What Is Insomnia? Symptoms, Causes + 5 Natural Remedies
What I hear from my readers is, “Dr. Axe, I can’t sleep.” If you’re one of those people who has trouble falling asleep, you struggle with insomnia, or you wake up frequently during the night, know that these problems are all very common.
It’s believed that up to 30–50 percent of the general population is affected by acute (short-term) insomnia at any given time, and up to 10 percent have chronic insomnia that lasts more than several months. (1) What is insomnia exactly? Having insomnia is another way of saying that you can’t fall or stay asleep.
Meanwhile, there are many insomnia causes to consider that might be the root of your problem. For example, not having a regular sleep-wake cycle, eating an unhealthy diet, chronic pain and emotional stress can also disrupt your ability to sleep. Insomnia affects women more often than men and is more likely to affect older adults, those of lower socioeconomic (income) status, chronic alcoholics, and people with mental health conditions like depression.
Below, I’m going to walk you through the top insomnia remedies I have found to work best. I’ll provide the exact steps you need to follow in order to get better quality sleep, including tips to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep throughout the night. If you’ve been saying to yourself for a while now, “I can’t sleep,” I believe these natural insomnia remedies may help you turn around the underlying causes of your sleep-related struggles.
What Is Insomnia?
What does it mean if you have insomnia? The definition of insomnia is “habitual sleeplessness or the inability to sleep.” Everybody struggles to get a good night’s sleep now and then, but insomnia is different because it’s an ongoing problem that causes sleep disruption despite someone having the chance to get good sleep (for example, you can’t stay asleep even though you lay in bed for many hours at night).
Not only does having insomnia cause sleep deprivation and typically day time fatigue, but, according to the Sleep Foundation, insomnia can also cause a number of other physical and mental problems. People dealing with insomnia commonly report feeling moody, dissatisfied with how much energy they have and frustrated that they can’t seem to concentrate or perform at work or in school. (2)
- Acute insomnia is brief and normally happens in response to a stressful event or major life change. This type lasts less than 3 weeks and may cause restless sleep several times per week. It is typically triggered by something that makes you feel worried, upset or nervous, such as a big presentation at work, exam, health problem or relationship change. Usually, acute insomnia resolves once the stressful event has passed, or at least after you’ve accepted it more.
- Chronic insomnia lasts at least three to four weeks and occurs at least three times per week. There are many different reasons why someone might struggle with ongoing, chronic insomnia (more on these causes below). To help reverse chronic insomnia usually requires making lifestyle changes, addressing underlying causes of stress, and sometimes working with a medical professional (such as a therapist or doctor) to come up with a treatment plan.
- Comorbid insomnia: Comorbid insomnia is when sleeping difficulty occurs with another health condition that’s associated with changes in sleep. Some medical conditions, like depression, can cause insomnia, and pain or muscle conditions, like back pain or restless leg syndrome, can make it hard to fall and stay asleep. A similar insomnia category is what’s called psychophysiological insomnia, which is when insomnia symptoms are caused by cognitive, behavioral and psychological factors.
- Sleep onset or initial insomnia: This is when a person has trouble falling sleep initially, but doesn’t tend to wake up in middle of the night.
- Maintenance or middle insomnia: This is when a person has trouble maintaining sleep and is often waking up in middle of the night.
- Late or terminal insomnia: This is when a person wakes up too early in the morning and cannot go back to sleep.
To understand what is insomnia, it’s key to find out the most common insomnia symptoms. These include: (6)
- Difficulty falling asleep or waking up frequently during the night. Difficulty falling asleep is a sleep “onset” problem, while trouble staying asleep is a “maintenance” problem.
- Feeling stressed while trying to sleep, which usually means laying in bed with racing thoughts or experiencing physical symptoms.
- Feeling exhausted/fatigued during the daytime. This can cause poor concentration and focus, difficulty with memory and impaired motor coordination.
- Low moods, irritability and difficulty with social interactions.
- Reduced quality of life and increased risk of developing depression, obesity and cardiovascular disease. In fact, some studies show that adults with insomnia are almost four times as likely to become depressed compared to those who don’t have insomnia.
- Decreased job performance and higher risk for motor vehicle crashes, work-related accidents and other occupational errors. All of these increase the odds of experiencing some type of disability.
Conventional Insomnia Treatment
How do you cure insomnia, according to conventional medicine? There isn’t a “cure” for insomnia, but rather ways to help prevent and manage it. Insomnia treatments can be both non-pharmacologic (non-medical) and pharmacologic (medical, such as using prescription drugs). Many experts feel that combining medical and non-medical treatments results in the most successful outcomes.
Some treatment approaches that doctors and therapists may use to manage insomnia symptoms include:
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) techniques to help address causes of stress.
- Lifestyle changes to promote better sleep patterns. Most doctors would agree with me that some of the best insomnia remedies include exercise, eating a healthy diet and decreasing caffeine, alcohol and drug use.
- In some cases when deemed necessary, use of medications including benzodiazepine sedatives and non-benzodiazepine sedatives. If your doctor or healthcare provider determines that you would benefit from medications for insomnia, he or she will may prescribe one of the following types of drugsL
- Benzodiazepines: These are a type of sleeping pill that are used to induce sleep for a long period of time. Possible side effects of these kinds of drugs include withdrawal symptoms, drowsiness during the day, unsteadiness, confusion and memory impairment. Examples of benzodiazepines include Ativan, Valium and Doral. (7)
- Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics: Non-benzodiazepines (also referred to as “Z drugs”) are sedatives that are used to treat insomnia because they act on the GABA receptor. These types of medications have become the most common prescribed hypnotic agents in the world. Possible side effects of Z drugs include memory loss, physical and psychomotor effects, such as falls or car accidents, fatigue and withdrawal symptoms. Examples of non-benzodiazepines include Lunesta, Sonata, Ambien, Edluar and Intermezzo. (8)
- Melatonin receptor agonists: These types of drugs are used to treat insomnia, sleep disorders and depression. These medications bind to and activate the melatonin receptor, helping to improve your circadian rhythm and sleeping patterns. A common type of melatonin receptor agonist is Rozerem, which may cause dizziness and drowsiness during the day. (9)
- Use of melatonin, a hormone that is released by the pineal gland in response to darkness that helps regulate the circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle.
- Short term use of antihistamines that have sedative properties, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), that induce drowsiness.