A single night or two (or even three) of sleeplessness is not enough on its own to be considered insomnia. However, if it goes on for a long period of time, and/or there’s a few nights of sleeplessness every week quite regularly, then it is very likely insomnia. Sleeplessness is a common side-effect of many other conditions. Around about 30% of the US population suffers from some sort of sleep disturbance, and 10% of the US population could be said to have insomnia or at least insomnia-like symptoms. Those who regularly lack quality sleep (i.e. only being able to sleep a few hours a day) could also be said to be insomniacs.

Insomnia can affect day-to-day functioning significantly, and can also weaken the immune system, increasing the chances of infection. Insomnia can both be caused by and be the result of anxiety, depression and migraines, and can magnify their symptoms. Alcohol/opioid/sedative withdrawal can cause insomnia, as can amphetamine use, high doses of caffeine, irregular heart rhythms, post-surgery recovery and hyperthyroidism can also cause insomnia. Highly active people may get exercise-induced insomnia.

Those who suffer from persistent sleep disturbances and insomnia have elevated levels of cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormones, suggesting an elevated level of stress and anxiety at night time. This flight-or-fight response at night time may have proven useful to some extent for our ancestors, but is less useful nowadays. Those with insomnia are also likely to have drastic shifts in the levels of cytokines (which help send signals to other cells) in their bodies. Erratic sleep patterns may cause insomnia.

Having fixed sleeping patterns, exercise, cutting out refined sugar and caffeine, reducing alcohol use (which can decrease sleep quality), having a healthier diet and herbal remedies such as chamomile, lemon balm and lavender are the most common treatments for insomnia. Sedatives may be prescribed in extreme cases, but these are addictive and can make insomnia worse if withdrawn.

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