Treating Insomnia in Adults

Insomnia is more than just the occasional sleepless night; it's a persistent, often debilitating sleep disorder that can take various forms including primary and secondary insomnia, sleep-onset insomnia, sleep-maintenance insomnia, mixed insomnia, and even paradoxical insomnia.

We hope that by shedding light on this oft-misunderstood condition, we'll help you better understand your experiences and guide you towards effective solutions. It's time to demystify insomnia so that more restful nights might be within your reach.

Types of Insomnia

Primary Insomnia:

When your difficulty sleeping isn't linked to any other health conditions or problems.

Secondary Insomnia:

If it's connected to another issue like health conditions, pain or medication.

Acute Insomnia:

A brief episode of difficulty sleeping, usually caused by life circumstances.

Understanding these types of insomnia can help you better manage your sleep issues.

Prevalence of Insomnia

Insomnia, with its distressing symptoms such as restless legs syndrome and erratic sleep patterns, is far more common than you might think.

Around one in three adults globally experience symptoms of insomnia.

This isn't just an occasional restless night; this includes those who meet the criteria for chronic insomnia, which is a serious medical condition often linked with mental health conditions.

Causes and Risk Factors

Your sleeping troubles could be due to biological or psychological causes, triggered by environmental factors, certain medical conditions, or even your lifestyle habits.

It's crucial to identify these potential causes as they can help formulate a more effective treatment plan for your insomnia.

Biological Causes

  • Genetic Factors: Research indicates that insomnia can run in families, suggesting a potential genetic component to the disorder.
  • Hormonal Changes: Changes in hormones due to menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause can lead to insomnia.
  • Physical Health Conditions: Certain physical illnesses such as respiratory problems, chronic pain, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and neurological conditions can cause insomnia.
  • Sleep Disorders: Conditions like sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome, and circadian rhythm sleep disorders can lead to insomnia.
  • Brain Lesions or Tumours: These may disrupt normal sleep patterns and lead to insomnia.
  • Neurotransmitter Imbalance: Imbalances in certain neurotransmitters (chemicals responsible for transmitting signals in the brain) can cause insomnia.
  • Endocrine Problems: Overactive thyroid gland, adrenal gland disorders, or any other gland disruption may cause difficulties in sleeping.
  • Changes in Sleeping Environment: Changes in the sleep environment such as too much noise, light, or an uncomfortable mattress can cause wakefulness leading to insomnia.
  • Ageing: Certain biological changes with ageing can cause sleep patterns to change, often leading to insomnia.

Psychological Causes

  • Stress: Stressful situations from work, personal life, or finances can create anxiety that leads to insomnia. Overthinking these situations can keep your mind active at night, causing difficulty in falling or staying asleep.
  • Depression: Insomnia can be a symptom of depression. People with depression could wake up early in the morning or frequently during the night.
  • Anxiety: General anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other forms of anxiety with excessive worry can make it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep.
  • Emotional Distress: Disturbances like a breakup, loss of a loved one, or any other traumatising event can cause emotional distress, leading to insomnia.
  • Mental Disorders: Disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to insomnia.
  • Psychological Trauma: Traumatic experiences such as accidents, natural disasters, or violence can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which often leads to nightmares or flashbacks, causing insomnia.
  • Chronic Worry: Excessive worry about life, achievements, future, or health consistently can keep the mind active and anxious, causing insomnia.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Those with OCD often struggle with invasive, unwanted thoughts that can lead

Environmental Factors

Imagine yourself hopping on a plane, crossing multiple time zones, or pulling the graveyard shift at work - such environmental factors can indeed cause your sleep patterns to go haywire.

Working in shifts disrupts your regular sleep schedule and messes with your body's internal clock.

Similarly, frequent travelling across time zones brings about jet lag, another lifestyle factor compromising the quality of sleep.

