Woman using phone in bed, which can cause insomnia

What is insomnia?

Trouble nodding off or staying asleep? It could be insomnia. Discover what causes this common sleep disorder and easy ways to beat it – without counting sheep

Written by Madeleine Bailey on March 25, 2019 Reviewed by Dr Neil Stanley on March 29, 2019

Around a third of us can expect to experience insomnia during our lifetimes.1 Fortunately it’s often short-lived, but for some it can become a long-term issue that impacts on our wellbeing and quality of life. Find out how you can manage it – by tonight.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is difficulty falling or staying asleep. Some researchers think insomnia is triggered by not being able to switch off your brain’s ‘awake’ mode.2 Symptoms of insomnia include:3,4
  • taking 30 minutes or longer to nod off
  • waking in the night and taking longer than 30 minutes to go back to sleep
  • waking early and being unable to go back to sleep
  • feeling sleepy in the daytime, with low mood and difficulty concentrating
There are two main types of insomnia:5

  • acute insomnia – this lasts for just a few days or weeks. Acute insomnia usually has a clear trigger, like stress or an illness, and usually disappers once the trigger has passed

  • chronic insomnia – this type affects you on three or more nights a week and lasts for longer than three months

Why is insomnia a problem?

A good night’s sleep is essential to help your body rest and repair every night. But if you don’t get enough quality sleep over a long period of time, this can:6

  • increase your risk of accidents and injury
  • affect your memory and concentration
  • lead to weight gain, or make it harder to lose weight
  • reduce your sex drive and affect your fertility
  • make you more susceptible to catching colds and viruses
  • increase your risk of conditions such as heart disease and diabetes

What causes insomnia?

There are many different reasons for insomnia, but the most common causes include:7-9

  • stress – it can make it difficult for your mind to switch off at night
  • some medications, including over-the-counter tablets containing caffeine
  • jet lag and shift work – this can disrupt your natural sleep-wake cycle
  • a bedroom that’s too light, noisy, cold or hot
  • an uncomfortable bed
  • excess alcohol, caffeine or recreational drugs
  • taking naps during the day – this upsets your sleep schedule
  • looking at a smartphone, laptop or another digital device just before bed – it emits a blue light which can block your body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin

Insomnia can sometimes be a symptom of certain health conditions too, such as sleep apnoea, allergies, an overactive thyroid, restless legs syndrome, anxiety and depression.10

Because insomnia can develop from a seemingly tiny problem, like an uncomfortable mattress, it’s important to tackle any source of disturbed sleep to stop it developing into full-blown, chronic insomnia.11

How to tackle your insomnia

First, make sure your bedroom is optimised for sleep – it must be dark, quiet and cool at bedtime. It’s also key to have a sleep schedule in place; set your alarm so you get up at the same time every day to help your body and brain get into a regular wake-routine.12,13 The following tips may also help:14-18
  • keep a sleep diary – it could help you spot what’s causing your sleep problems
  • if you can’t sleep after 20 minutes, get up, move to a different room and do something relaxing, like reading or listening to music, until you feel sleepy
  • try a few gentle exercises at bedtime – they will help relax your muscles in preparation for sleep
  • only use your bed for sleeping or sex – no checking emails or watching TV, for example
  • don’t look at the clock if you wake up in the night – it is likely to cause anxiety
  • avoid worrying about how much sleep you get – it’s more important that your
  • sleep is restful
  • try relaxation techniques – mindfulness meditation or thinking about a peaceful scene can help calm your mind, while progressive muscle relaxation – tensing and relaxing your muscles one by one – can ease tight muscles, according to a 2012 Indian review
If your insomnia symptoms don’t improve despite making lifestyle changes, and the condition is affecting your daily life, see your GP. They will investigate what’s causing your insomnia and may refer you to a sleep clinic or for a programme of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help change the thoughts and behaviours that are affecting your sleep.19 You can also refer yourself for CBT via the NHS psychological therapies service. A 2018 study in Sleep Medicine showed that CBT was an effective treatment for insomnia, with the effects lasting up to 10 years.20 Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.


1. NHS. Insomnia 2. Levenson JC, Kay DB, Buysee DJ. The Pathophysiology of Insomnia 3. Psychology Today. What is insomnia?

4. As Source 1

5. National Sleep Foundation. What are different types of insomnia? 6. NHS. Why lack of sleep is bad for your health 7. Mayo Clinic. Insomnia

8. As Source 1

9. Alina Bradford. Live Science. How blue LEDs affect sleep 10. National Sleep Foundation. What causes insomnia? 11. The Sleep Council. What is insomnia? 12. Mayo Clinic. Insomnia: how do I stay asleep? 13. National Sleep Foundation. What to do when you can’t sleep 14. NHS. How to get to sleep

15. As Source 12
16. As Source 12
17. As Source 14

18. Sharma MP, Andrade C. Behavioural interventions for insomnia: Theory and practice 19. NHS. Cognitive behavioural therapy 20. Castronovo V, et al. Long-term clinical effect of group cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia