Causes of Insomnia


Why Can't I Sleep?

How Do I Know If I Have Insomnia?

Short-term Insomnia vs. Long-term Insomnia

What is NOT Insomnia

Other Sleep Disorders

Daytime Effects of Insomnia

Effects of Insomnia on Health

What Causes Insomnia?

Why Can’t I Sleep?

It seems like a simple enough question - one that could easily be answered. 

But, there are many causes of trouble sleeping and it could be a combination of causes - so the question may not be that simple after all. 

How Do I Know If I Have Insomnia?

Insomnia is trouble sleeping

It may be difficulty falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, waking too early and not going back to sleep, and/or trouble waking up in the morning.  It could also be a combination of these conditions. 

Regardless, it means that a person isn’t getting quality -- or good sleep -- and they don’t feel well-rested.

Short-term Insomnia vs. Long-term Insomnia

Sleep experts classify insomnia as either short-term or long-term. 

A person with short-term or acute insomnia has trouble sleeping at least 3 nights a week for less than 3 months. The lack of sleep interferes with daily activities.

A person with long-term or chronic insomnia also has trouble sleeping at least 3 nights a week and they have trouble with daily activities from too little sleep. The difference is that it lasts for 3 or more months.

What is NOT Insomnia

With insomnia, the person has the time and opportunity to sleep, but they still have trouble. To explain, it helps to think about an example of what is not considered insomnia: new parents who do not get enough sleep. 

Due to the demands of a newborn baby, new parents don’t get enough sleep because they don’t have the time and opportunity to do so. If given the opportunity, say a family member offers to watch the baby for a night, it would be likely that they would easily fall and stay asleep.

Other Sleep Disorders

Insomnia is one type of sleep disorder. As we said, it is the medical term for trouble sleeping. Again, it is: trouble sleeping at least 3 nights a week; difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up, or waking too early; and not feeling rested.

However, people may use the term insomnia to refer to many different sleep problems that are not really insomnia. 

They may say “I had insomnia last night,” when they simply did not sleep well for a night. Or, they may refer to other sleep disorders as insomnia, when they really are not.

Restless leg syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea are two other sleep disorders. 

A person with either of these conditions also has trouble sleeping. 

But, both conditions have other causes, symptoms, and treatment. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), these sleep disorders are two of many different sleep problems.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

One of the main symptoms of restless leg syndrome is unusual sensations in the legs, for example, throbbing or itching that may interfere with sleep. 

Movement actually helps relieve the symptoms. Evidence suggests one specific area of the brain is involved. RLS may be treated with lifestyle changes and medicines.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea means there are periods during sleep when a person briefly stops breathing due to a blocked airway. 

It is often related to a weight problem. There are different treatments including sleeping with a continuous positive airway pressure machine.

These and other sleep disorders are usually diagnosed and treated by a doctor or a sleep specialist. Sleep studies, either at home or at a medical facility, are often done.

Related article:

Snoring and Sleep Apnea: What You Need to Know

Daytime Effects of Insomnia 

A person with insomnia obviously has symptoms at bedtime and during the night - they may not be able to fall asleep and they may wake up during the night. But that is not all - the trouble sleeping also leads to daytime symptoms that may include:
  • Feeling tired, sleepy, or even ill

  • Feeling irritable or moody

  • Trouble paying attention, concentrating, or remembering

  • Having decreased energy, drive, or motivation

  • Worrying about sleep

  • Feeling tense

  • Having headaches or gastrointestinal  upsets

In fact,  as many as 3 out of 5 people with insomnia have such symptoms. They increase the risk for:

  • Poor work, school, or other activity performance. For instance, it may be difficult for a person to perform well in an athletic competition when they are tired or when their energy or motivation is low.

  • Errors or accidents. As an example, a person having trouble with attention and concentration has an increased chance of having an accident while driving.

Effects of Insomnia on Health

If a person has a poor night of sleep once in a while, it usually isn’t a problem. But, sleep trouble that happens a lot can actually have many negative effects

Poor sleep can worsen a person’s health both physically and emotionally. 

Physical Health

Insomnia is associated with worse outcomes in many medical conditions. It may increase the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension) and may moderately increase the risk of heart attack (myocardial infarction). 

Irregular sleep may also increase the chance of other serious health problems like: weight problems, high blood cholesterol, and high blood sugar.

Mental Health

Difficulty sleeping may increase the risk and symptoms of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. 

3 out of 5 people with insomnia have symptoms of depression and up to 1 out of 4 have a diagnosis of depression

Having insomnia puts a person at risk for worsening depression. And, treating insomnia improves the mood in people with depression.

Insomnia is also reported in many people with anxiety. Up to 1 out of 3 people with insomnia have a diagnosis of anxiety. Anxiety is also often identified as the reason people have trouble falling and staying asleep. 

Related articles:

Is Insomnia a Symptom of Depression?