Substances like caffeine, drugs, alcohol or certain medications also play their part in giving rise to insomnia. They alter your sleep hygiene by stimulating your nervous system and preventing you from falling asleep or staying asleep. In essence, these environmental factors may significantly contribute to insomnia if not properly managed.

Medical Conditions that Cause Insomnia

Asthma, heart disease, pregnancy complications, chronic pain, and a weakened immune system are just a few health issues that have been linked to insomnia.

Similarly, certain physiological factors like heightened heart rate and increased hormone levels can contribute to this chronic insomnia disorder.

Imagine your body in constant overdrive - with your heart racing and hormones surging - it's hardly conducive for restful sleep. It's important to understand that these aren't just symptoms of insomnia but serious diseases themselves requiring immediate attention. Recognizing the interplay between these medical conditions and insomnia is an essential step towards better management of this sleep disorder.

Lifestyle Habits that Contribute to Insomnia

Your daily routines and activities before bed might be contributing to those restless nights more than you realise.

Sustaining poor sleep habits such as irregular sleep schedules, excessive caffeine consumption, or lack of exercise can initiate a vicious cycle of sleeplessness that only worsens your insomnia over time.

Even seemingly harmless practices like napping during the day or indulging in heavy meals close to bedtime could negatively affect your ability to fall asleep at night.

It's important to scrutinise these habits and consider healthier alternatives. After all, attaining good sleep isn't merely about what happens when you're in bed—it starts with what you do all day long.

Symptoms of Insomnia

woman having difficulty sleeping

If you're struggling to fall asleep at night, or find yourself frequently waking up only to toss and turn, you might be dealing with insomnia. This condition often leads to feelings of fatigue and exhaustion during the day, making it hard for you to concentrate or remember things. Moreover, it's not uncommon for insomnia sufferers to experience mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Difficulty Falling Asleep and Staying Asleep

Struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep is a common experience for those battling insomnia, making nights feel like an endless loop of wakefulness. There are three main types of this insomnia symptom: initial, middle, and late insomnia. Each type comes with its unique struggle in the onset of sleep or sleep maintenance.

Initial Insomnia: This involves difficulty falling asleep at the beginning of the night. Stress, irregular sleep schedules, and using electronic devices before bedtime can contribute to this issue.

Middle Insomnia: Also known as 'sleep maintenance insomnia,' individuals often find themselves awake in the middle of the night unable to return to sleep.

Late Insomnia: Characterised by waking up too early and having trouble going back to sleep. Improving your sleep quality starts with establishing a consistent routine and creating a tranquil environment conducive for rest.

Fatigue and Exhaustion During the Daytime Hours

When you're constantly battling sleeplessness, the resulting fatigue and exhaustion can seep into your daytime hours, making even simple tasks feel like monumental challenges.

This is a common daytime symptom of insomnia, a condition marked by chronic lack of sleep.

Sleep deprivation doesn't just leave you feeling tired; it can significantly affect your reaction times, concentration, and judgement. This makes activities such as driving or operating machinery potentially dangerous.

As we age, changes in our sleep patterns and activity levels coupled with certain health conditions can exacerbate insomnia, further intensifying feelings of daytime fatigue and exhaustion.

If you're experiencing these symptoms consistently, it's important to seek professional help to manage your insomnia effectively.

Trouble Concentrating or Memory Problems

Beyond the physical exhaustion, you might also find your cognitive abilities taking a hit due to chronic lack of sleep.

Your mental health symptoms may amplify if you're suffering from insomnia and this could manifest in several ways:

- You could experience trouble concentrating, finding it hard to focus on tasks that used to be simple.

- Memory problems might become more prevalent, as remembering names, dates or events becomes increasingly difficult.

- Insomnia can lead to sleep deprivation which further exacerbates cognitive issues.

- Tasks requiring decision

-making skills may seem overwhelming due to reduced clarity of thought.

Insomnia doesn't just rob you of restful sleep; it can also disrupt your ability to think clearly and recall information effectively. Understanding these symptoms is crucial for seeking appropriate help and treatment.

