Insomnia is difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning, even though you've had enough opportunity to sleep.
Most people experience problems sleeping at some point in their life. It's thought that a third of people in the UK have episodes of insomnia. It tends to be more common in women and more likely to occur with age.
It's difficult to define what normal sleep is because everyone is different. Your age, lifestyle, environment and diet all play a part in influencing the amount of sleep you need.
The most common symptoms of insomnia are:
- difficulty falling asleep
- waking up during the night
- waking up early in the morning
- feeling irritable and tired and finding it difficult to function during the day
Read more about the symptoms of insomnia.
What causes insomnia?
Stress and anxiety are common causes of insomnia, but it can also be caused by conditions such as depression, schizophrenia or asthma, some medications, and alcohol or drug misuse.
Read more about the causes of insomnia.
What to do
There is a range of things you can do to help you get to sleep, such as:
- avoiding caffeine later in the day
- avoiding heavy meals late at night
- setting regular times to wake up
- using thick curtains or blinds, an eye mask and earplugs to stop you being woken up by light and noise
This is often referred to as 'good sleep hygiene'.
Relaxation can also help. Try taking a warm bath an hour before you go to bed or listening to calming music.
Read more self-help tips for insomnia.
When to see your GP
See your GP if you're finding it difficult to get to sleep or to stay asleep, and it's affecting your daily life.
Fatigue due to insomnia can affect your mood and create relationship problems with loved ones and work colleagues.
Your GP may ask you about your sleeping routines, your daily alcohol and caffeine consumption, and your general lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise.
They will also check your medical history for any illness or medication that may be contributing to your insomnia.
Your GP may also suggest that you keep a sleep diary. This will help them and you to gain a better understanding of your sleep patterns. It can also help to decide which method of treatment to use.
You should keep a sleep diary for a minimum of two weeks, recording information such as:
- the time you go bed
- how long it takes you to get to sleep
- the number of times you wake up in the night
- what time it is when you wake up
- episodes of daytime tiredness and naps
- what time you eat meals, consume alcohol, take exercise and when you are stressed
The first step in treating insomnia is to identify and treat any underlying health condition, such as anxiety, that may be causing your sleep problems.
Your GP will probably discuss things you can do at home (see above) which may help to improve your sleep.
In some cases, cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) may be recommended. CBT-I is a type of talking therapy that can help you avoid the thoughts and behaviours affecting your sleep.
Sleeping tablets are a treatment of last resort and are often only used in the short-term with the smallest possible dose. Although they can sometimes relieve the symptoms of insomnia, they don't treat the cause. If you have long-term insomnia, it's unlikely that sleeping tablets will help.
Read more about treating insomnia.
Sleep is a natural state of unconsciousness that enables your body to rest.
While asleep, your body goes through different sleep stages in a cycle that lasts about 90 minutes. You may go through five cycles in a night. The sleep stages are:
- light sleep
- deep sleep
- dreaming, also known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
Dr Chris Williams explains what you can do to give yourself the best chance of a good night's sleep. This podcast is one of an eight-part series for Moodzone
Page last reviewed: 09/12/2013
Next review due: 09/12/2015