Issue 8 Stories
On-Call Advice

What causes insomnia, how is it treated, and can it lead to other problems?

Insomnia, or sleeplessness, affects people in different ways. Some people have trouble falling asleep, others have difficulty staying asleep, and some people suffer with both conditions.

Many factors can cause insomnia, including medical conditions like sinus allergies, chronic pain, arthritis, gastroesophageal reflux disease and asthma, as well as other sleep disorders like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. Insomnia can also result from medications used to treat problems such as high blood pressure, thyroid issues, heart disease, depression, colds and allergies. Birth control pills can cause sleeplessness in some users as well.

Other potential causes of insomnia may lie with problems with the neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate sleep and waking, as well as psychological conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression. While nearly everyone has experienced sleepless nights before a big event, or as a result of thoughts racing through the mind, these are often short-term episodes that resolve on their own. If these episodes continue over a longer period, however, chronic insomnia may result.

Apart from medical concerns, lifestyle choices, too, can be significant causes of insomnia. Eating large meals or smoking late at night, drinking alcohol or caffeine near bedtime, engaging in strenuous activities or working at night, trying to sleep with the TV or radio on, sleeping with pets and having too much light in the bedroom—all of these habits, and more, can affect duration and quality of sleep.

Chronic insomnia may lead to fatigue and lack of alertness, with an increased possibility of accidents, and can contribute to irritability, low energy, and lack of concentration or productivity. More seriously, however, consistent lack of adequate sleep can contribute to a person’s risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes.

Treating insomnia involves addressing any underlying medical, psychiatric or neurological causes, as well as maintaining proper “sleep hygiene”—that is, adjusting any lifestyle factors that may be keeping a person awake at night. In some cases, a sleep study may be helpful in determining the causes. To help resolve insomnia, it’s always best to treat or remove any contributing factors before turning to sleeping pills or other sleep medications—especially for long-term treatment.

If you’re suffering from insomnia that is disrupting your life, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you find the treatment options that are best for you.

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