Mood Disorders, Including Anxiety and Depression

As you grapple with memory problems and difficulties concentrating due to insomnia, it's crucial to understand that these are not isolated issues. Insomnia often co-exists with mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, creating a vicious cycle impacting your mental health.

In fact, insomnia can be both a symptom and a risk factor for these conditions, establishing a profound link between insomnia and depression.

The good news is there are effective treatments available, including behavioural therapy or prescription medication which can help manage both your sleep troubles and mood disorders.

Whether you're dealing with symptoms of anxiety or struggling with the highs and lows of bipolar disorder, addressing your sleep issue is an integral part of improving your overall health.

Diagnosing Insomnia

To accurately diagnose insomnia, your doctor might conduct a physical examination, delve into your medical history, and scrutinise your sleep patterns.

They may suggest you keep a sleep diary for a couple of weeks to record when you go to bed, when you wake up, any disruptions during the night, and how rested you feel in the morning. This can provide crucial insights for both you and your sleep specialist.

In some cases, an overnight sleep study might be recommended. This involves wearing a device that tracks your sleep-wake patterns throughout the night.

While this may seem like a lot to undertake, remember that understanding the root cause of your insomnia is key to developing an effective treatment plan. It's crucial not to overlook any step in this process.

Types of Treatments for Insomnia in Adults

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This is one of the most effective treatments for chronic insomnia. It involves identifying and changing negative beliefs and behaviours that could be causing or worsening sleep problems.

2. Medication: These include over-the-counter sleep aids, prescription sleep medications, antidepressants, herbs and supplements.. The type of medication depends on the nature and severity of insomnia.

3. Relaxation Techniques: Techniques like meditation, deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and biofeedback can help reduce anxiety and induce sleep.

4. Lifestyle Changes: This can involve maintaining a regular sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed, regular exercise, and ensuring the sleep environment is comfortable, quiet, and dark.

5. Sleep Restriction Therapy: This involves limiting the number of hours spent in bed, which can make you more tired the next night. Over time, this can help to induce a more regular sleep pattern.

6. Stimulus Control Therapy: This includes limiting activities done in bed to sleep and sex, thus creating a strong association between bed and sleep.

7. Sleep Hygiene Education: This involves educating about good sleep practices like maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule, avoiding stimulating activities before bed, and keeping the sleep environment relaxing.

8. Over-the-Counter Supplements: Certain natural supplements such as melatonin, valerian root, or chamomile can be helpful for some individuals, although they should always be used under the supervision of a healthcare provider.

9. Sleep Apnoea Treatment: If insomnia is caused by sleep apnoea, then treatment can involve weight loss, avoiding alcohol and smoking, changing sleeping positions, or using special devices or surgery.

10. Light Therapy: If insomnia is due to disruptions in the body's natural daily sleep-wake cycles, light therapy can be a useful approach.

Please note that insomnias are not all the same and that treatments should always be personalised to best fit each individual's condition and needs.

Treating Insomnia

Fortunately, there are various types of treatments available to help individuals manage and overcome their insomnia.

One commonly-used treatment option is cognitive-behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). This type of therapy focuses on identifying and changing negative thoughts and behaviours that contribute to poor sleep. It involves techniques such as stimulus control, sleep restriction, and relaxation training to promote healthy sleep patterns.

Another treatment option is medication, which can be used in certain cases, especially when insomnia is severe and impacting daily functioning. However, it is important to note that medications should be used cautiously and under the guidance of a healthcare professional, as they can have adverse effects and potential for abuse.

Lastly, making lifestyle changes such as adopting a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, and avoiding caffeine and electronics before bed can also improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia symptoms.

By combining these different treatment approaches, individuals with insomnia can find relief and regain control over their sleep.

Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) is a highly effective non-pharmacological treatment for long-term insomnia in adults. It aims to improve sleep quality and duration by addressing the underlying thoughts and behaviours that contribute to sleep problems.