7 Evidence-Based Natural Mental Health Treatments

What Causes Insomnia?

You have read about insomnia-what it is, what it is not, and what its effects may be. It is helpful to understand these things to better understand the causes of insomnia. 

The cause of a person’s sleeping problem may be unknown. Although many people have an idea of what’s causing theirs. Or, the cause may be a combination of factors, not just one. This is often the case.

Some of the common causes of insomnia include:  

  • Behaviors - a person’s actions and habits.

  • Situations - the sleep environment.

  • Medical and mental health conditions - some short-term and long-term health problems and psychological disorders or symptoms.

  • Medicines - dietary supplements, herbal remedies, over-the-counter and prescription medicines.

Cause: Behaviors

Some behaviors may be the cause of or contribute to insomnia. They include daytime napping, lack of exercise, eating and drinking, tobacco use, and alcohol/drug use.

Taking Naps

Taking a nap during the day may interfere with falling or staying asleep. That is if they are long, frequent, and late in the day.                                     

A short nap does not usually cause trouble sleeping. In fact, it may help with the daytime symptoms of insomnia. For those that take a nap, it should be under 20 minutes and before 3:00 PM.

Related: Sleep Restriction Therapy Tips

Lack of Exercise

Lack of regular exercise and physical activity is another factor in insomnia. 

Many studies have looked at exercise and sleep and determined that regular exercise helps with sleep. Timing of sleep has also been studied; they have found that it is best to exercise 4 to 8 hours before going to sleep, but closer to bedtime is usually okay.

Eating and Drinking

Having large amounts of food close to bedtime can interfere with sleep. And foods that cause indigestion and heartburn may lead to trouble falling or staying asleep due to symptoms.

Foods, drinks, or even some medicines with caffeine may stimulate the brain, making it difficult to sleep. Caffeine consumption increases the need to urinate which may interrupt sleep. Some drinks, like coffee and tea, often have a lot of caffeine. It is best to stop drinking them several hours before bedtime. 


Nicotine in cigarettes and other smoking products also stimulate the brain. Due to this effect, smoking may interfere with sleep, especially if close to bedtime.

Alcohol and Marijuana

Alcohol is a sedative meaning it has a calming effect. Other substances, like marijuana, may also be calming. They may help with falling asleep, but they can interfere with the normal stages or the quality of sleep.

Cause: Situations

The sleep environment is an important factor when trying to go to sleep or stay asleep. Some elements of your physical environment can increase the likelihood of problems with sleep.

Using Devices

The use of electronic devices such as phones, computers, and even television near bedtime may be a problem. The type of light and the stimulation may result in trouble sleeping.

Discomfort in Bed

Many factors may add to feeling uncomfortable when trying to sleep. An environment that is too hot or too cold, too bright, or too noisy may make it hard to relax and fall or stay asleep. Mattresses, pillows, and bedding may also be factors if they are not comfortable and supportive.

Sleep Partners

Sharing a bed is another factor that can disrupt sleep. It could be a partner, child, or pet that disturbs sleep. 

  • Partners may move around, snore, or wake up during the night. 

  • Children can get into bed with their parents at all hours of the night. 

  • Pets may take up too much space or paw their owners for attention. 

A person may also have a combination of all three, making for a sleepless night.

Cause: Medical and Psychological Conditions

As discussed above, trouble sleeping can worsen other medical and emotional problems. But the opposite is also true - some health problems, both medical and mental health, can cause or worsen insomnia.

Long-Term (Chronic) Pain 

Painful conditions make it difficult to sleep. 

  • Musculoskeletal conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia often interfere with sleep. The pain associated with conditions makes it difficult to relax and get comfortable. 

  • Gastrointestinal  conditions also cause problems with sleep. It is common for the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux, such as heartburn, to be worse when lying down, thus keeping a person awake.

  • People with trouble controlling their urine (incontinence), as well as other urinary tract problems, often have their sleep disrupted. They may wake to find they have lost bladder control or they may wake a lot with the need to urinate.

Breathing Problems

Shortness of breath, chest congestion, and coughing occur with conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and heart failure. Lying down to sleep makes it more difficult to breathe and often worsens coughing. Many people with these conditions have insomnia.

Psychological Disorders

Trouble sleeping is a symptom of depression, anxiety disorder, and substance abuse. A person with any of these conditions will often have insomnia. When the disorders are treated, sleeping often improves.

Anxiety and Stress

Both anxiety and stress are huge factors in trouble sleeping. They make it challenging to fall and stay asleep.

Cause: Medicines

Many medicines, both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC), have side effects or ingredients that may interfere with sleep. The following table lists some of the prescription and OTC medicines that may increase sleep problems.

How Goodpath Can Help

Insomnia is a wide-spread problem with many different causes. It affects a person’s physical and mental health and their ability to function well in daily activities. 

Please take our assessment about your insomnia. We will provide you with a personalized care plan based on your responses. Take this step today to feel better every day.