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The Many Causes of Insomnia

Updated on September 5, 2017
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I became a news reporter for the Marine Corps in the early 70s. I'm now retired and write on a wide variety of subjects in my spare time.

Lack of Sleep

The Many Causes of Insomnia

Lack of sleep, widely known as insomnia, is a big problem affecting many. Fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, and difficulty in concentrating accompany it. Insomnia is inadequate or poor-quality sleep with emphasis on number of hours slept. It's usually caused by one or more of the following:

  • Difficulty falling asleep.

  • Waking up frequently during the night.

  • Waking up too early.

  • Feeling tired after a period of sleep.

There are many causes, however, certain factors seem most common:

  • Advanced age (more frequent in those over 60).
  • More common in females.
  • Depression.

Insomnia has three classifications:

  • Transient (short term). A few days to several weeks
  • Intermittent (on and off). Occurs from time to time.
  • Chronic (constant). Lasting a month or more.

The condition is more likely to occur if there are other contributing factors such as stress, anxiety, certain medical problems, and some medications.

Transient and Intermittent insomnia general occur along with:

  1. Stress.
  2. Prolonged exposure to loud noise.
  3. Extreme temperatures.
  4. Change in environment.
  5. Scheduling problems such as jet lag.
  6. Medication side effects.

Chronic Insomnia

Chronic insomnia is more difficult to diagnose, having a combination of factors such as:

  • Underlying physical or mental disorders. The most common being depression.
  • Arthritis.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Heart failure.
  • Asthma.
  • Sleep apnea.
  • Hyperthyroidism.
  • Parkinson's disease.
  • Narcolepsy (neurological disorder affecting control of sleep and wakefulness).

However, chronic insomnia can also be due to several behavioral factors:

  • Misuse of caffeine, alcohol, and like substances.
  • Disrupted sleep/wake cycles. For example, night shift work schedules.
  • Chronic stress.
  • Smoking before going to bed.
  • Frequent napping during the day.

Insomnia affects both genders of all ages but usually the elderly. However, it seems to be more common in females, especially after menopause. The ability to sleep seems to decrease with advancing age.


Transient and intermittent insomnia may not require treatment since episodes last only a short time. Many have used over-the-counter sleeping pills, which isn't usually recommended. This only treats the symptoms not the cause.

Treatment for Chronic Insomnia

  • Diagnose and treat underlying medical or psychological problems.
  • Identify behaviors causing the problem.
  • Relaxation and sleep restriction therapy. (Specific techniques reducing anxiety and body tension). Some having insomnia spend too much time in bed trying to sleep, without much success. They may benefit from a sleep restriction program. It works by first allowing only a few hours of sleep, then increasing it until one is able to get a normal night's sleep.
  • Reconditioning. A treatment helping some to associate their bed and bedtime with sleep. A patient is advised to retire only when sleepy. If unable to sleep, they are instructed to stay up until they feel they can, and then get back in bed. Throughout, patients should avoid naps and strictly adhere to a schedule of going to bed at the same time every night. Eventually their sleep habits should return to normal.

Sleep is needed for the body to repair and recharge itself. When people have problems sleeping, they should determine if the problem is falling asleep or staying asleep. This may indicate whether diet and blood sugar is part of the problem.

The food police has beleaguered the public for years demanding caffeinated drinks. be avoided. Caffeine can stimulate the brain and body. However the problem goes deeper than food and drink.

Too many stimulate their brains late in the evening by watching television, playing video games, working late at night, etc. These are the same people using sleeping pills. Unfortunately, there are side effects.

It wasn't long ago when the sun went down people did too. They worked hard during the day. After supper, and perhaps some Bible study, they went to bed.

Sleep and Hormones

Unfortunately, you can't have one without the other. According to several sleep studies, about 45% percent of Americans experience symptoms of insomnia. Most seem to think it's because they're getting older. However, there may be other factors. Underlying hormone issues could be at fault.

Sleep is essential. While sleeping, our bodies work hard performing a variety of biological processes to help restore organs, tissues and cognitive functions. It's also affected by many factors. These include environment, diet, physical activity, stress, menopause and a host of others. Researchers are still exploring long-term health implications of poor sleep. Immune and mental function, as well as mood can be affected.

Adults, feel they don't require as much sleep. Therefore, they feel problems sleeping must be age related. It's just as important for seniors to get 6 or more hours of sleep nightly as it is for younger people.

Stimulation and Inhibitory Neurotransmitters

The imbalance of these two neurotransmitters have been connected with insomnia, depression, anxiety, PMS, cravings, and weight loss.

Billions are made on sleeping pills, anti-depressants, weight loss drugs, and medications manipulating these brain chemicals. It's important to slow down at day's end. Try practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing.

There are those claiming to have no problem falling asleep. The problem is, a few hours later they wake up and can't go back to sleep.

This could possibly be a blood sugar problem, caused by poor diet. But it could also be associated with stress and adrenal fatigue. The adrenals can’t keep blood sugar stable. Therefore, the body produces a boost of adrenaline to restore blood sugar levels.

Simple Steps

Sleeping pills manipulate brain chemistry allowing sleep to occur. But, there can be side effects. Some don't want to take sleeping pills. However, it's possible to balance neurotransmitters without drugs.

The simplest solution is to stop over-stimulating the body in the evening. Caffeine can be a problem. But the same effect can be realized simply by being too active in the evening. This can trigger hormones equaling a cup of coffee.

Raise inhibitory brain messengers, which help us fall asleep. Instead of using drugs we can get the same effect by taking magnesium, glycine, GABA, 5-HTP, L-theanine, and glutamine to naturally stimulate our ‘inhibitory’ neurotransmitters. Various teas such as chamomile and valerian root can also relax the body.

Pay attention to your diet ensuring the adrenals don't become fatigued:

  • A healthy dinner including protein and fats can keep blood sugar levels stable for hours.
  • Eat a snack before going to bed. This will keep blood sugar stable.
  • Avoid refined, processed sugar.

Understanding insomnia

Although insomnia is common, it could result from something as simple as drinking too much caffeine, or a more complex problem such as a medical condition. However, most cases can be helped incorporating small changes without relying on prescription or over-the-counter sleeping pills.

Adopt New Habits

Noise, light, and heat can interfere with sleep.

  • Try using a recording of soothing nature sounds or earplugs.
  • Open windows or use a fan to stay cool.
  • Use blackout curtains or a sleep mask.
  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Avoid naps.
  • Avoid stimulating activity and stressful situations before bedtime.
  • Limit caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine before bedtime.

Your brain produces melanin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles. Melanin is controlled by light exposure. Not enough natural light during the day makes your brain feel sleepy, while too much artificial light can make it harder to sleep. Try to get outside in the sunlight, limit the use of sunglasses and open curtains during the day.

When we experience certain difficulties, we tend to focus all of our energy on them. This is true with insomnia as well. Even when we convince ourselves we are focusing on a solution, it may lead us to exaggerate the situation, leaving us even more tired.


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