What causes insomnia?

Here are some of the main things that can cause insomnia.

Written by
Sean Bruce
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
April 17, 2024
min read
What causes insomnia?
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Ask anybody off the street today, and they'll probably tell you they're not getting enough sleep.

Sure, plenty will put their poor sleep patterns down to an endless commitment to ‘the grind', as if the path to the corner office must be paved with sleepless nights (NB: it doesn't, and hopefully by the end of this article, you'll know why).

But plenty more will tell you they want to get better sleep — they just can't.

And while it's common to take pride in burning the candle at both ends — particularly for us blokes — anybody who's suffered from insomnia knows nothing positive comes from not being able to get a good night's rest.

But what's the difference between not getting the amount of rest you'd like and actually suffering from a condition like insomnia?

If you look around on the net, you'll get a bunch of answers for this.

Opinions differ, with some experts defining a few sleepless nights as “acute” insomnia, whereas others will only diagnose the condition if the problem persists for weeks or more (otherwise known as chronic insomnia).

Whichever definition you go by, it's good to know the details, because even a few snooze-less nights can be hell, bringing with it a whole host of psychological and physical problems that can make life harder than it needs to be.

What does a good night's sleep look like?

This might surprise you, but it's not set in stone.

There's no definitive magic number when it comes to sleep — some of us only need more than others to stay healthy and fresh, though there is a general consensus in the medical community that 7-8 hours is the sweet spot for most [1].

For that reason, insomnia is closely related to how we feel about our sleep quality and quantity, and how it affects us throughout the day. Like with so many things health-related, it's important to listen to your body.

You might experience tossing and turning throughout the night, maybe you regularly wake up feeling exhausted, or you might be the type that sits there wide-eyed until the early hours, dreading the inevitable chirp of your alarm clock.

Whatever it is, if you're noticing these kinds of sleep issues on a regular basis, particularly for a prolonged period, you could be dealing with insomnia.

What insomnia might look like for you

Insomnia symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep at night
  • Waking up during the night
  • Waking up too early
  • Not feeling well-rested after a night's sleep
  • Daytime tiredness or sleepiness
  • Irritability, depression, or anxiety
  • Difficulty paying attention, focusing on tasks, or remembering
  • Increased errors or accidents
  • Ongoing worries about sleep

There are different types of insomnia you can have, which can manifest themselves differently and require different treatments. The 2 main ones are:

  • Primary insomnia, which isn't related to any other health problems
  • Secondary insomnia, which happens due to substance use or health problems like mental health conditions, cancer, or asthma

Additionally, you may hear other terms associated with some symptoms mentioned above, like sleep-onset insomnia (difficulty falling asleep), maintenance insomnia (difficulty staying asleep), early morning awakenings (waking up way before you were planning to), and mixed insomnia (a combination of all 3).

So, what causes insomnia?

If you're worried about the amount of sleep you're getting, it's important to realise how your day-to-day behaviour might be getting in the way.

Illnesses, disturbing noises, general anxiety, and worry — all these things and more can decrease your quality and quantity of sleep. While sometimes only affecting us for a short period, given the right set of conditions, bouts of sleeplessness can turn into chronic insomnia, persisting for weeks or even months.

Psychologist and Director of the North Queensland Insomnia Clinic, Andrew Mair tells us there are 3 “Ps” to the condition.

“There's the predisposing factors, which could be genetic, family history, etcetera. There are precipitating factors, which could be things like having a young family, an illness, or sleeping in a location where your sleep gets disturbed,” he says.

“Then we have the third P, which are perpetuating factors, and it seems to be the case that regardless of what initiated the sleep problems, the perpetuating factors are largely cognitive and behavioural.”

This means that if you are experiencing a long period without a decent night's rest, while incredibly frustrating and even debilitating, there are steps that you can take to improve the condition.

Are there any risk factors for insomnia?

You bet. Some habits and lifestyle factors that can cause trouble sleeping — and some that we briefly mentioned above — include:

  • Your family history: Although you're not 100% destined to struggle with insomnia just because members of your family do too, it can increase your chances [2].
  • Your workout habits: Exercising is amazing for your mental and physical health, but be mindful of timing and intensity. If you're doing super intense sessions right before going to bed, that might be contributing to your sleeping issues.
  • Your age: The older you are, the higher your risk of insomnia [3].
  • Your sex: Insomnia is more common in women than men [4].
  • Your lifestyle habits: Caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and recreational drugs can lead to poor sleep habits, whether it is by fragmenting sleep or prolonging wakefulness [5].
  • Your stress levels: We've all been there before — not being able to sleep because we can't get our minds off work, school, relationship problems, financial issues, you name it. It's a surefire way of getting into that vicious cycle of not being able to sleep because of stress, and stressing because you're not able to sleep.

How to get your 40 winks

Despite being a massive pain in the arse, insomnia is a disorder that can correct itself, if you follow some guidelines.

“If I had to tell people one thing to do in order to keep their sleep habits normal, it's to have a set wake-up time,” Mair tells us. “If you have a set wake-up time and you go to bed too late, you'll start to get sleep deprived and naturally you'll end up feeling sleepy, and you'll go to bed earlier — it will self-correct.”

Besides waking up at a regular time each day, Mair also recommends that you keep your bedroom only for sleep and sex. Don't use it for other activities, like watching TV or scrolling through social media.

Also, let your body tell you when you need to go to bed and sleep only when you feel sleepy, rather than at a specific hour.

“If you are in bed and you're not falling asleep, get out of bed and do something else. Not something particularly stimulating or arousing but something that's reasonably relaxing, and then go back to bed again when you are feeling sleepy,” he says.

“The rationale is that when people try to sleep, it results in them feeling frustrated or mentally and physically hyper-aroused. When that happens, the bed becomes a place associated with feeling frustrated and alert rather than sleepy.”

What if I have chronic insomnia?

If sleeplessness persists after taking steps to remove interferences from your sleep schedule, it may be time to look for some outside help.

Where's the best place to start?

“Go and see [a] GP,” says Mair. “People can self-refer to psychologists or to sleep clinics, but realistically general psychologists don't have the depth of knowledge required for treating insomnia and sleep disorders that professionals with specialised backgrounds do.

"You can get a referral from a GP for a mental health care plan to see a psychologist or a sleep physician.”

As for medication, it's important to choose the right one. Mair advises that while some types of sleep medicine may work in the short term, “beyond the first week or 2 of sleep problems”, they aren't going to be all that helpful for chronic insomnia issues.

Pilot's clinical sleep support is a great option that actually works. It combines expert medical support with a non-drowsy formula to help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up energised.

You start by answering an online quiz about your health, which a sleep specialist will review. Then, they recommend a treatment plan to help with your specific sleep disorder — be it insomnia, sleep apnoea, narcolepsy, or others — which is express shipped to your door. From there, you get ongoing care from a Pilot practitioner, who's always available to chat online. Easy as.

The final word

Sleep issues are incredibly common. Most of us will experience a degree of insomnia at some point in our lives.

Maintaining healthy, regular sleep patterns should be your first port of call. Avoid burning the candle at both ends too often, try to wake up at the same time each day, go to bed only when you feel tired, and listen to your body to reset your sleep-wake cycle.

If you still can't regulate your sleep cycle and catch those all-important Zs, don't hesitate to reach out to a GP and ask for assistance.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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