Insomnia: What it is, Symptoms, and Natural Solutions
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that can make falling or staying asleep difficult. When you have insomnia, you may experience insufficient or poor-quality sleep, leaving you feeling unrested when you wake up.
Getting enough high-quality sleep is crucial for maintaining good health and well-being. Conversely, consistently failing to get enough sleep can significantly affect mental and physical health and the overall quality of life.
Read on to discover the primary symptoms and causes of insomnia and several natural remedies for sleep issues.
How prevalent is insomnia?
Insomnia is widespread. Statistics show that as many as 70 million U.S. adults struggle with insomnia. Further, 35% of the U.S. population falls short of getting the recommended 7 hours of sleep each night. Indeed, our problems with sleep have gotten so severe that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has categorized insufficient sleep as a ‘public health problem.’ (1)
What are the 2 types of insomnia?
Insomnia, or sleeplessness, can come in two forms: acute and chronic.
Acute insomnia is common and can be triggered by various factors, such as work-related stress, family pressure, or a traumatic experience. It typically lasts for a few days or weeks.
On the other hand, chronic insomnia can last for more than a month and is often a secondary symptom of an underlying condition such as specific medical issues, medication use, or other sleep disorders. In addition, substances like tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol can also contribute to chronic insomnia.
In some cases, chronic insomnia can be the primary issue, and its cause is not well understood, but it could be linked to factors like long-term stress, emotional distress, travel, or shift work. Primary insomnia typically persists for an extended period, usually over a month.
What are the subtypes of insomnia?
Insomnia can further be divided into subtypes or characteristics that doctors and sleep specialists use to describe them.
- Onset insomnia. Experiencing difficulty falling asleep is known as onset insomnia. This issue might be caused by common triggers such as caffeine consumption, mental health symptoms, or other sleep disorders.
- Maintenance insomnia. This subtype refers to difficulty staying asleep or waking up too early regularly. This type of insomnia could be linked to underlying health and mental health symptoms.
- Behavioral insomnia. This insomnia subtype is seen in children and entails consistent difficulty falling asleep, refusal to go to bed, or both. Children with this condition may find it helpful to learn self-soothing techniques and establish a consistent sleep routine.
What are the symptoms of Insomnia?
Insomnia typically includes one or more of the following symptoms:
- Waking up in the middle of the night or early in the morning and unable to fall back to sleep
- A regular pattern of interrupted sleep that leaves you feeling fatigued instead of rested
- Lying in bed for a long time – upwards of 30 minutes – before falling asleep
- Worrying about being able to fall asleep while lying in bed
In addition, not getting enough sleep can lead to the following symptoms:
- Exhaustion during the day
- Mood swings
- Memory lapses
- Trouble concentrating
What are the risk factors for insomnia?
Anyone can experience insomnia. However, some factors make it more likely to have sleepless nights. Below are several common risk factors for insomnia:
Insomnia is often linked to depression. This could be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that alters sleep patterns. Alternatively, distress caused by fearful or troubling thoughts can also hinder restful sleep.
Sleep problems can also be a symptom of other mood disorders such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Stress and Anxiety
It's common to experience restless nights due to concerns about work, school, or family matters. These worries can lead to anxiety and make it challenging to fall asleep. Additionally, traumatic experiences such as the loss of a loved one, divorce, or job loss can cause ongoing stress and anxiety, resulting in chronic insomnia.
Did you know that insomnia is more prevalent in females than males? This is due to hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle and menopause. In particular, perimenopause, the period leading up to menopause, often causes sleep disturbances due to night sweats and hot flashes. In addition, experts suggest that postmenopausal females may experience difficulty sleeping due to a lack of estrogen.
Our sleep patterns change as we age, and insomnia becomes more common. Older adults may struggle to sleep for eight hours, often requiring daytime naps to compensate for lost sleep. The Mayo Clinic reports that almost half of men and women over 60 experience insomnia symptoms (2).
Some over-the-counter medications have the potential to cause insomnia. For example, pain relievers, decongestants, and weight-loss products may contain caffeine or other stimulants that can interfere with sleep. In addition, although antihistamines may initially make you feel drowsy, they can also cause frequent urination, disrupting sleep by requiring more trips to the bathroom at night.
In addition, certain prescription drugs can also disrupt sleep patterns. These may include:
- Allergy medicine
- Heart medications
- Blood pressure meds
Drinking caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea is a popular daily ritual. But unfortunately, they also stimulate the brain and cause insomnia. The same is true of foods that contain caffeine, such as sodas and chocolate.
If you want to get a good night’s sleep, limit caffeine consumption, especially in the late afternoon.