CBT-I consists of several components that work together to target different aspects of insomnia. Cognitive therapy helps individuals identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs about sleep, replacing them with more positive and realistic ones. Relaxation or meditation therapy teaches relaxation techniques that promote calmness and reduce anxiety, making it easier to fall asleep. Sleep education provides individuals with information about healthy sleep habits and the factors that can disrupt sleep.

Two key techniques in CBT-I are sleep restriction therapy and stimulus control therapy. Sleep restriction therapy involves gradually reducing the time spent in bed to match the individual's actual sleep duration, increasing sleep efficiency and promoting a more consolidated and restful sleep. Stimulus control therapy helps eliminate negative associations with the bedroom by associating the bedroom only with sleep and intimacy, promoting better sleep hygiene.

By incorporating these techniques, CBT-I helps individuals with long-term insomnia improve their sleep quality and duration. It addresses the root causes of insomnia and equips individuals with practical strategies to manage sleep difficulties, resulting in long-lasting improvements in sleep patterns and overall well-being. CBT-I is a personalised approach that takes into account the specific needs of each individual, making it a valuable treatment option for those struggling with insomnia.

CBT-I is is typically guided by a trained clinician and includes several components:

Sleep Education and Sleep Hygiene: This includes teaching about health practices that improve sleep and bad habits that disturb sleep.

Stimulus Control Therapy: This helps remove factors that condition the mind to resist sleep. For instance, patients are advised to use their bed only for sleep and sex and to leave their bed if they can't go to sleep within 20 minutes.

Sleep Restriction: This involves limiting the amount of time spent in bed to the actual time spent sleeping, which can increase sleep efficiency.

Cognitive Therapy: This focuses on identifying and changing beliefs that affect the ability to sleep. This type of therapy helps patients understand and challenge patterns of disruptive thinking.

Relaxation Techniques: Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and biofeedback can help reduce anxiety and body tension. They tend to relax the mind and prepare it for sleep.

Remaining Passively Awake: Also known as paradoxical intention, this involves reducing worry and anxiety about being able to get to sleep by staying awake rather than expecting to fall asleep.

Light Therapy: If one has trouble falling asleep or waking up often, techniques that expose them to certain amounts of light for a designated amount of time can help reset their sleep-wake cycle.

Each component of CBT-I is intended to address a specific aspect of insomnia and its underlying causes. The therapy is usually short-term (often about 6-8 sessions) and conducted in a structured manner. It's critical to remember that the effectiveness of CBT-I can be heavily dependent on the individual's active participation and engagement in the process.


Medications are commonly used to treat insomnia in adults, both as prescription medications and over-the-counter sleep aids. Here are some of the different types of medicines used for insomnia treatment:

  1. Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines are a class of sedative drugs that promote relaxation and induce sleep. They work by enhancing the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that inhibits brain activity. These medications are generally prescribed for short-term use due to their potential for tolerance and dependence.
  2. Non-Benzodiazepine Hypnotics (Z-drugs): Z-drugs, also known as non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, are medications that act on the same receptors as benzodiazepines but have a different chemical structure. They are commonly prescribed as a first-line treatment for insomnia. These medications are generally considered to have a lower risk of tolerance and dependence compared to benzodiazepines.
  3. Orexin Receptor Antagonists: Orexin receptor antagonists work by blocking the action of orexin, a neurotransmitter involved in regulating wakefulness. These medications help promote sleep by inhibiting wakefulness-promoting signals.
  4. Antidepressants: Certain antidepressant medications, particularly those in the class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), may be prescribed off-label for insomnia.
  5. Melatonin Receptor Agonists: Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin receptor agonists mimic the effects of melatonin in the brain, promoting sleep onset. These medications are particularly useful for individuals with delayed sleep phase syndrome or those who have difficulty falling asleep.

