We’ve all probably given ourselves a casual, offhand diagnosis of insomnia at least once in our lives. As in:
- I have total insomnia right now.
- I can’t fall asleep before midnight. I am a complete insomniac.
But what is insomnia, exactly? From the Latin insomnus, or “no sleep,” insomnia is the inability to sleep when given the time and opportunity to do so. That inability to sleep can manifest in several different ways:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep throughout the night
- Waking very early in the morning
Any one of these symptoms can be an indicator of insomnia. Often, though, people with insomnia experience more than one of these sleep troubles at the same time.
Insomnia is distinct from a night of restless or poor sleep. We all have nights in which we don’t sleep well, and we may experience sleep troubles that are very similar to the symptoms of insomnia. Unlike the occasional night of lousy sleep, insomnia occurs when these sleep difficulties are present on a routine or frequent basis.
Insomnia comes in different forms, and can take on different characteristics over the course of a lifetime. There are two main types of insomnia: acute and chronic. Acute insomnia lasts for a few days to a few weeks. It can be the result of lifestyle changes—travel through time zones, the changing of the clocks, a temporarily irregular sleep schedule. It can also occur in response to significant life events, both positive and negative. Chronic insomnia lasts for at least a month or more. This type of insomnia can sometimes be the result of another illness or a side effect of medication, but this form of persistent insomnia can also exist without the presence of another medical condition.
Causes of insomnia vary widely, and can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint. Inconsistent bedtimes and wake times—staying up late one night and going to bed very early the next, for example—can lead to disrupted sleep patterns and insomnia. A sleep environment that is too noisy or too bright, too hot or too cold may contribute to insomnia. So can napping during the daytime. Eating and drinking habits—particularly consumption of caffeine and alcohol—may trigger insomnia. People who experience physical pain or discomfort may be more prone to the sleep disorder. Stress and worry are other common causes of both acute and chronic insomnia.
Insomnia may interfere with daily functioning and performance. Daytime energy, attention, and ability to focus can be compromised. Judgment can become impaired, mood can become more negative, and relationships can come under strain. If left untreated, insomnia also may increase risks for a number of health complications. People with insomnia may be more likely to have trouble with weight, and may be at greater risk for some forms of cardiovascular disease, as well as anxiety and depression.
If you think you may suffer from insomnia, schedule a visit to your doctor. Your physician can evaluate you for a diagnosis, and can also refer you to a sleep specialist that can provide treatment options that will work best for you.