Insomnia: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that regularly affects millions of people worldwide. In short, individuals with insomnia find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. The effects can be devastating.

Insomnia commonly leads to daytime sleepiness, lethargy, and a general feeling of being unwell, both mentally and physically. Mood swings, irritability, and anxiety are common associated symptoms.

Insomnia has also been associated with a higher risk of developing chronic diseases. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 30-40 percent of American adults report that they have had symptoms of insomnia within the last 12 months, and 10-15 percent of adults claim to have chronic insomnia.

Here, we will discuss what insomnia is, its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and possible treatments.

Fast facts on insomnia:

There are many possible causes of insomnia.

An estimated 30-40 percent of Americans report experiencing insomnia each year.

Often, insomnia is due to a secondary cause, such as illness or lifestyle.

Causes of insomnia include psychological factors, medications, and hormone levels.

Treatments for insomnia can be medical or behavioral.


Insomnia can be caused by physical and psychological factors. There is sometimes an underlying medical condition that causes chronic insomnia, while transient insomnia may be due to a recent event or occurrence. Insomnia is commonly caused by:

Disruptions in circadian rhythm – jet lag, job shift changes, high altitudes, environmental noise, extreme heat or cold.

Psychological issues – bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, or psychotic disorders.

Medical conditions – chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, congestive heart failure, angina, acid-reflux disease (GERD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, sleep apnea, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, hyperthyroidism, arthritis, brain lesions, tumors, stroke.

Hormones – estrogen, hormone shifts during menstruation.

Other factors – sleeping next to a snoring partner, parasites, genetic conditions, overactive mind, pregnancy.

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Media technology in the bedroom

Several small studies in adults and children have suggested that an exposure to light from televisions and smartphones prior to going to sleep can affect natural melatonin levels and lead to increased time to sleep.

In addition, a study conducted by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that backlit tablet computers can affect sleep patterns. These studies suggest that technology in the bedroom can worsen insomnia, leading to more complications.


According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the following medications can cause insomnia in some patients:



alpha blockers

beta blockers

SSRI antidepressants

ACE inhibitors

ARBs (angiotensin II-receptor blockers)

cholinesterase inhibitors

second generation (non-sedating) H1 agonists


Signs and symptoms

Insomnia itself may be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. However, there are many signs and symptoms that are associated with insomnia:

Difficulty falling asleep at night.

Waking during the night.

Waking earlier than desired.

Still feeling tired after a night’s sleep.

Daytime fatigue or sleepiness.

Irritability, depression, or anxiety.

Poor concentration and focus.

Being uncoordinated, an increase in errors or accidents.

Tension headaches (feels like a tight band around head).

Difficulty socializing.

Gastrointestinal symptoms.

Worrying about sleeping.

Sleep deprivation can cause other symptoms. The afflicted person may wake up not feeling fully awake and refreshed, and may have a sensation of tiredness and sleepiness throughout the day.

Having problems concentrating and focusing on tasks is common for people with insomnia. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 20 percent of non-alcohol related car crash injuries are caused by driver sleepiness.

woman unable to sleep
Insomnia has a wide range of causes including stress.

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