If this is tricky for you, eye masks and earplugs can be handy.

If you struggle to get to sleep as a result of stress, anxiety, or racing thoughts, you might find that adopting habits like journaling, meditation, and mindfulness prove useful. Slowing down before bed and recording thoughts that tend to keep you up can help you offload and get into bed with a clear head.

Alternatively, you could try the NHS sleeping app Pzizz, which you can find out more about in our article; 12 NHS apps that can improve health and wellbeing.

What professional help is available to help me sleep better?

If simple adjustments aren’t improving your quality of sleep, then it’s worth speaking to your pharmacist. They’ll be able to advise you on tablets, liquids, and sleeping aids that may help you.

While these cannot cure insomnia, they can be used to help you sleep for around one to two weeks. They shouldn’t, however, be taken for any longer. You can find your local pharmacy on the NHS website.

If, however, you’ve had trouble sleeping for months and it’s getting in the way of your daily life or you’re struggling to cope, it’s a good idea to visit your GP who can try to determine the causes of your insomnia and help you find the right treatment.

Treatments can range from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), to help from a sleep clinic or sleeping pills if your insomnia is particularly bad (though these are rarely prescribed). You can search for your local GP on the NHS website.

Insomnia is having an impact on my emotional wellbeing - what support is available?

There’s a close relationship between mental health and sleep. For those who already suffer from a mental health condition, a lack of sleep can increase worry and tiredness, and impact your ability to cope with everyday life.

Equally, losing sleep is also linked with an increased risk of developing a mental health problem in the first place.

If you struggle with insomnia and have been feeling low recently, it can be helpful to know where to reach out. If you’d like to connect with other people going through similar things to you, you could consider joining a Facebook insomnia support group. Or, The Brain Charity also has a really useful list of different resources that can help with sleeping problems.

Final thoughts…

Getting enough sleep is a vital part of a happy and healthy lifestyle. It’s essential for brain function, a strong immune system, as well as our overall physical and mental wellbeing. Therefore, it’s no wonder that we’re often our most happy and productive selves when we’re properly rested.

Insomnia can be frustrating and emotional to cope with, but the good news is that sleepless nights don’t have to control your life. Often, simple lifestyle changes, such as establishing a regular sleep schedule and staying off electronic devices before bed, can improve symptoms of insomnia. And where needed, professional help is available too.

The most important thing to remember is that you’re not alone and you don’t have to suffer in silence. After a bit of trial and error, hopefully, you’ll be on the road to finding the techniques and treatments that work best for you.

For more tips and advice on getting enough rest, you might want to visit the sleep and fatigue section of our website.

What are your experiences with insomnia? What helps you improve the quality of your sleep? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.