Sleep insomnia: what is it, symptoms and causes

August 4, 2020 6 mins read
Sleep insomnia: what is it, symptoms and causes

Are you one of the millions around the world affected by insomnia? This common sleep disorder often leaves you feeling restless just before sleep and unable to stay asleep through the night.

If not treated, it can lead to some serious health problems, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. And that’s not even considering the day-to-day struggles caused by a lack of sleep – mood swings, fatigue, and a lack of focus. All good reasons to get back to bed and get the rest you need.

Let’s explore insomnia, its symptoms and causes, and what you can do to reclaim your sleep.

What is sleep insomnia?

Insomnia is clinically defined as the failure to fall asleep or to gain an adequate amount of restful sleep to feel refreshed and energised. This can be a result of struggling to fall asleep or maintain sleep. Sleeping patterns may be disrupted leading to waking up earlier than intended while the quality of sleep is poor.

According to the Sleep Foundation, studies by researchers have revealed that insomnia may stem from the brain being constantly ‘on’ and awake. The two cycles of awake and sleep are then misinterpreted by the brain, resulting in either being too alert or not having enough sleep.

There are two types of insomnia that are immediately identifiable. Primary insomnia is not a symptom of any disease or medical condition, rather it is often diagnosed as a stand-alone disorder. Secondary insomnia can either be acute or chronic. It is a consequence of illness, likewise, it can occur when you are being treated for something else, or as a side effect of medicines that have been prescribed by a medical professional.

Conditions known to cause insomnia

Several conditions are known to trigger the onset of insomnia. The following disorders are just a few that have been associated with insomnia related side effects:

High blood pressure

Individuals suffering from insomnia are at greater risk of heart disease and in some instances high blood pressure. A lack of sleep and an irregular nighttime routine can aggravate the heart and have an impact on its function.

Mental illness

Getting enough sleep and rest is closely linked to mental health. An interruption in your sleeping habits can exacerbate existing mental illness and be an underlying cause of stress and anxiety. Studies have shown that 50% of adults with insomnia have mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and personality disorders. However, these disorders should all be treated separately by a medical professional.


A lack of regular sleep is likely to be a contributing factor to diabetes as people who are tired during the day may eat high-sugar foods to feel better or gain energy. This has an impact on insulin resistance and hormone control.

Weakened immune system

During sleep, the body produces cytokines, which is a protein that helps to protect against infection and inflammation. Cytokines are created and released during sleep, with deprivation leading to less production of cytokines. This makes the immune system susceptible to viral attacks and can cause the flu vaccine to be less effective.

Key symptoms of sleep insomnia

Should you suspect that you have insomnia, it is imperative to identify the signs and address them or to consult your doctor for further assistance. Commonly the symptoms may consist of:

  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Lack of concentration and focus
  • Fatigue
  • Mood swings, anxiety and feeling stressed out
  • Tension headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Feeling tired after waking up in the morning
  • Impaired performance leading to errors and accidents
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Inability to sleep at night
  • A general feeling of being unwell and lethargic
  • Lying awake for most of the night
  • Sleeping for short periods of time

Who does insomnia affect?

One in seven adults is likely to experience insomnia. Women are twice as likely predisposed to get insomnia while the elderly also form a large percentage of people with insomnia. Also, the following people are most likely to develop it:

  • People who work well into the evening and do not have a set time for sleeping and waking
  • Individuals who worry a lot
  • People who struggle to set aside the day’s workload and who have difficulty prioritising their daily tasks
  • Sufferers of sleep illnesses such as restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea
  • People who have family members who have battled insomnia may find that they too are genetically predisposed to insomnia

Women and children make up the greater part of people with insomnia. One in four women has some insomnia symptoms, such as trouble falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, or both. In pregnant women, insomnia is more prevalent with 44 percent having experienced insomnia in the first three months of the pregnancy.

A link has been found between menopause and insomnia. The sleeplessness occurs when there is a loss of hormones like estrogen and progesterone. This may go untreated as women may believe that the menopause itself has led to the lack of sleep.

In children, insomnia occurs when parents have not given their kids a strict bedtime schedule. The children may then lie awake for hours on end.  Children with insomnia usually have no issues with sleeping at a set bedtime; they may stay up for long periods and have permission to move around the home and get water.

Causes of sleep insomnia

The common causes of insomnia are varied and may include:

Poor sleep habits

Binge-watching a TV series, scrolling through social media and eating late may all contribute to insomnia.

Work routine

Shift work may impact your ability to fall and stay asleep.


Antidepressants, stimulants and heart medication have been linked to sleeplessness.


Minor day-to-day worries as well as major life events such as a death, retrenchment, illness or worrying about health, work and family can lead to insomnia.

Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol

Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants which when taken before bedtime may hamper your efforts to sleep as it can keep you awake for up to eight hours. While it is a sedative, alcohol can disrupt your sleeping habits causing you to wake up during the course of your sleep.

Medical conditions

The following illnesses can have an impact on sleep quality and lead to insomnia, but by establishing good sleep hygiene habits, this can be alleviated.

  • Asthma
  • Urinary conditions
  • Heart disease
  • Arthritis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Dementia
  • Stroke
  • Gastrointestinal conditions

Reducing the symptoms of insomnia

The good news is that it is possible to improve your sleeping habits. To fully relax and get into a deep sleep, try and put away electronic devices (like your phone) that can distract you from rest.

Create a comfortable and peaceful environment in your room (and only use your bedroom for sleep). Establish a set bedtime and wake-up time while limiting your daytime naps. (Or don’t nap at all).

Should you continue to identify with the causes and symptoms of chronic insomnia, immediately seek medical advice from your doctor.