Understanding Insomnia -- the Basics

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 26, 2021
2 min read

You can't fall asleep. Or you keep waking up during the night, or too early in the morning. And you don't feel refreshed when it's time to get up.

That's insomnia. It's very common, and it can happen for many reasons.

For some people, insomnia only lasts a few nights and then their sleep gets back on track. This might happen when you have jet lag.

Others have "short-term" insomnia, which lasts less than a month. For instance, an accountant who works extra hours and feels stressed during tax season might have rocky sleep until the April 15 deadline passes.

Chronic insomnia lasts longer than a month. That's the most likely kind to be linked to a health problem, but it could also be due to your sleep habits.

Some of the most common causes of insomnia are simple. Do you:

  • Keep odd hours?
  • Nap during the day?
  • Drink too much coffee or alcohol?
  • Stay up late because you're working, doing chores, or watching something online?
  • Worry about something that's going on in your life?
  • Not feel comfortable in your bed or bedroom?

Other things that can hamper your sleep include:

Some physical illnesses, especially problems with the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas, and digestive system. Heartburn, chronic pain, and breathing problems such as sleep apnea are common causes of insomnia. Diabetes and restless legs syndrome can cause people to wake up during the night.

Mental health problems are also rough on sleep. Depression can cause insomnia, and people with anxiety, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric disorders may also have trouble sleeping.

Medications. Over-the-counter drugs and prescription medications --  including some blood pressure medicines, heart drugs, and thyroid hormones -- can interfere with sleep. So can the misuse of sleeping pills.

Jet lag and changing shift-work schedules. These throw off your "body clock." Most people adjust to their new schedule eventually.

Menopausecan disrupt sleep with hot flashes or night sweats.

Pregnancy often makes it harder to sleep. It may partly be due to hormones, and, especially later in pregnancy, trouble finding a comfortable sleep position.