What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a Latin word which means 'want of sleep, sleeplessness' and as a medical term this is what it describes. Anyone who has difficulty either going to sleep or remaining asleep is suffering from insomnia - it is not related to how much sleep a person gets. It is very common, with some estimates indicating up to 1 in 10 people are affected by insomnia at any one time.

What are the symptoms of insomnia?

The symptoms of insomnia are very similar to those of poor quality sleep. They can be any or all of the following...

  • Difficulty getting to sleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Being tired and/or sleepy in the daytime
  • Anxiousness
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Being more accident prone/more likely to make mistakes

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia has many possible causes, including...

  • Illnesses and severe or chronic (ongoing) pain
  • Medication - some medications, particularly for asthma or high blood pressure, can interrupt sleep patterns
  • Stimulants - such as coffee, alcohol or smoking cigarettes (especially close to bedtime)
  • Anxiety or stress - at work or at home
  • Disruption of sleep patterns - insomnia affects shift workers, especially those who vary their shifts

Also older people are more prone to insomnia than younger people and women are more impacted than men. In some instances there is no obvious cause at all - this is referred to as 'primary insomnia'.

How is insomnia treated?

The first thing to check is whether you have poor sleep habits. See this page for a short guide to good sleep habits. Don't try to 'catch up' on sleep in the morning - get up if you are awake. Also if you can't get to sleep, don't stay in bed - get up and try to sleep later.

If insomnia persists, despite adopting good sleep habits, you should visit your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe sleeping pills, although this should only be a temporary measure, as sleeping pills become less effective over time and can be addictive with longer term use.

Your doctor may also recommend sleep studies, including a test called a 'polysomnography' where your movements, brain activity, heart rate and other body functions are monitored over one night. This is normally conducted at a sleep lab, but there are other tests that can be carried out at home.

If the insomnia is a mental health issue (eg for reasons related to anxiety or depression) you may be referred by your doctor to a counsellor or psychologist.

A useful resource for people suffering from insomnia is