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What are the signs of insomnia?

For many people, getting enough sleep each night can be a challenge. Not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences on your health and interfere with your daily life. Yet, how do you know if your sleep problems are serious enough to be deemed as chronic? Talk of feeling tired or underslept is often so normalised socially that it can be difficult to know whether your problems are big enough to take seriously.

In this article we take a look at the signs, symptoms, and causes of insomnia, as well as how much sleep we should be getting, and when it makes sense to seek medical help for your sleep problems.

How much sleep do we really need?

It’s often very difficult to tell what is a normal amount of sleep and how much we really need. Traditionally, people have often been told that adults need 8 hours of sleep every night. Experts steer clear of this finite number and rather recommend paying attention to a range of hours as well as how tired you feel. Every mind and body is different, and people need different amounts of sleep, depending on numerous factors and influences.

On average, adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, children need 9 to 13 hours, and toddlers and babies need 12 to 17 hours. If you’re sleeping 7 hours a night and constantly feeling tired during the day, while your friend is sleeping 7 hours a night and feeling fine, chances are you may simply need more sleep than your friend does.

What is insomnia?

If someone has insomnia, it means that they regularly experience problems with sleeping. 

Onset insomnia is the difficulty of falling asleep.

Maintenance insomnia is the difficulty of staying asleep once someone has fallen asleep.

Both onset and maintenance insomnia can be experienced together.

Insomnia can also be diagnosed as short-term insomnia or chronic insomnia. Short-term insomnia is typically defined as insomnia lasting up to 3 months, while chronic or long-term insomnia lasts 3 months or more.

What are the signs of insomnia?

Many people don’t realise that they’re suffering from insomnia, as they believe that insomnia means a person doesn’t get any sleep at all. It’s important to realise that even if you do get some amount of sleep throughout the night, you may still be experiencing insomnia.

Some common symptoms of insomnia include:

  • Regularly experiencing difficulty falling asleep

  • Regularly experiencing difficulty staying asleep

  • Fatigue, malaise, and sleepiness throughout the day

  • Difficulty focusing, maintaining attention, or remembering things

  • Impairments to their social, professional, and academic performance

  • Irritability and mood swings

  • Hyperactivity or aggression

  • Increased errors and accidents throughout the day

If insomnia continues untreated, the sleep deprivation and disruptions to the essential bodily functions that occur during sleep can result in more serious problems and complications. Some examples include:

  • Anxiety and depression

  • Chronic pain

  • High blood pressure

  • Inflammations

  • Metabolic and hormonal dysregulation

  • Pregnancy complications

  • Respiratory and breathing problems

  • Substance dependence or abuse

Insomnia can result in serious health and lifestyle problems, affecting not just your physical and mental health, but also relationships, work and your enjoyment of life.

What are the causes of insomnia?

There are many common causes of insomnia that we can control with some level of ease, but it’s important to note that there are health conditions and medications that can also cause insomnia, and some conditions which may cause insomnia and in turn be exacerbated by the symptoms of insomnia. Some of the possible causes of insomnia are listed below:

  • Chronic pain

  • Sleep apnoea or snoring and breathing difficulties

  • Mental health issues such as stress and anxiety

  • Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or depression

  • Menopause

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Nightmares or night terrors

  • Narcolepsy

  • Uncomfortable bedding or pillows

  • Uncomfortable sleep environment, such light, noise, or temperature issues

  • Prescribed or recreational drugs

  • Jet lag

  • Shift work

When should you see a doctor about insomnia?

You should consult with your doctor if you’re experiencing ongoing symptoms of insomnia that are impacting your daily life, or if you are in any case experiencing a persistent inability to fall or stay asleep.

Being able to bring some information about how frequently and intensely you experience these symptoms will help your doctor assess your situation. Keeping a sleep diary and making note of any symptoms is a great way to track your symptoms and how they change based on your habits during the day and any changes you make to sleep hygiene or other lifestyle factors. Document food, drink, and exercise, and any stressors that occur during the day, so that you and your doctor will be able to identify any patterns.

It’s possible to treat and recover from symptoms of insomnia

Whether or not you receive a diagnosis of insomnia, it’s possible to treat sleep problems and the symptoms that impact your life. Speak to your doctor about the best treatment for you and your unique situation, and learn about steps you can take to improve your sleep habits and increase your chances of having good quality sleep every night.

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