One of the most common sleep disorders in the world, more than 3 million Americans are diagnosed with insomnia each and every single year – and millions more suffer from insomnia without a proper diagnosis, too.
A sleep disorder that can make it next to impossible to fall asleep (or next to impossible to stay asleep), insomnia has a devastating impact on every area of your health and wellness. Sometimes insomnia is acute (lasting only a few days or a few weeks), but chronic and long-term insomnia can last for months or even years.
Sometimes it lasts a lifetime.
Sleep researchers have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what causes insomnia.
Thanks to decades of research we know quite a bit about this sleep disorder and the core reasons that it exists. We are also closer today to having a cure for this condition than ever before. Researchers are still looking for the big breakthrough that will eliminate insomnia once and for all, but that day is coming quickly.
For now, it’s important to understand the overwhelming majority of insomnia issues are caused by lifestyle decisions, poor habits, and unhealthy tendencies that rob you of your sleep and your strength.
There are also some underlying medical conditions that can negatively contribute to your lack of sleep, and we dive deeper into these issues below.
The Common Causes of Insomnia Explained
Before we dig deeper into the common cause of insomnia issues we highlight below, it’s important to understand that there are two different and distinct types of insomnia as well.
Primary Insomnia is the term given to sleep disorder problems that are not directly associated to any other underlying health conditions or health problems.
Secondary Insomnia, on the other hand, is the term used to classify sleep disorders that are caused because of something else – particularly health issues (including asthma, arthritis, cancer, depression, etc.), chronic pain, different medications, or substances (including alcohol) that are not allowing them to get the sleep they need.
Let’s get into some of the common reasons you may have an inability to sleep, touching on both primary and secondary insomnia root causes.
A myriad of different medical conditions (ranging from quite mild to significantly more serious issues) can contribute to your lack of sleep each night.
Some of these medical conditions can include (but are not limited to):
- Arthritis and joint pain
- Chronic and acute pain issues
- Endocrine conditions, including hypo/hyperthyroidism
- Gastrointestinal issues (including heartburn)
- Lower back/lower extremity pains
- Nasal or sinus allergies
- Neurological disorders that can include Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and dementia
… And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Worse, many of these medical conditions can conspire together to kind of “pile up” with one another and only compound to make your insomnia issues even worse. Have a couple of these underlying conditions working against you and you’re looking at some of the worst reasons for not sleeping imaginable.
A considerable amount of insomnia issues can also be tracked back to your overall mental health.
Psychological challenges, emotional challenges, and other “high stress brain activity” can actively bring about biochemical changes throughout your body – particularly when it comes to hormonal imbalances – that can wreak havoc on your ability to get restful sleep each night.
On top of that, depression and insomnia can team up to cause other psychiatric issues in a self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling cycle of destruction. Low-energy, a loss of interest and motivation, feelings of hopelessness, and more will only feed into both your depression and your insomnia, spiraling things out of control if left unchecked and unaddressed.
Thankfully, resolving one of these issues inevitably has an intrinsic link to resolving (or at least helping to resolve) the other issue as well. Push back against depression or insomnia and you’ll find that the other issue shows signs of clearing up, too.
Stress and Anxiety
It isn’t at all uncommon for adults (and children, for that matter) to have difficulty sleeping when they are preoccupied with thoughts that cause stress and anxiety.
Feeling tense all the time, worrying about things that haven’t happened yet (particularly worst case scenarios), feeling totally overwhelmed with your daily responsibilities, or getting caught in a loop of replaying past experiences over and over again – especially negative ones – turns into the same self-perpetuating cycle that we highlighted above.
Low-level anxieties are typically associated with onset insomnia issues, the type of insomnia that makes it difficult to fall asleep. It’s also regularly associated with what is called maintenance insomnia, or basically waking up in the middle of the night, replaying negative thoughts over and over again, and having a tough time getting back to sleep because of it.
It doesn’t take long for this cause of sleeplessness to build up night after night, however. That’s when acute insomnia can turn into something much worse and become a chronic issue that does much more than just rob you of sleep.
When a lot of people think about what causes insomnia they tend to think about lifestyle choices that aren’t helping them get the caliber or quality of sleep they need each night, and for the most part many of them hit the nail right on the head.
Lifestyle choices that result in primary insomnia can be difficult to detect, particularly if they become habits that are just part of your daily routine – habits you feel you are powerless to control, change, or redirect.
Unhealthy habits that can promote insomnia issues include:
- Working the night shift, training your body to sleep during the day and fighting it every step of the way
- Watching television or spending a lot of time in front of an electronic screen up to two hours before you want to fall asleep
- Consuming drugs or alcohol on a regular basis
- Not eating a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables as well as dietary fats and proteins
- Sneaking naps in the middle of the day that can confuse your body clock and make it almost impossible to fall asleep at night
Obviously, that only begins to scratch the surface of the lifestyle habits that can become a core cause of sleeplessness on a regular basis.
One of the best things you can do if you believe your lifestyle choices or habits are contributing to your insomnia is to simply ask “what is the primary cause of insomnia in my life today?”, to really look at your day-to-day behavior with a magnifying glass to spot the issues you think are derailing your sleep the most.
While there is no “cure” for insomnia as of right now there are plenty of treatment options that you may want to pursue.
Pharmaceutical and nonpharmaceutical treatments are available for those looking to go down this direction. Cleaning up your daily diet, exercising more frequently, and practicing yoga or meditation can be another approach you take to fight back against this sleep disorder.
The American College of Physicians has recommended taking advantage of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as a frontline solution for chronic insomnia – both primary and secondary insomnia issues – and that may be something you want to think about moving forward with as well.
At the end of the day, it’s important that you are getting as much high-quality sleep as you can each night. You should be shooting for a baseline of eight hours of restful and relaxing sleep on a regular basis, though a little more or a little less may be perfect for your specific set of circumstances.
Determining the core issues that contribute to your insomnia and clearing them up will go a long way towards helping you rest easier each night!