Insomnia can be a symptom of a sleeping disorder. About one in five people have some difficulty sleeping however not all will be suffering from insomnia. Insomnia literally means ‘poor sleep’ and is used to describe several kinds of sleep problem. These range from not being able to get off to sleep to having a full nights sleep and not feeling refreshed. But what is normal sleep?

Sleep is a period of rest common to humans and many other animals. The purposes of sleep are only partially understood and a great deal of research into sleep is still ongoing. For humans sleep is divided into two types; Rapid Eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). Sleep occurs in cycles, one part REM to three parts NREM. The average cycle lasts between 90 to 110 minutes.

On average most people need about six to eight hours sleep per night, however some people can function well with less. A pattern of sleep is usually established early in adult life however as you age it’s normal to sleep less. Poor sleep has been shown to affect sufferers in the daytime with symptoms including mental fatigue, tiredness and irritability. Although it’s unclear why a lack of sleep causes these symptoms, some theories suggest that while asleep the body produces much needed chemicals and lack of sleep interferes with this.

There are three main types of insomnia;

Transient insomnia – Which lasts from a couple of days to a few weeks. This can be caused by other disorders, changes to the sleep environment or timing of sleep and stress.
Acute insomnia – Lasts for three to six months and is marked by an inability to sleep consistently well over this period.
Chronic insomnia – This lasts for years at a time. Effects can vary and may include hallucinations, muscular fatigue and sleepiness. And research has shown people with chronic insomnia often show increased alertness.

Insomnia can have several causes both psychological and physical.

Common psychological causes include other mental disorders (like schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress) and parasomnia (which are sleep-based events such as nightmares or sleepwalking). Depression and anxiety can also cause insomnia but in most cases treating the depression will often cure the difficulty sleeping too. There are many physical causes of insomnia, most of these come from medical conditions or diseases. Neurological disorders such as injury to the brain or brain lesions have been shown to cause insomnia. Similarly hormone shifts (like the ones which precede menstruation or menopause) and disturbances of the circadian rhythm (like jet lag or shift work) can also cause sleep problems. Certain substances such as psychoactive drugs or types of medication can also contribute to insomnia.

It’s common to experience a few nights of bad sleep in periods of stress or anxiety but normal sleep patterns will usually resume after a couple of days. However if the symptoms do not disappear there are several treatments which are commonly used to treat insomnia.

Sleep Hygiene

These are general tips for better sleep;

Go to bed at the same time every night and wake around the same time every morning.
Don’t drink caffeine drinks or coffee for about six hours before going to bed.
Don’t smoke for about six hours before going to bed and if you wake up during the night.
Avoid heavy meals before going to bed.
Don’t exercise for a few hours before going to bed.
Don’t drink an excess of alcohol before going to bed.

Your room

Make sure your bedroom is quiet and dark, this will enable you to relax and eventually sleep.
Make sure to moderate the temperature, if it’s too cold or hot.
Eye shades or earplugs may be useful if you sleep with a snoring or wakeful partner.
Keep your alarm clock out of sight as many people tend to ‘clock watch’ and this won’t help you get to sleep.
Change your bed if it’s old or uncomfortable, this can help you get a good nights sleep.

Try to ‘wind down’ before going to bed, you may find reading, bathing or a warm drink can help relax you in the evenings. And don’t do anything mentally demanding for an hour or so before going to bed as this may overstimulate you. If you still can’t get to sleep after about half an hour then don’t stay in bed. Get up and go to another room and watch TV or read, then when you’re feeling sleepy again go back to bed.