The CDC (3) has uncovered a connection between sleep disorders and obesity. Research shows that individuals who sleep for less than six hours per night display a 33 percent obesity rate. In contrast, those who sleep for seven to eight hours per night have an obesity rate of 22 percent. This trend was observed across all age and ethnic groups and among men and women.
Various medical conditions may lead to insomnia, including:
- Sleep apnea
- Chronic pain
- Frequent urination
- Cardiovascular disease
- Acid reflux
Various sleep disorders, including restless leg syndrome, can disrupt sleep. For example, restless leg syndrome causes a crawling sensation in the lower legs that can only be relieved by movement. Sleep apnea, on the other hand, is a breathing disorder that is characterized by loud snoring and brief pauses in breathing. Both disorders can lead to difficulty falling and staying asleep, leading to fatigue and poor concentration during the day. Treatment for these disorders can help improve overall sleep quality.
Shift work or frequent long-distance travel.
Changes in work schedules or traveling across different time zones can disrupt your body's natural circadian rhythm. This is the 24-hour internal biochemical, physiological, and behavioral cycle that is influenced by exposure to sunlight. The circadian rhythm regulates various bodily functions such as sleep patterns, body temperature, and metabolism.
Insomnia can negatively impact your performance in all areas, including:
- Sexual desire
The most problematic issue with daytime sleepiness is the risk of vehicle accidents.
Driving while experiencing drowsiness is commonly referred to as drowsy driving, and it can impact any individual who takes control of a vehicle. Drowsy driving considerably heightens the chances of accidents, resulting in an alarming quantity of injuries and fatalities each year.
Research indicates that drowsy driving is a common issue, though there is no exact way to measure it. According to the National Sleep Foundation's 2005 Sleep in America Poll (4), 60% of adult drivers admitted to driving while feeling drowsy in the past year. Additionally, the CDC's survey data (5) showed that one out of every 25 U.S. adults had dozed off while driving in the previous month.
Statistics show that drowsy driving is a significant contributor to motor vehicle accidents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy driving caused at least 91,000 crashes in 2017, resulting in around 50,000 injuries and 800 deaths (6). NHTSA works to reduce deaths, damages, and economic losses caused by motor vehicle crashes by enforcing vehicle performance standards and collaborating with state and local governments. However, this data may not accurately reflect the full impact of drowsy driving since it's often difficult to determine whether it caused an accident, particularly after fatal crashes.
Other studies suggest that drowsy driving may cause up to 6,000 deadly crashes yearly. Researchers estimate that roughly 21% (8) of fatal car crashes involve a drowsy driver.
Why is daytime drowsiness dangerous for drivers?
Driving while drowsy poses a significant risk of car accidents. Even a few seconds of dozing off, also known as microsleep, can cause a driver to run off the road or collide with another vehicle (8). High-speed crashes resulting from drowsy driving are particularly damaging.
Even if you stay awake while driving, that doesn’t mean you’re home-free. Research shows that sleep deprivation, like being drunk, can lead to mental impairment (9). After 24 hours of sleep deprivation, a person's level of impairment is equivalent to having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10% (10).
This impairment can make drivers less attentive to their surroundings and more easily distracted. It also slows down their reaction time, making it harder to avoid hazards on the road. Insufficient sleep is also linked to poor decision-making, leading to risky driving behaviors.
Lower life expectancy
Did you know that insomnia can reduce your life expectancy? It’s true.
Researchers analyzed 16 studies involving over 1 million participants and 112,566 deaths to examine the link between sleep duration and mortality. The results showed that those who slept less had a 12 percent higher risk of death than those who slept 7 to 8 hours per night (10).
In a more recent study (11) spanning 38 years, scientists discovered that people with chronic (long-term) insomnia had a staggering 97 percent increased risk of death. So improving your sleep habits is crucial for your overall health and longevity.
What are some methods to naturally treat insomnia?
Below are several natural remedies to help you get the good night’s sleep you’ve longed for.
Have you heard of mindfulness meditation? It involves sitting quietly and focusing on your breath, body, thoughts, feelings, and sensations; it is a simple practice. Mindfulness meditation has numerous health benefits that can support a healthy lifestyle, including better sleep, reduced stress, improved concentration, and boosted immunity.
In a 2011 study (12), researchers found that participants who attended weekly meditation classes, a daylong retreat, and practiced at home significantly improved their insomnia and overall sleep patterns.
You can meditate as often as you like, even for just 15 minutes in the morning or evening. To stay motivated, consider joining a meditation group once a week or trying an online guided meditation.
You may find it challenging to stay consistent at first, but the more you practice, the easier it will get. Remember to be kind to yourself and take it one step at a time. With patience and dedication, you will soon experience the positive changes meditation can bring to your life.
