What is Insomnia?

restless-legs4Insomnia, which affects most people at some time or other, is not being able to sleep when you want to, so that you feel tired the next morning. Age, lifestyle, environment, diet and state of mind all affect the amount of sleep you need, and how much you get.

Most healthy adults require between seven to nine hours sleep a night, but as you get older it’s normal to find that harder to achieve in one sleep session, although you do still need the same amount of sleep.

Symptoms of Insomnia

The most common symptoms of insomnia are

  • difficulty falling asleep
  • waking during the night and not being able to get back to sleep
  • waking up early in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep
  • tiredness and fatigue, feeling unrefreshed
  • irritability and lack of concentration and motivation during the day
  • other sleep disorders triggered by insomnia

insomina2Causes of Insomnia

Commonly, insomnia is caused by the mind not being able to ‘switch off’. When worry or stress causes insomnia, the brain can carry on associating the sleeping environment with being alert, even when the stress has been resolved.

Insomnia can be caused by underlying physical conditions from a simple cold to lung disease, hormone problems, or sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy or sleep apnoea.

Alcohol or drug and substance misuse can be a cause, as well as the side effect of some medications. Nicotine and caffeine (found in tea, coffee, colas and energy drinks) can also affect your sleeping patterns.

Environmental conditions such as bright light, temperature, noise and an uncomfortable bed can also keep you awake.


Keep a sleep diary for at least a fortnight, to help your doctor understand your sleep patterns. Note down:

  • the time you go to bed and how long it takes to get to sleep
  • the times you wake up during the night and how long it takes to drop off again
  • episodes of daytime tiredness and the number and duration of daytime naps
  • times of meals and caffeine and alcohol drinks
  • amount and timing of exercise
  • stress and significant events

insomina3Treatments for Insomnia

The first step in treating insomnia is to diagnose and treat any underlying health condition that may be causing it. The second is not usually, as may be expected, sleeping tablets because they don’t treat the underlying cause of insomnia, so are only effective in the short term. If you have long-term insomnia, sleeping tablets are unlikely to cure it, but they may be prescribed in some circumstances.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may be recommended by our South West Sleep Clinic specialists to help you avoid unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that are affecting your sleep. For instance it might aim to establish a consistent sleep/wake pattern, enforce your perception of your bedroom as a place to sleep, reduce anxiety or minimise intrusive thoughts that may be preventing sleep.

Advice to Tackle Insomnia

Promote ‘good sleep hygiene’; cases of insomnia often respond to lifestyle changes, such as giving up smoking and cutting down on alcohol and caffeine consumption, particularly during the evening – alcohol may make you drowsy at first but will wake you up when the effects have worn off. Avoid eating heavy or spicy meals late at night, but do have a warm, milky drink or camomile tea before bed, and if you need a small snack, turkey, banana or fish are good because they contain a natural sleep-promoting amino acid called tryptophan.

insomina4Exercise daily, such as 30 minutes walking or cycling, but at least four hours before bed time to let you cool down. Establish set times for going to bed and waking up; try not to lie in after a poor night’s sleep, tempting though it may be, and avoid napping during the day. As you begin to sleep for more of the night, try going to bed a little earlier, but still get up at the same time.

Improve overall sleep quality by reducing light and noise in your bedroom, investing in a comfortable mattress and pillow and by relaxing before going to bed, perhaps with a warm bath, or by listening to calming music before bedtime. Relaxation can be helped by taking your mind off work-related activities, keeping your computer out of the bedroom, not checking emails late at night and not reading or watching television in bed.

If you simply can’t sleep, don’t lie there worrying; get up and do something else in another room for a while, such as reading or watching television.

Read More about Insomnia from the NHS Website Here

More on Other Sleeping Disorders