Insomnia: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Worried about insomnia? You aren’t alone. Studies have shown that from 20-50% of the population lives with insomnia at some point.


Everyone’s risk for insomnia increases as they get older due to age-related changes to their internal sleep system.

Insomnia is defined as having difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up earlier than intended. To officially meet the criteria for insomnia, you must experience sleep issues three times a week that last >30 minutes. People with insomnia also report emotional distress or impaired functioning during the day.

There are two main types of insomnia:

Acute Insomnia (short-term):

This type of insomnia can last from one day to several weeks, it is usually temporary and subsides on its own. In some people, acute insomnia can transition into chronic insomnia, especially without intervention.

Chronic Insomnia (long-term):

This type of insomnia can plague you for months or even years. To meet criteria for chronic insomnia you must have symptoms of insomnia for three months or more.

What Causes Insomnia?

Medical causes

around 50% of insomnia cases are due to mental health conditions. The most common mental health conditions that negatively impact sleep include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Medical conditions such as chronic pain, digestive issues, breathing disorders, hormonal imbalances, illnesses and infections, nutritional deficiencies and dementia are also common causes. 

Environmental Causes

The other main contributor to insomnia is environmental causes such as poor sleep habits, shift work, jet lag, caring for someone else, sleep environment problems, and overuse of stimulants.

Sleep disorders

Sleep disorders like restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea may all lead to insomnia. In some cases, when there is no known association between any medical or environmental cause, a person will be diagnosed with primary insomnia.

What are the Symptoms of Insomnia?

Apart from disrupted sleep, insomnia can lead to symptoms such as:

• Daytime sleepiness and fatigue
• Irritability and mood swings
• Tension headaches
• Gastrointestinal symptoms
• Motivation and attention problems
• Memory issues
• Poor appetite regulation and weight gain
• lack of coordination, leading to errors or accidents
• Increased risk of chronic insomnia

What are the Best Treatments for Insomnia?

The first step in improving insomnia is to treat any underlying cause of insomnia. However, when someone has struggled with their sleep for a long time, there are certain patterns and stress responses that may lead to ongoing sleep problems. Although medication is the most common treatment for insomnia, it isn’t the most effective as it doesn’t treat any underlying problems. There are a variety of non-medical treatments and supplements that can be used to help reduce the symptoms of insomnia and improve your sleep. 

Best Non-Medical Treatments for Insomnia

Cognitive behavioural therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) (considered to be the most effective treatment for insomnia)

Sleep coaching or counseling

Establishing sleep habits such as a regular sleep schedule, morning light exposure, mental decompression, limiting digital devices before bed, and leaving the bed when you cannot sleep

Refraining from doing anything in bed other than sleep and intimate times to strengthen the association between your bed and sleep

Increased daily activity and exercise

Dietary changes such as reducing caffeine (4 cups or less before 2 pm) and not eating within 2-3 hours of bedtime

Avoiding naps or limiting them to 20 minutes before noon

A sleep mask and pink or white noise machine during the night

Supplements for Insomnia:

Low doses of melatonin (0.5 mg) (use sparingly and talk to your doctor)

Natural compounds like chamomile and hops before bed to help induce relaxation

Magnesium Glycinate: Low magnesium can result in insomnia, restless sleep, frequent waking, and anxiety. Around 50% of people don’t get enough magnesium. 

Vitamin D:  Vitamin D deficiency can seriously interrupt sleep. Most studies find that over 40% of us are deficient in the sunshine vitamin. 

Insomnia is a common problem that can have serious consequences on a person’s quality of life. If you are struggling with your sleep, try improving your sleep with non-medical interventions and talk to your doctor about any possible underlying issues that may be contributing to your insomnia. 


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Lisa B

Articulate Writer and Analytical Editor

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