Many studies have shown that yoga improves sleep quality and may also alleviate stress, improve physical function, and increase mental concentration (13).
In selecting a style of yoga, you should opt for one that emphasizes moving meditation and breathwork rather than physical movements that require a lot of effort. For example, yin and restorative yoga are excellent choices.
To achieve maximum relaxation and stress reduction, it is recommended that you engage in a few longer sessions each week as well as a minimum of 20 minutes of daily self-practice.
Don't force a pose if it doesn't feel right for you. Forcing an exercise can lead to injury. Instead, you must do what feels good for you and your body. Always listen to your body, and stop if you feel pain. Remember to stretch before and after each session to reduce the risk of injury. Drink lots of water to stay hydrated and to help your muscles recover.
In a study (14) conducted in 2015, researchers discovered that massage therapy can help people with insomnia by improving their sleep quality and reducing daytime dysfunction. Additionally, it can alleviate feelings of pain, anxiety, and depression.
If you cannot access professional massage services, you can perform self-massage or ask a partner or friend to assist you. Make sure to use gentle strokes and breathing techniques to maximize relaxation. Focus on the sensations of touch and allow your mind to wander. You can find tips and techniques online to help you.
Drinking plenty of water before and after the massage is also essential to flush out toxins released from the body. Finally, always use a clean towel and moisturize your skin afterward.
However, if you have specific health concerns that could affect the benefits of massage, it's best to consult your doctor. Also, perform a skin patch test if you have sensitive skin to creams or oils.
Regular exercise is crucial for maintaining good health. Not only can it elevate your mood and increase your energy levels, but it can also aid in weight loss and promote a better quality of sleep. For example, a study (15) conducted in 2015 showed that those who exercised for at least 150 minutes a week for six months experienced fewer symptoms of insomnia, depression, and anxiety.
To reap these benefits, engaging in moderate exercise for a minimum of 20 minutes per day is recommended. You can also incorporate some strength training or vigorous aerobic exercise a few times a week.
It is vital to choose the time of day that works best for your body and positively impacts your sleep. Always consider your physical condition and exercise safely to avoid any potential injuries. Listen to your body, and don't push yourself beyond your limits. Start with lighter exercises and gradually increase the intensity. Take regular breaks so your body has time to recover and stay hydrated.
Repeating a positive affirmation or mantra can have a calming effect on the mind. It is believed that mantras can help quiet the mind and induce relaxation.
A 2015 study (16) showed that homeless women who repeated a mantra throughout the day and before bed experienced reduced insomnia after a week of practice.
Many mantras exist in Sanskrit, English, or any other language. You can search online for ideas or create your own. It should be a short, positive statement in the present tense that calms you. The repetition of the sound will help you focus and relax, making it easier to fall asleep. You can chant the mantra silently or aloud and gently bring your attention back to it when your mind wanders.
Simply focus on your body's and breath's physical sensations, and allow your mind to become quiet. If thoughts come up, don't judge them; simply observe and then let them go. With practice, you can access a state of inner peace and relaxation.
If you find the practice causing any adverse effects, such as agitation, it's best to discontinue it. However, feel free to use a different mantra during the day if you find it helpful. Remember, the goal is to create a sense of peace and relaxation in your mind.
If you have trouble falling asleep or want to improve the quality of your sleep, melatonin could be helpful.
In a study conducted in 2016 (17), researchers discovered that melatonin significantly enhanced sleep patterns for people with insomnia and cancer. Furthermore, sleep quality improved even more after seven to 14 days.
To use melatonin, take 1 to 5 mg 30 minutes to two hours before bed. Using the lowest effective dose is essential to avoid any potential side effects.
Side effects of taking melatonin may include:
- Stomach cramps
- Interrupted sleep throughout the night
Speak with your doctor before taking melatonin if you're pregnant, nursing, or taking any medications. Melatonin is also not recommended for children under the age of 18.
Did you know magnesium is a natural mineral that can help you relax? It has been shown to promote healthy sleep patterns by relieving stress and relaxing muscles. In fact, a 2012 study found that participants who took 500 milligrams of magnesium daily for 2 months experienced fewer insomnia symptoms and improved sleep patterns (18).
The recommended daily dose for men is up to 400 mg, while women can take up to 300 mg daily. You may take your dose in the morning and evening or before bed. Additionally, you can add 1 cup of magnesium flakes to your evening bath to absorb it through your skin.
It's important to note that taking too much magnesium can lead to stomach and intestinal problems. Therefore, starting with a lower dose and gradually increasing it is recommended to see how your body responds. Taking it with food may also reduce any discomfort. If you take any medications, it's best to consult your doctor to determine potential interactions.
