Anyone can experience insomnia from time to time. In fact, according to the Sleep Medicine Center, almost 60 million people in the U.S.¹ experience insomnia.
If you're asking yourself, "how do I know if I have insomnia?" you first need to know what insomnia is (there's more than one type), the different symptoms, causes, and when to see a doctor.
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Insomnia is a very common sleep disorder that can make it difficult for you to fall or stay asleep. It can also lead you to wake up during your sleep and prevent falling back to sleep. You might feel unrefreshed and tired upon waking up as well. It can affect your mood and energy level, work performance, health, and quality of life.
Insomnia can last for one night, a couple of nights, or become a chronic problem. In fact, there is more than just one type of insomnia.
You could have:
Acute insomnia that can last a day, a couple of days, or weeks
Chronic insomnia that can last a month or longer
Onset insomnia where it's difficult for you to fall asleep
Comorbid insomnia that's linked with another disorder
Maintenance insomnia where you can't stay asleep
According to some research, comorbid insomnia makes up 85% to 90% of chronic insomnia.²
You can also experience an increase in insomnia as you age. In some cases, insomnia will go away after certain lifestyle factors, like work or family stress, are resolved. For more severe cases of insomnia, your sleep quality will improve once you address the underlying cause.
Insomnia can cause both physical and emotional symptoms. If you're experiencing insomnia, you may:
Be unable to fall asleep at night or lie awake for a long time.
Sleep for only brief periods. You might wake up throughout the night or be awake for most of it.
Experience poor quality sleep, feel unrested or sleepy during the day. You might have difficulty focusing on tasks.
Feel irritable, depressed, or anxious.
Wake up too early before it's time to get up in the morning and not be able to go back to sleep.
Have issues with memory or concentration.
In the short term, insomnia could make it difficult for you to think clearly or concentrate. You might feel sad, irritable, have headaches, or feel unrested. Insomnia also increases your risk of having an auto accident, falling, or missing work.
Additionally, chronic insomnia can impact the way your heart, brain, and other body parts work. It could increase your risk of health issues³ or make existing health issues worse. These health issues may include:
Heart problems like heart failure, arrhythmia, high blood pressure, and coronary heart disease.
Breathing issues like asthma.
Pain. Individuals with insomnia and chronic pain might become more aware of their pain and more distressed.
Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Insomnia could also make it hard for you to stay compliant to treatment for a substance abuse disorder.
Metabolism problems. Insomnia could change your levels of hormones responsible for controlling hunger and the way you break your food down. This could increase your risk of obesity and being overweight, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
Pregnancy complications like giving birth preterm, experiencing more pain during labor, requiring a cesarean (C-section), and having a baby with low birth weight.
Immune system problems could make it more difficult for your body to fight infections or cause inflammation in your body.
A lot of things can potentially contribute to you developing insomnia, including psychological, physiological, and environmental factors. These include:
Unhealthy sleep and lifestyle habits
Life stressors, including relationships, job, financial difficulties
Chronic diseases like cancer
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues
Gastrointestinal disorders like heartburn
Chronic pain due to fibromyalgia, arthritis, or other conditions
Neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's
Medications and other substances
Other sleep problems like restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea
Hormone fluctuations due to menopause, menstruation, thyroid disease, or other problems
You might have a greater risk of insomnia³ due to genetics, family history, age, occupation, environment, worry about sleep or stress, or your lifestyle.
You can experience insomnia at any age, but your likelihood of experiencing it increases as you get older.
Genetics and family history
Your genes might increase your chances of experiencing insomnia, as insomnia can sometimes be familial. Your genes might also impact whether you're a light or deep sleeper.
Occupation or environment
Certain things can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle, including:
Light or noise during the night
Night or shift work
Traveling often to different time zones
Uncomfortably low or high temperatures
Certain lifestyle habits could increase your risk of insomnia, including:
Regular and long daytime naps
Frequently changing your regular routine or following an irregular sleep schedule
Using nicotine, caffeine, illegal drugs, or alcohol
Not getting enough physical activity in the daytime
Worrying or stressing about work, school, your sleep, money, relationships, or the death of a loved one can increase your risk of insomnia.
While it's common to experience insomnia every once in a while, if your lack of sleep negatively impacts your life, you'll want to set up an appointment for a visit to your doctor.
They'll ask about your symptoms and give you a thorough physical exam as part of the diagnostic process. They'll also ask about any medicine you're taking and your overall medical history to see if you have an underlying cause of your insomnia (in which case they'll treat that condition first.)
Speak with your doctor about any potential follow-up visits you should schedule. Between visits, let your doctor know if you experience any worsening or new symptoms or if any medication you're taking has side effects. They may prescribe you a different treatment or medication.
Your doctor might have you write in a sleep diary to help you track your sleep and determine the quality of sleep you're getting both during and following treatment.
Even if your insomnia improves, you might still need to maintain a regular daily schedule and possibly continue taking your medication regularly.
If you've been diagnosed with insomnia, it's important to make healthy sleep and lifestyle changes and follow your treatment plan. Some individuals with insomnia experience better sleep after changing their daytime and nighttime behaviors. If changes like these don't seem to help, medication, therapy, or treatment could help improve insomnia.