Insomnia is a common condition categorised by having repeated trouble falling or staying asleep, even when you feel physically and/or emotionally exhausted. According to Patient, as many as 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 things that can help.

What is insomnia?

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a common sleep condition that makes 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 experience sleep issues from time-to-time, for example, the night before something exciting or nerve-racking. 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 be caused by another condition (secondary insomnia) or have no obvious cause at all (primary insomnia).

What causes insomnia?

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia can be caused by a variety of factors, including… 

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

Certain health 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 impact can insomnia have?

What impact can insomnia have?

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

While we all feel tired from time-to-time, people with insomnia may experience exhaustion, feel irritable or down, and find it difficult to focus.

Longer-term impacts can be more serious and increase the risk of medical conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Insomnia can also make you more susceptible to having accidents or feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious.

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

What's the link between ageing and insomnia?

Sleep issues are more common later in life. According to research, 36% of adults struggle to sleep on a weekly basis, and nearly half of UK adults have trouble falling asleep at least once a month. Those over the age of 60 are most commonly affected.

This is because age makes people more susceptible to conditions that are linked with insomnia – for example, restless legs syndrome. In addition, your circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock and sleep cycle) can also change over time because our ability to process circadian signals becomes weaker with age. 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 lower sleep quality and a higher risk of insomnia.

How can you treat insomnia?

How can you treat insomnia?

Insomnia can usually be treated by making simple lifestyle changes. However, in some cases where insomnia is persistent, professional help may be required.

Home treatments for insomnia

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 should make falling asleep and waking up easier.

Studies also show that using electronic devices just before bed can disrupt 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 the circadian rhythm and improve sleep quality. If you’re not sure what type of activity might suit you best, something might catch your eye on the fitness and exercise section of our website.

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 homely. If this is tricky for you, eye masks and earplugs can be handy.

If you struggle to sleep as a result of stress, anxiety, or racing thoughts, you might find habits like journaling, meditation, and mindfulness useful. Slowing down before bed and recording the 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.

Professional treatment for insomnia

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

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

If, however, you’ve been struggling with insomnia for months and it’s getting in the way of your daily life, it’s important to speak to your GP. They’ll be able to help you consider the causes of your insomnia and explain treatment options.

Treatment for insomnia 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?

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

There’s a close relationship between mental health and sleep.

A lack of sleep can increase your risk of developing a mental health condition and exacerbate existing issues.

If you’ve been feeling low recently due to insomnia and would like to connect with other people going through similar things to you, you could consider joining a Facebook insomnia support group. Alternatively, you could reach out to charities like Mind or The Sleep Charity who run helplines you can call for support.

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 overall physical and mental wellbeing. So, it’s no wonder that we’re often our most happy and productive selves when we’re properly rested.

Insomnia can be frustrating and difficult 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.

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.