What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a type of sleep disorder. If you find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, this is an indication that you may be suffering from insomnia. With insomnia, you will most likely experience poor quality sleep, and in turn, feel extremely tired and lethargic the next day. You may notice that you are more irritable and unfocused throughout the day as well. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, insomnia is the most common out of all sleep disorders. In fact, it is reported that between 6 to 10 percent of adults suffer from insomnia daily [1]. Hence, if you are currently suffering from insomnia, know that you are not alone and there are many people in the world who understand first-hand what it is like to live life with insomnia. 

There are two different types of insomnia – sleep-onset insomnia and sleep maintenance insomnia. Individuals with sleep-onset insomnia have difficulty falling asleep. On the other hand, individuals with sleep maintenance insomnia fall asleep normally but will have trouble staying asleep for more than a few hours. 

Individuals who experience insomnia at least three times a week for three consecutive months are known to have chronic insomnia. Anything less than three months is known as acute insomnia, and insomnia that does not fall into either category is categorized as other insomnia. 

How will having insomnia affect me?

There are various ways in which insomnia may affect you in your daily life. Firstly, you may notice a loss of focus and a decrease in productivity during the day. This may come in various forms, such as losing concentration easily in class or frequently missing out on emails at work. 

Insomnia may also take a toll on both your physical and mental health. Individuals with insomnia have a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system and obesity. Having insufficient sleep may also increase your likelihood of developing anxiety disorders, depression and other mental health disorders. Ultimately, this may have a significant negative impact on your quality of life, potentially even putting a strain on your relationships and social life. 

What does having insomnia feel like?

The main tell-tale signs of insomnia are having difficulties falling asleep, waking up multiple times throughout the night, or waking up much earlier than planned in the morning. If you are constantly tired throughout the day, feel a heightened sense of irritability or aggression or have troubles concentrating and remembering things, these may also indicate that you might be experiencing insomnia. 

However, it is always wise to visit a doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms just to make sure you do not mistake your condition for something else! 

What are the causes and risk factors of insomnia?

In recent years, large studies have confirmed that genetics contributes to one of the several causes of insomnia. For example, research has shown how approximately 35% of patients suffering from insomnia have a positive family history, with the mother usually being the most affected family member [2].  

Besides genetics, having poor sleep habits may also make you more prone to having insomnia. This includes having irregular sleep-wake schedules, taking long naps in the afternoon or having an uncomfortable sleep environment. Even the use of electronic devices may interfere with your sleep cycle and lead to insomnia. This is because electronic devices such as phones, tablets and laptops emit blue light which suppresses the production of melatonin, a natural hormone released in the body to help you feel more relaxed, tired and ready for sleep. 

In addition, alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and drugs, known as stimulants, may interfere with sleep as well. Eating large meals before sleep may also result in heartburn, which happens when acid in your stomach backflows into your oesophagus, a tube connecting your mouth and stomach, thus keeping you awake. 

At times, insomnia may also be associated with other underlying medical issues. Mental health disorders such as bi-polar disorder and anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may disrupt your sleep. Studies have also shown that about three quarters of patients suffering from depression show symptoms of insomnia [3]. Other medical conditions  associated with insomnia include chronic pain, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), hyperthyroidism, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome

The last common cause of insomnia are medications. Unfortunately, many prescription drugs can interfere with sleep. These include certain painkillers, allergy and cold medications, and weight-loss products. This is because these medications often contain caffeine and other substances that are known to disrupt sleep.

How is insomnia diagnosed?

When visiting a doctor, your doctor will most likely conduct a thorough medical examination and several tests before definitively diagnosing you with insomnia. Your doctor may ask you about your medical history, sleep patterns, degree of stress and lifestyle habits. 

In special cases, your doctor may refer you to a sleep disorder specialist to conduct a sleep study on you, also known as a polysomnography. This is usually done in a sleep laboratory in clinics or hospitals, whereby sensors will be taped onto your head and body to monitor your sleep cycles while you sleep. As daunting as this process may sound, it is entirely painless. 

If you have been experiencing any problems falling or staying asleep at night, you could consider starting a sleep log to jot down your sleep and wake times, as well as a detailed description of your before and during sleep habits. This includes writing down any abnormalities during sleep such as excessive snoring. Subsequently, bring this sleep log to your next doctor’s appointment and this will provide your doctor a more comprehensive picture of what it is you are dealing with.

How do I prevent myself from getting insomnia?

The easiest way to prevent insomnia is to simply have a healthy, consistent sleep schedule. Take concrete steps such as exercising regularly to alleviate some stress in your life. Making simple lifestyle choices such as maintaining a healthy diet will also aid in preventing disruptions during sleep. Lastly, reduce your screen time and activate the blue-light filter function which can be found on most phones two hours before bedtime.

How can I manage my insomnia?

If you are currently experiencing insomnia, do not be disheartened as there are many ways to manage it. The simplest way to manage insomnia is to make healthy lifestyle changes. This includes changing your sleep schedule to a more consistent one, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, and finding ways to reduce the stress in your daily life. 

If you are having troubles falling asleep, here is one simple relaxation technique you can adopt that may help you: 

  1. Lie in bed in a comfortable position and close your eyes
  2. Inhale for four seconds 
  3. Hold your breath for seven seconds 
  4. Exhale slowly for eight seconds 
  5. Repeat several times 
  6. As you breathe, focus on your natural breathing and how your body moves with as you inhale and exhale

Lastly, your doctor may prescribe you some sleep medications that can help to provide temporary relief from insomnia. However, it is important to understand that sleep medications are not a cure for insomnia, and should only be used as a last resort. 

If you think that you may be experiencing insomnia, visit a doctor and seek medical attention immediately. 

  1. Bastien, C. H., & Morin, C. M. (2000). Familial incidence of insomnia. Journal of Sleep Research, 9(1), 49–54.
  2. Felix Torres, MD, MBA, DFAPA. (2020, July). What Are Sleep Disorders?; American Psychiatric Association.
  3. Nutt, D., Wilson, S., & Paterson, L. (2008). Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 10(3), 329–336.