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Insomnia is a feeling of not being able to get enough sleep. This is related to finding it hard to get to sleep, waking up without having had enough sleep, or having unrefreshing sleep. People differ in their need for sleep, and everyone has the occasional night of disturbed sleep. Almost a quarter of the population frequently experience sleeping difficulties, and it becomes more common with age.
The exact function of sleep is not fully understood, but the effects of lack of sleep suggest that its main function is to "re-charge" the body's batteries. There are also psychological benefits. One phase of sleep (called the rapid eye movement or REM phase because the sleeper's eyes can be seen to move rapidly behind the lids) is thought to be the time when dreams occur. People who don't sleep for long enough or who sleep very lightly, become deprived of REM sleep. They can become irritable and anxious and, in extreme sleep deprivation may even have hallucinations. The irritability that results from their insomnia has an effect on partners, families and work colleagues. Statistical studies indicate that people suffering from insomnia had a higher than average chance of dying from cancer, heart disease or stroke.

  • Transient – lasts only a few nights to a few weeks
  • Intermittent – happens occasionally but not every night
  • Chronic – happens most nights and lasts three or more weeks

Typically, there is no single cause for insomnia but a number of factors are known to contribute:

  • Lifestyle – eating late at night, jet lag, hunger, alcohol, caffeine, stimulant drugs, including nicotine
  • Environment – noise (e.g. partner snoring), uncomfortable bed or bedroom
  • Physical health problems – sleep apnoea, asthma, tinnitus, pain, prostate problems, indigestion
  • Psychological – stress, grief
  • Psychiatric – depression, anxiety, ania
  • Medication – e.g. certain tablets for asthma and treatments for nasal congestion, vertigo and depression

Rarely, insomnia occurs even when none of the above are present. This is known as 'primary' insomnia.

  • Difficulty getting to sleep (taking more than 45 minutes to get to sleep)
  • Difficulty staying asleep (frequent awakenings and difficulty getting back to sleep)
  • Early morning waking
  • Feeling tired and unrefreshed in the morning
Psychological therapies
Psychologists can teach simple relaxation techniques. They can also provide "talking therapy" (psychotherapy) which can help people come to terms with various life events – e.g. bereavement, marital problems etc. that may be triggers of insomnia. Psychological "tricks" can also be taught – e.g. telling you to try and keep awake, which often has the opposite effect.
Specific sleep therapy includes cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) which deals with misconceptions about sleep such as believing that frequent short naps during the day are good for you.
If work or leisure activities are disturbed by daytime sleepiness, or if you wake up feeling unrefreshed and irritable, you should consult your doctor. Some doctors feel that prescription-only medication – known as hypnotics – should be started as soon as these problems start, while others believe that sleep hygiene methods should be tried first. In all cases, drugs should be used for as short a period as possible, and certainly no longer than two weeks. Beyond this, there's a danger that dependency (addiction) to sleeping tablets, will develop. A doctor will also be able to detect any underlying cause of insomnia that also needs treatment. Depression, for example, may need treatment with antidepressants as well as sleeping medication. The doctor may prescribe the following drugs:
  • Nitrazepam is useful and effective but can be habit forming in long term. It continues to work for several hours (medium-acting) which means it has the potential to cause hangover drowsiness the following morning.
  • Temazepam and lormetazepam are shorter acting, and less likely to cause daytime drowsiness.
All benzodiazepines can affect hand-eye co-ordination, which can impair driving ability and operating machinery the next day. Because of their potential for causing dependence, doctors are now discouraged from prescribing benzodiazepines for insomnia except for very short term use in specific situations, such as in people who are very distressed.
Newer drugs – zopiclone (zimovane), zolpidem (stilnoct), zaleplon (sonata) – are very short acting. In theory they should cause less daytime drowsiness than the benzodiazepines and have less potential for causing dependence, but there are few scientific studies comparing the two groups. Zopiclone can cause a metallic taste in the mouth. Other side-effects affecting these drugs include indigestion and headache.
Antidepressants for insomnia
Antidepressants – if a person with insomnia has depression, some 'tricyclic' antidepressant medicines – such as dothiepin and trazodone – also have a sedative effect. These drugs do not cause dependence.
There are a number of things that people affected by insomnia can do to help themselves:
  • Avoid taking cat-naps during the day.
  • Reduce the number of cups of coffee, tea or cola drinks you drink, especially later on in the day.
  • Only drink alcohol in moderation. It may make you feel sleepy but will tend to make you wake up after a short time.
  • Stop smoking – it can make breathing difficulties while asleep more likely.
  • Take regular exercise but avoid strenuous activity immediately before going to bed.
  • Try to get into a daily routine. Go to bed the same time each night and get up the same time each morning.
  • Avoid heavy or rich meals, especially in the few hours before bedtime.
  • Work out how many hours sleep you can manage with before daytime sleepiness becomes a problem. Becoming unnecessarily stressed over insomnia can lead to a vicious cycle.
  • If you can't sleep, get up and read in a dim light until you feel sleepy. Don't watch television or lie in bed thinking about how much sleep you are missing.
  • Other activities that can create a relaxed mood include taking a warm bath, having a milky drink, or listening to soothing music.
  • Mentally dealing with the day's unfinished business is also helpful. Writing down any worries to deal with the next day may help to clear them from the mind and prevent them re-surfacing in the early hours.

This information was published by Bupa Group's Health Content Team and has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. To the best of their knowledge the information is current and based on reputable sources of medical evidence, however Bupa (Asia) Limited makes no representation or warranty as to the completeness or accuracy of the Content.

The information on this page, and any information on third party websites referred to on this page, is provided as a guide only. It should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical advice, nor is it intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. Bupa (Asia) Limited is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of, or reliance on, the information.

Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. Last updated August 2017.

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