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Insomnia (Sleepless Nights)

What Causes Insomnia?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 - 10:18

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

There are many possible causes of insomnia. Sometimes there is one main cause, but often several factors interacting together will cause a sleep disturbance. The causes of insomnia include:

Psychological Causes

In many people, insomnia can be the result of:

  • Anxiety, a condition in which individuals feel increased tension, apprehension, and feelings of helplessness, fear, worry, and uncertainty. This may be due to the effects that other people at work have on us, financial worries, concerns over relationships outside work or numerous other causes.

    For more detailed information about anxiety, go to Anxiety: How To Stop Worrying.

  • Stress, or how effectively a person copes with any emotional, physical, social, economic, or other factor that requires a response or change.

    For more detailed information about coping with stress, go to Stress And How To Manage It.

  • Depression, a mood disturbance characterized by feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement.

    For more detailed information about depression, go to Depression: How To Overcome It.

In addition, a lack of a good night's sleep can lead to these very same psychological problems, and a vicious cycle can develop. Professional counseling from a doctor, therapist, or sleep specialist can help individuals cope with these conditions.

Physical Causes

The physical causes of insomnia include the following:

  • Hormonal changes in women. These include premenstrual syndrome, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.

    For more detailed information about premenstrual syndrome, go to Premenstrual Syndrome.

  • Decreased melatonin. The levels of melatonin, the hormone that helps control sleep, decrease as a person ages. By age 60, the body produces very little melatonin.
  • Medical conditions. These include allergies, arthritis, asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, hyperthyroidism, and Parkinson's disease.

    For more detailed information about arthritis, go to Osteoarthritis.

    For more detailed information about asthma, go to Asthma.

    For more detailed information about heart disease, go to Heart Disease: How To Reduce The Risk.

    For more detailed information about high blood pressure, go to High Blood Pressure.

    For more detailed information about hyperthyroidism, go to Hyperthyroidism.

    For more detailed information about Parkinson's disease, go to Parkinson's Disease.

  • Pain. Pain and discomfort from a medical illness or injury often interfere with sleep.
  • Genetics. Problems with insomnia do seem to run in some families, although researchers have yet to identify how genetics play a role.
  • Other sleep disorders. These include sleep apnea (in which one temporarily stops breathing during sleep) and periodic leg and arm movements during sleep (in which one's muscles excessively twitch or jerk).

Temporary Events Or Factors

Short-term insomnia can be linked to events and factors that are often temporary, such as:

  • Adjustment sleep disorder. This form of sleeplessness is a reaction to change or stress. It may be caused by a traumatic event such as an illness or loss of a loved one, or a minor event such as a change in the weather or an argument with someone.
  • Jet lag. Air travel across time zones often causes brief bouts of insomnia.
  • Working the night shift or long shifts. Individuals who work at night and those who work long shifts may have trouble adjusting their sleep habits.
  • Medications. Insomnia can be a side effect of various medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
  • Overuse of caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine most commonly disrupts sleep. While a drink or two before bed may help a person relax, more than that can lead to fragmented sleep and wakefulness a few hours later.
  • Environmental noise, extreme temperatures, or a change in a person's surrounding environment.

Need To Know:

Insomnia can be a sign of an undiagnosed medical or psychological condition. If insomnia persists for more than a few weeks, it's best to see your doctor for a physical exam.

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