What Is Insomnia?

Rohan Mathew

Updated on:

We all have those nights where sleep seems somewhat impossible to achieve. Occasional sleep deprivation is normal and often subsides after a day or two. However, there are some instances where the deprivation lasts for weeks, months or even years. In this case, this common symptom of life’s challenges transforms into a disorder known as insomnia.

So, what is insomnia in more scientific terms? It is a complex condition that involves the rapid decline of sleep quality, duration, sleep onset times and more. Most people refer to the condition as a sleep disruption, because it causes disruptions to the sleep cycle, making it difficult for patients to fall and stay asleep.

This sleeping disorder can have a devastating impact on the sufferer’s mental and physical health. Statistics show that sleep disorders affects approximately 30–40% of the world’s population.  

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The following criteria is used to diagnose the disorder:

  •         Patients must have sleep issues that are causing functional difficulties in their lives
  •         The sleep difficulties must occur a minimum of 3 nights a week, for at least 3 months

The presence of the following symptoms can also be used to diagnose the disorder:

  •         Frequently relying on substances to help you sleep
  •         Difficulty initiating sleep after waking up during the night
  •         Constantly waking up during the night
  •         Waking up prematurely every morning
  •         Difficulty focusing your thoughts during the day
  •         Waking up unrefreshed or exhausted in the morning
  •         Excessive, unwarranted drowsiness, fatigue and irritability during the day. 

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Different Types of Insomnia Explained

Sleep disruption is divided into several categories, which each have a different root cause. The primary types being short and long-term sleep disruption, more commonly known as acute and chronic insomnia.

The acute form of the disorder involves brief periods of sleeplessness or sleep issues that last a maximum of 3 months or less. The chronic form of the disorder is the complete opposite as it involves periods of sleeplessness that lasts for extended periods that stretch well beyond 3 months.

Secondary types of the disorder include sleep onset, which is characterised by a patient’s inability to initiate sleep. This is a common issue that is often linked to daytime sleepiness. A person with this type of disorder takes longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep.

Recurrent nocturnal awakenings that cause patients to wake up earlier than they intend to is called sleep maintenance disruption. The incomplete sleep patterns associated with this disorder commonly cause excessive daytime sleepiness and daytime fatigue.

Comorbid sleep disruptions involve cases where sleep issues occur along with mental or physical conditions. This results in situations where one condition aggravates the other. Although each type of sleep disorder is characteristically different, the solution remains the same. Most patients choose to use sleeping tablets to manage and control symptoms and reinstate healthy sleep patterns, duration and quality.

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An Overview of the Primary Causes of Insomnia

Unlike other disorders, sleep disruption does not have a single cause behind its development or occurrence. The causes of this disorder often differ from one person to another. They are typically caused by the type of sleep disorder you are experiencing and specific circumstances such as stress or other medical ailments.

The acute form of this disorder is caused by:

  •         Environmental factors such as excessive light or noise
  •         Sleeping in a place that is unfamiliar or new such as a hotel room
  •         Physical discomforts such as an inability to adopt a comfortable sleeping position or pain
  •         Certain medical treatments
  •         Jet lag
  •         Illnesses

The chronic form of this disorder is caused by:

  •         Substance use or abuse. This includes the use or abuse of OTC pain relievers, slimming pills, blood pressure treatments, diuretics, contraceptives, thyroid hormones, corticosteroids, ADHD stimulants, anti-depressants.
  •         Psychological/mental issues such as anxiety or depression.
  •         Illnesses/medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, allergies, asthma or acid reflux.

Other conditions that may co-occur or aggravate sleep disruptions include:

  •         Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
  •         Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
  •       Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder
  •         Sleep Breathing Disorders
  •         Shift Work Disorder

What Are Sleeping Tablets?

Sleeping pills, as the name suggests, are medicinal treatments that induce sleep. It is primarily used to treat sleep disorders and is one of the best treatment options available for insomnia. All sleeping tablets have sedative properties, which effectively manipulate brain receptors and the central nervous system to produce feelings of calmness and relaxation.

Sleeping tablets are widely available and come in various types and strengths, allowing medical professionals to create a treatment plan tailored to their patient’s needs. The most popular sleeping pill options are listed below:

  •         Benzodiazepines:

-MOA: Attaches to general GABA receptors in the brain.

-Duration: Ranges from 4 to 10 hours depending on the medication being used

 -Dependence risk: Medium to high

-Examples: Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), Valium (diazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam)

  •         Non-benzodiazepines:

-MOA: binding to and activating the benzodiazepine site of the GABA receptor complex

-Duration: Varies from 2-5 hours depending on the dose being taken

-Dependence risk: Low

-Examples: Ambien (zolpidem tartrate), Lunesta (eszopiclone), Sonata (zaleplon)

  •         Selective GABA enhancers

-MOA: These medications bind to a specific GABA receptor in the brain.

-Duration: 6 to 8 hours

-Dependence risk: Low to medium

-Examples: valproic acid, baclofen, tiagabine, progesterone, topiramate

  •         Tricyclic Anti-depressants:

-MOA: Binds to multiple receptors in the brain, which promotes a sedating effect.

-Duration: Shows significant effects in 2 to 4 weeks.

-Dependence risk: Low

-Examples: Doxepin (Silenor), Elavil (amitriptyline)

Are Sleeping Tablets Side Effects Serious?

Side effects is a common term associated with medicinal treatments. Although most patients assume that treatments with side effects are unsafe and ineffective, this is not true. Side effects are a possibility with any medical treatment.

They are physical indicators of the compounds compatibility or lack thereof with the body. Side effects range in severity and duration, with the most common effects being experienced for short periods until the body becomes familiar with the substance.

Common side effects associated with sleeping pills are no different, as their mild expression and tolerable nature mean that they are not dangerous or serious.

Common side effects include:

  •         Abnormal dreams or nightmares
  •         Impaired balance
  •         Change in appetite
  •         Stomach pain
  •         Headaches
  •         Weakness