Nobody sleeps well every single night. But if you often find it hard to drift off, don’t stay asleep all night, or wake too early in the morning, you could have a sleep disorder called insomnia.
If so, you won’t just feel sleepy. A lack of quality sleep can also cause fatigue, low energy, a dip in your mood, and trouble with focus. You’ll find it harder to do a good job at work or school. It also raises the odds you’ll go on to have health problems like heart disease, cancer, obesity, dementia, depression, and anxiety.
Yael Levy recalls having chronic nightmares as far back as elementary school, when she was living in Israel. The grandchild of Holocaust survivors, she says her dreams were filled with images of suffering and death.
In one recurrent nightmare, Levy was trapped in a concentration camp, facing death. In another, she was drowning in deep water. At their worst, the nightmares occurred on an almost weekly basis, leaving her jittery and desperately fatigued.
"I would wake up so terrified that I was afraid...
Most of the time, insomnia is a symptom of another problem, rather than its own illness. To stop it, you’ll need to figure out what’s keeping your brain in its “wakefulness” cycle and preventing the sleep you need.
Causes of Insomnia
Sleep troubles can start for many reasons. These include:
Health issues. Plenty of medical conditions can disrupt your sleep, such as allergies, asthma, stomach issues like acid reflux, chronic pain, and sleep apnea. Mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, can keep you from getting enough rest, too.
Stress. Worrying about work, money, loved ones, or big life changes keep your mind going long after you turn the lights out.
Food and drink. Alcohol may make you fall asleep quickly, but it disrupts your deep sleep. So do caffeine and heavy meals.
Drugs. Some prescribed medicines will make it harder for you to sleep. Over-the-counter drugs, like ones you take for allergies or pain, can also cause insomnia.
Daily habits. Small choices you make every day can sabotage your sleep. For instance, the blue light from your tablet or phone screen tells your brain to “wake up” before bed. Long afternoon naps or working night or rotating shifts can also mess up your natural sleep cycle.
Find Out What Keeps You Awake
To figure out the cause of your insomnia, try keeping a sleep diary. For a week or two, jot down details like:
When you go to sleep and wake up each morning
How quickly you fall asleep
Do you feel rested when you wake up?
Does another person or a pet share a bed with you?
Did you read or use a screen while in bed?
What wakes you up (like worries, noise, or pain)
If you drink alcohol or caffeine or smoke tobacco before bedtime
Your exercise schedule
When you nap
Any new or different sleep medications you take
Your mood each day
You can write this down in a notebook or find an online sleep diary to fill out. When you’re done, look back through it to see if you notice any patterns.