How to Know if You Have Insomnia

Two Parts:Recognizing the Common SignsTroubleshooting Common Triggers

Insomnia is a sleeping disorder that involves difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.[1] It can be a short-term problem (referred to as transient) or a long-term (chronic) problem that deeply impacts people's lives. Causes of transient insomnia include various illnesses, high levels of stress, jet lag from traveling or poor sleeping conditions (too much noise or light). Chronic insomnia can be a continuation of transient factors, but it often includes underlying psychological or physical issues also. Knowing if you're experiencing insomnia is usually fairly obvious, although the underlying causes may be harder to pinpoint and remedy.

Part 1
Recognizing the Common Signs

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    Assess how long it takes to fall asleep. Everyone has different routines that they follow at night before they go to bed and attempt to fall asleep, but most people are asleep within 30 minutes from when their head hits the pillow and they turn off the lights. The hallmark symptom of insomnia is difficulty initiating sleep — it typically takes much longer than 30 minutes and sometimes up to four hours.[2]
    • Lots of tossing and turning in bed is typical with insomnia, as are feelings of anxiety and frustration about not falling asleep (which makes the situation worse).
    • Everyone has experienced an occasional night of insomnia due to stress or illness, but doctors consider insomnia chronic if it happens at least three nights per week for three months or longer.[3]
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    Understand healthy sleep requirements. The vast majority of people need between 7-9 hours of continuous sleep per night in order to be healthy and function properly during the day.[4] Some people may need a little more (10 hours) and the rare person can get by with less without experiencing any negative health repercussions. Determine how many hours you're getting throughout your work week. Despite wanting to get more, people with insomnia usually end up with 6 or fewer hours of sleep on multiple nights throughout their work week.[5]
    • If your busy work schedule only allows you 6 or fewer hours of sleep regularly, then that's not considered insomnia — that's sleep deprivation due to lifestyle choices. Insomnia infers a difficulty falling asleep and getting quality sleep despite the intention to do so.
    • Lack of sleep during the week cannot be "made up" during the weekends by over-sleeping. People require certain amounts of sleep every 24-hour cycle and if you don't meet your requirements then there's always immediate physiological / emotional repercussions.
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    Make note if you're getting up during the night. Another hallmark sign of insomnia is frequently waking up and getting out of bed during the late night and wee hours of the morning.[6] Most healthy people do not get up at all during the night, although someone with insomnia often does so multiple times. The reasons for getting out of bed include frustration from not falling asleep, physical discomfort, hunger and/or having to go to the bathroom. So remember that getting up frequently is not part of good sleep hygiene.
    • Due to various diseases, side effects from prescription medications and problems with bladder control, insomnia is much more common among the elderly than it is compared to young and middle-aged Americans.
    • More than a 25% of all Americans experience transient insomnia on a yearly basis and nearly 10% develop chronic insomnia.[7]
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    Watch out for tiredness in the mornings. Although many people expect to feel tired or fatigued in the morning while they wait to get some coffee in them, that should not be a normal consequence if you're getting a good quality and quantity of sleep. Instead, not feeling well rested after a night's sleep and experiencing daytime tiredness or fatigue is a direct sign of sleep deprivation, which may be a result of insomnia if you also have the above-mentioned symptoms.[8]
    • People with insomnia often describe their sleeps as "unrefreshing" which is medically referred to as non-restorative sleep. As such, insomniacs often feel more tired upon waking than when they went to bed the night before.
    • Drinking beverages with caffeine in the morning (coffee, black tea, hot chocolate, colas, energy drinks) can help mask the effects of sleep deprivation and insomnia short-term, but the physiological and psychological effects will eventually catch up to you.
    • In addition to tiredness and fatigue, other physical effects associated with insomnia include reduced coordination, slower reflexes, less strength, tension headaches and muscle / joint pains.
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    Be on the lookout for mood changes. A chronic lack of sleep not only negatively impacts your immune system function and leads to physical effects, but it also impacts your moods and emotions.[9] Irritability, depression, anxiety, poor memory, inability to concentrate, reduced attention span, less patience and a "short fuse" (quick to anger) are all associated with sleep deprivation from insomnia.[10] Chronic insomnia sufferers also tend to be more impulsive or aggressive.
    • Sometimes a psychological condition, such as depression or anxiety disorder, is the cause of insomnia instead of a consequence.
    • It's easy to see how insomnia can quickly become a positive feedback loop and perpetuate itself because it causes symptoms that can further disrupt sleep. As such, a big risk factor for chronic insomnia is having episodes of transient (short-term) insomnia.

