A regular inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, leading to excessive tiredness

  • More common in elderly people
  • More common in females
  • Stress and a high intake of caffeine or alcohol are risk factors
  • Genetics is not a significant factor

At some point in their lives, about 1 in 3 people has regular difficulty in sleeping, known as insomnia. Problems include difficulty in falling asleep, and waking during the night and being unable to get back to sleep. Insomnia is distressing and may lead to excessive tiredness, a general inability to cope, and a greater risk of accidents. Sleep problems are more common in women and in elderly people of both sexes.

Sleeping difficulties most commonly start when a person is worried or anxious. A high intake of caffeine or alcohol during the day may also lead to sleeplessness. Often, not sleeping properly then becomes persistent because good sleep habits are lost. Insomnia may be caused by an illness with symptoms that cause problems at night, such as asthma, the metabolic disorder hyperthyroidism, or other sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea. Insomnia is often associated with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders.

What might be done?

Your doctor will first treat any physical and mental problems that may be causing your insomnia. For example, if you are depressed, an antidepressant drug may be prescribed. If there is no obvious cause, your doctor may arrange for you to be assessed during sleep at a sleep clinic. Tests often show that many people sleep more hours than they think they do but wake frequently. Reassurance that you are getting sufficient sleep may be all you need.

Your doctor may suggest changes to your lifestyle, such as exercising or reducing caffeinated drinks (see Sleep). You may be advised to avoid taking daytime naps because they reduce the need for sleep at night. Rarely, the doctor may prescribe sleeping drugs for a few days to help to restore a normal sleep pattern. These drugs should not be taken for a longer time because of the risk of dependence.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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