Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that makes it difficult to fall or stay asleep. Lack of sleep (or quality sleep) can cause daytime tiredness, irritability and anxiety. Persistent insomnia has also been linked to obesity, metabolic disease , diabetes and depression.
There are two types: primary and secondary. If you have primary insomnia, it’s caused by a lack of melatonin (sleep hormone) and isn’t linked to any other health condition or illness, or medication. Secondary insomnia is when there’s another physical health factor responsible for your lack of sleep. If you have trouble sleeping because you drink a lot of alcohol late at night, for example, this is secondary insomnia. But if you have trouble sleeping due to stress, sensitivity to lights or noises, or changes in your sleep schedule, this is primary insomnia.
Insomnia can last for one night, or go on for months or years. The longer you live with insomnia, untreated, the more likely you are to develop secondary problems, like depression or cardiovascular illness.
Who gets insomnia?
Anyone can get insomnia. It’s common in both adults and young people. It’s often linked to lifestyle habits, working conditions or the sleep environment. Anxiety can also cause insomnia.
But primary insomnia is more often experienced by older people over the age of 55. As we get older, our melatonin levels tend to fall naturally. Treatments like Circadin are specifically licensed for the treatment of insomnia in people over 55. When it’s given to people who don’t have primary insomnia or are under 55, it’s an ‘off-label’ use.
How common is insomnia?
Insomnia is a common disorder. Studies show that 30%-40% of adults will have persistent insomnia at some point in their life. Insomnia is thought to be most common in older people, with one estimate suggesting that almost 50% experience some degree of insomnia.
Teenagers are at risk, with 23% in one study of 16-19 year olds suffering from some type of insomnia. An analysis of pregnant women found that 52% report symptoms of insomnia at some point during their term .
When we present you with stats, data, opinion or a consensus, we’ll tell you where this came from. And we’ll only present data as clinically reliable if it’s come from a reputable source, such as a state or government-funded health body, a peer-reviewed medical journal, or a recognised analytics or data body. Read more in our editorial policy.
What causes insomnia?
There are a lot of possible causes. Clinicians class insomnia by its causes:
Primary insomnia means that your insomnia is not linked to any other medical issue.
Secondary insomnia is caused by a health issue or substance use.
Primary insomnia is often linked to big life events like moving house, starting a new job, changes in routine, or a drop in melatonin.
So for example: the light, noise and temperature in your bedroom can stop you from falling asleep. Changing your sleep schedule can disrupt your sleep. Jet lag, shift work and a new baby can all affect your sleep and cause insomnia. There’s also some suggestion that insomnia could be genetic and run in families.
Older people are more likely to suffer primary insomnia because as you get older less of the sleep hormone melatonin is produced naturally by your body. Melatonin helps to keep your sleep in a regular cycle.
Secondary insomnia is common if you drink caffeine close to bedtime, use recreational drugs or drink alcohol in the evening. Even non-prescription medications like cold and allergy medicine can cause insomnia.
Mental health issues are also linked to insomnia. Insomnia is common in people who have depression, anxiety and ADHD.
Conditions such as hyperthyroidism, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome can interfere with sleep too, and lead to insomnia.
What are the symptoms of insomnia?
Symptoms of insomnia include:
finding it difficult to fall asleep
finding it difficult to stay asleep
feeling tired and irritable during the day
struggling to nap in the day, even when you’re very tired
finding it difficult to concentrate and carry out daily activities.
Over time, prolonged insomnia can also affect your mental wellbeing and lead to anxiety, depression and irritability.
Can insomnia lead to other problems?
Studies have suggested that persistent sleep deprivation can lead to a variety of other health issues including obesity, metabolic disease, anxiety and depression. It’s also been theorised that the less someone sleeps, the more at risk they are of developing a secondary illness as a result .
So it’s important if you’re experiencing insomnia to get advice, so that you can minimise the risk of developing a secondary health problem.
What medications are there for insomnia?
Circadin is a licensed treatment for primary insomnia in people over the age of 55. It contains melatonin, the sleep hormone, which helps the body to shut down when it’s time to sleep. The same medication is also sometimes sold ‘off label’ as a treatment for jet lag.
Usually, before you try Circadin, it’s best to try other ‘natural’ methods. This might be making your sleep routine more regular, changing your sleep environment so you’re more able to sleep (for example eliminating noise or light), or reducing your alcohol, caffeine or stimulant intake before bed.
Talking to your doctor about the medications you’re taking can be helpful too, if these are affecting your sleep. Sometimes they might be able to adjust something or suggest an alternative that doesn’t have the same side effects.
There are other sleep aid medications too, that you can get from a pharmacy. Treatments like Nytol contain an antihistamine and help you to feel drowsy, and others contain herbal medicines. These shouldn’t be used for more than two weeks, so if they haven’t worked during this time, it’s best to chat to a doctor.
Is there a ‘best’ treatment for insomnia?
The best treatment for insomnia really depends on what’s causing it. If you ask our doctor, they’ll be able to discuss your symptoms and sleep habits, and recommend a treatment if they think it will be effective. It can take some trial and error to develop a sleep schedule that works.
Does insomnia always need treatment?
Insomnia doesn’t always need to be treated with medication. There are some self-help measures you can take to improve sleep, like:
Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day
Sleeping with the window open if you live somewhere quiet
Avoiding using electronic devices before bed
Sleeping in a dark room
Avoiding caffeine in the evening
Meditating before going to sleep
Keeping your bedroom free of light or sound producing devices
If you think a medication you’re taking may have something to do with your insomnia, it’s worth speaking to the person who prescribed this for you. They might be able to discuss other treatment options with you.
Have something specific you want to know? Search our info below, or ask our experts a question if you can’t find what you’re looking for.
How is insomnia diagnosed?
Insomnia can be diagnosed through a conversation with a clinician about your sleep habits. Factors like age, your lifestyle, how long the insomnia has been going on for and existing health issues will help the clinician to make a diagnosis and suggest the best form of treatment. Sometimes you might be asked to keep a sleep diary too.
It’s not common, but if your doctor thinks there may be a problem that needs to be looked at by a specialist, on some occasions you’ll be referred to a sleep centre for tests. For some sleep related conditions, a specialist might need to observe you sleeping in a controlled environment.
Are there tests for insomnia?
There aren’t any tests for insomnia. Insomnia is diagnosed through talking to a clinician about sleep and lifestyle.
There are tests that can be done at a sleep centre by a specialist, to see what’s causing sleep problems. But this is normally when a doctor thinks there’s something more serious causing the problem, like sleep apnea.
Can you get side effects from insomnia treatment?
The melatonin in insomnia treatment can cause side effects in some people. It can cause dizziness and headaches as well as irritability and short-term mood swings. Some people also experience skin irritation, and some also say that they get nightmares. These side effects usually disappear on their own within a few days .
People can also become dependent on melatonin as a way to get to sleep and lose the ability to sleep without them. For this reason, Circadin is only licensed as a treatment for primary insomnia in people aged over 55.
Does insomnia treatment always work?
Melatonin can be effective at treating primary insomnia but it’s not advised as a treatment for secondary insomnia because it can cause long-term dependence. Tackling the root cause of insomnia is the most effective treatment.
Why should I buy insomnia treatment online with Treated?
If you're over 55 and have been diagnosed with primary insomnia, or feel that you might have it, then we can help you to get the treatment that’s right for you.
One of our expert clinicians will chat with you about your sleep and your lifestyle and recommend a course of treatment. We can also help you to make a treatment and sleep schedule that works for you.
Disclaimer: The information provided on this page is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please talk to a doctor.
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