Part 2
Troubleshooting Common Triggers

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    Reduce your stress levels. Stressful life events such as unemployment, divorce, serious illnesses or the passing of a loved one creates anxiety and can cause your mind to race at night, which prevents it from entering into an altered state of consciousness referred to as sleep.[11] Thus, try to deal with your stressors by making positive changes and train yourself to leave worrisome thoughts about your job or lack of money out of the bedroom. In short, make your bedroom a refuge from stress.
    • Stress triggers the release of hormones that prepares you for a "fight or flight" response, which is the opposite of what's needed to fall asleep.
    • Avoid reading the newspaper, watching the news, dealing with bills or talking about relationship issues just prior to going to bed. All these increase stress levels and can negatively impact sleep.
    • Adopt more calming bedtime habits such as reading books, listening to soothing music and/or taking warm Epsom salt baths.
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    Maintain regular schedules. Maintaining regular work and meal-time schedules allows you to establish a consistent sleeping routine, which promotes better sleeps and reduces the risk of developing insomnia.[12] Furthermore, keep your bedtime and wake-up times consistent, even on the weekends. Avoid regularly taking daytime naps, although if you feel a nap is absolutely necessary, keep it to under an hour and start before 3:00 pm.[13]
    • Shift-work that starts very early in the morning or late-night shifts invariably upset your natural circadian rhythm, which can easily trigger insomnia. These undesirable shifts may pay more, but consider the potential cost to your health.
    • The human body, as well as the vast majority of mammals, is geared to awaking at sunrise and sleeping shortly after sunset. Modern life makes this difficult to follow, but keep it in mind when making your schedules.
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    Avoid all stimulants before going to bed. A common cause of both transient and chronic insomnia is consuming sleep-disrupting compounds too close to bedtime. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine are well-established as being able to disrupt sleep and their effects can last eight hours or more.[14] As such, avoid caffeine products anytime after lunch, alcohol within six hours of bedtime, and nicotine (tobacco) within a few hours of heading to bed. Caffeine increases the activity of neurons in your brain, which causes more thoughts to pop into your head. Drinking alcohol (ethanol) often makes people drowsy because it acts as a nervous system depressant, but it actually triggers restless sleep and frequent awakenings.
    • The main sources of caffeine include coffee, black tea, hot chocolate, most soda pop (especially colas) and virtually all energy drinks. Remember that even caffeine-free energy drinks contain other sleep-disrupting stimulants such as guarana, cola nut and/or ginseng.
    • Particularly sugary, spicy or acidic food should be avoided just prior to bedtime as they can disrupt sleep, but some foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan can help promote better sleeps (such as poultry, lamb, pumpkin seeds and bananas).
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    Make your bedroom "sleep friendly". To help prevent both transient and chronic insomnia, make your bedroom or sleeping area as calming and soothing as you can.[15] Make it as dark as possible by closing the blinds or curtains and turning off all light emitting electronic. Your brain releases sleep hormones (such as melatonin) in response to darkness. Make your bedroom as quiet as possible by closing all windows and turning off your radio, MP3 player, TV and computer. Make sure the room's temperature is comfortable (cooler is better) because that also helps trigger sleep. Lastly, limit all potentially disruptive activities while in bed, such as playing with electronic gadgets, video games or pets.
    • As a helpful guideline, only use your bed for sleeping and sexual activity (which can promote sleep). Avoid using it to work, eat or entertainment yourself.
    • To drown out bothersome street or household noises, consider playing the sounds of nature in your room (rain, wind, birds or chimes).


  • Avoid heavy meals before bedtime. If you're hungry, do NOT eat a carbohydrate-rich snack (too much sugar). Instead, focus on a protein-rich snack such as nuts.
  • Avoid trying too hard to fall sleep — wait until you're drowsy to go to bed. If you can't sleep, then get out of bed after 30 minutes and do something relaxing (such as read) until you're drowsy.
  • Herbal remedies that can help relax you and induce sleep include: chamomile, valerian root, blueberry and passion fruit.
  • Melatonin is widely available as a nightly supplement and commonly recommended for insomnia.[16]
  • Consider taking magnesium supplements in the evenings — it triggers muscle relaxation, which is an important component of falling asleep.


  • Chronic insomnia can be caused by serious diseases and conditions (depression, cancer, kidney failure, for examples), so consult with your doctor if the above advice doesn't help you sleep better.

Article Info

Categories: Sleep Disorders