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Insomnia types, symptoms and causes

3-minute read

If you or someone you know has persistent insomnia that is affecting your everyday life, treatment is available, so seek medical advice.

Keeping a sleep diary is a good way to track symptoms, which you can share with a healthcare professional.

Types of insomnia

There are several different types of insomnia:

  • Acute insomnia is very common and lasts for a few days or weeks. It may be due to stress or life events and most people recover naturally.
  • Chronic insomnia lasts for a month or more and is more likely to cause problems with fatigue, concentration or mood changes.
  • Primary insomnia refers to insomnia where no underlying cause can be identified.
  • Secondary insomnia is due to an underlying cause such as a general health condition, anxiety, depression or sleep disorder.
  • Delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) refers to people who are ‘night owls’ and have long-term problems getting to sleep until the early hours of the morning. This may not be a problem for those who are able to sleep in, but it can cause chronic sleep deprivation in people who need to get up early.

Symptoms of insomnia

Insomnia can include any of the following:

  • difficulty getting to sleep
  • waking up during the night
  • waking up too early.

Insomnia also causes a range of problems that can occur during the day, and can make it difficult to function normally. They include:

  • difficulty waking at a normal time
  • daytime sleepiness or fatigue (may not be present)
  • poor concentration
  • forgetfulness or making errors
  • irritable or grumpy mood
  • ‘sleep anxiety’ or worrying about lack of sleep
  • anxiety or depression (these issues can also cause insomnia)
  • tension headaches
  • digestive symptoms.

Being overtired can increase the risk of someone making mistakes or having an accident. Research has shown that severe sleep deprivation can affect driving ability as much as alcohol.

Causes of insomnia

Why do some people sleep soundly no matter what happens and others find it impossible to sleep? Sometimes insomnia can occur for no obvious reason; however, there are also several possible causes.

  • Poor sleep habits (sleep hygiene) is the most common cause of insomnia. Having a regular sleep routine, pre-bedtime activities and bedroom surroundings can have a big influence on sleep.
  • Substances, including caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, amphetamines and some prescription medicines can dramatically affect your ability to sleep.
  • Stress, including about work or financial problems, relationship issues or grief.
  • Medical issues in particular conditions causing pain, hormone changes, breathing, urinary or digestive problems.
  • Mental health problems - insomnia can be a symptom of anxiety, depression or other disorders.
  • Sleep disorders, including obstructive sleep apnoea, circadian rhythm disorders caused by irregular sleep patterns, restless legs syndrome and periodic limb movement.
  • Life stage - elderly people and menopausal women are more likely to have insomnia.
  • Shift work.

Last reviewed: July 2017

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