It's essential that you not take magnesium supplements constantly, as this may cause adverse effects. Instead, take a break for a few days every two weeks and never exceed the recommended dose on the product label. This will ensure that your body has enough time to absorb the magnesium and that any excess is eliminated from the system.
What behavioral changes can help me get a good night’s sleep?
Some simple adjustments to your diet, lifestyle, and habits can help you get a restful night’s sleep.
Get more sunlight.
Did you know your body has an internal clock called the circadian rhythm?
This clock influences your brain, hormones, and body functions, which help you stay alert and know when to rest. To keep your circadian rhythm healthy, it's essential to expose yourself to natural sunlight or bright light during the day. This can enhance your daytime energy and improve the quality and duration of your sleep at night.
Studies have also shown that people who struggle with insomnia can benefit from daytime bright light exposure, which can significantly reduce the time it takes to fall asleep by up to 83% (19).
Even if you don't have severe sleep problems, daily exposure to light can still be beneficial. You can achieve this by spending time outdoors in the sunlight or investing in an artificial bright light device or bulbs if you can't get enough natural light.
Limit blue light exposure before bed.
It is beneficial to be exposed to light during the day, but exposure to light at night has the opposite effect.
This is due to its impact on your circadian rhythm, which tricks your brain into believing it is still daytime. This decreases the production of hormones such as melatonin, which aids relaxation and deep sleep.
The worst culprit in this regard is blue light, which is emitted in large amounts by electronic devices such as smartphones and computers.
Avoid using your devices or watching television at least two hours before bedtime to reduce blue light exposure in the evening. You can also check to see if your smartphone has a function that dims the screen’s light.
Avoid taking naps.
Short power naps can be beneficial, but prolonged or irregular napping during the day can negatively impact your sleep.
When you sleep during the day, it can confuse your internal clock and make it difficult to fall asleep at night. However, one study (20) found that participants felt sleepier during the day after taking daytime naps.
Another study (21) suggested that naps lasting 30 minutes or less can improve daytime brain function, but longer naps can harm your health and sleep quality.
But this isn’t true for everyone. Indeed, some studies have shown that individuals who regularly take daytime naps do not experience poor sleep quality or disrupted sleep at night. So if you take regular daytime naps and sleep well, you need not worry. The impact of napping varies from person to person.
Everyone should assess their needs and discuss them with their doctor if they have any concerns. Napping can be beneficial, but it's crucial to nap at the right time and in the right way. Overall, napping should be taken in moderation.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule.
Did you know that your body's natural clock, or circadian rhythm, is designed to follow a pattern aligned with sunrise and sunset? This is why consistency in sleep and wake times can contribute to better long-term sleep quality.
A study (22) found that people who had erratic sleep schedules and stayed up late on weekends experienced poor sleep quality. Other research (23) suggests that irregular sleep patterns can disrupt your circadian rhythm and melatonin levels, interrupting healthy sleep patterns.
If you have trouble sleeping, consider establishing a routine for waking up and going to bed at similar times. Additionally, ensure that your bedroom environment is conducive to sleep. For example, turn off electronics and reduce noise to create a calm atmosphere. Finally, ensure your mattress and pillows are comfortable and provide adequate support for your body.
Limit caffeine consumption to the morning only.
If you love coffee, you’re not alone. Caffeine has many benefits and is widely consumed by 90% of the U.S. population.
A single dose can boost your focus, energy, and sports performance. However, consuming caffeine late in the day can stimulate your nervous system and prevent your body from relaxing naturally at night.
A study (24) showed that consuming caffeine up to 6 hours before bed can significantly decrease sleep quality. Due to the long-lasting effects of caffeine, it is not recommended to drink large amounts of coffee after 3-4 p.m., especially if you're sensitive to caffeine or have difficulty sleeping.
If you crave coffee in the late afternoon or evening, it's best to stick with decaffeinated coffee.
Remember, sodas, some teas, and chocolate contain caffeine, so don’t consume any of those 3-4 hours before bedtime.
Getting enough sleep is crucial for maintaining good health.
Studies (25) have shown that not getting adequate sleep can lead to an increased risk of obesity by 89% in children and 55% in adults. Furthermore, research (26) has linked getting less than 7-8 hours of sleep per night to an increased risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Therefore, if you want to prioritize your overall health and well-being, it's important to prioritize sleep and consider implementing some of the sleep tips mentioned above. Establishing a regular sleep schedule, avoiding television and device screens before bed, limiting caffeine intake, and creating a comfortable sleep environment are all recommended strategies that can help improve your sleep quality.