It's important to note that all medications have potential side effects, and individual responses can vary. Common side effects of prescription sleep medications may include drowsiness, dizziness, daytime fatigue, cognitive impairment, rebound insomnia, and in rare cases, sleepwalking or other complex sleep-related behaviours. It's crucial to follow the prescribed dosage and consult with a healthcare professional regarding any concerns or questions about insomnia medications. Additionally, non-pharmacological treatments such as cognitive-behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) should be considered as a first-line approach or in combination with medications for long-term management of insomnia.

2. Over-the-counter (OTC) Sleep Aids:

Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the body that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. It is available as an OTC sleep aid in various forms, such as tablets, capsules, or gummies. Melatonin can help regulate sleep patterns and is particularly useful for individuals with jet lag or shift work disorder. It is generally well-tolerated, but it may not be effective for everyone or suitable for long-term use.

Valerian Root: Valerian root is an herbal supplement commonly used for its sedative and anxiolytic properties. It is available in different forms, including capsules, tablets, or as an ingredient in herbal sleep teas. Valerian root may help improve sleep quality and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. However, its effectiveness as a sleep aid is not fully supported by scientific evidence, and individual responses may vary.

L-theanine: L-theanine is an amino acid found naturally in green tea. It has calming properties and is sometimes used as an OTC sleep aid to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. While it may help improve sleep quality, its effectiveness as a primary sleep aid is limited, and more research is needed to fully understand its effects on sleep.

It's important to note that OTC sleep aids, like any medication, can have potential side effects and may interact with other medications or health conditions. It's advisable to read and follow the instructions on the packaging, use them for short-term relief, and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns or if sleep difficulties persist. Additionally, adopting good sleep hygiene practices, such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a conducive sleep environment, and managing stress, can be beneficial in managing insomnia.

Potential for Abuse of Sleep Aids

Sleep aid medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, can provide short-term relief for people with insomnia. However, there is potential for misuse or abuse if not used appropriately. Here are some reasons why:

1. Dependency: Long-term use of sleep aids can result in physical dependence, where the body becomes accustomed to the drug. When a person stops taking it abruptly, they can experience withdrawal symptoms.

2. Tolerance: After using sleep aids for a while, the body may develop tolerance, meaning one may need larger doses to achieve the same sleep-inducing effect. This increasing use can lead to addiction.

3. Rebound Insomnia: This occurs when a person discontinues the sleep aid, causing their insomnia to return, often worse than before. This can create a vicious cycle where the person feels they need to continue the medication to get sleep.

4. Side Effects: Some sleep aids can have serious side effects, especially when taken in higher than recommended doses or used for long periods. These can include dizziness, memory problems, hallucinations, sleepwalking, or daytime drowsiness.

5. Drug Interactions: Sleep aids can interact dangerously with other substances, including alcohol, other medications, or illicit drugs.

6. Masking Underlying Issues: Sometimes, insomnia may be a symptom or side-effect of another underlying medical or psychological problem. Relying on sleep aids could potentially mask these underlying issues, delaying necessary treatment.

To avoid these potential problems, all sleep aids should be used under the supervision of a healthcare provider, only in the recommended doses, and for the shortest period possible. Non-drug treatment methods, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), can also be effective and do not carry the same risks as sleep aid medications.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some natural remedies to help manage insomnia?

You're struggling with sleeplessness, aren't you? There are several natural remedies that could help. Regular exercise can improve your sleep quality. Consuming foods rich in magnesium and B vitamins may also help, as they promote melatonin production, a hormone that regulates sleep. Herbal teas like chamomile or lavender can induce relaxation before bedtime. Mindfulness practices such as yoga or meditation might assist in quieting your mind for a restful night's sleep.

How does insomnia affect daily life and productivity?

Insomnia can significantly disrupt your daily life and productivity. Lack of sleep may cause difficulties in concentration, memory issues, and a decrease in problem-solving skills. It's common to feel tired, irritable, or even depressed. These factors can directly impact your work performance, relationships, and overall quality of life. Remember, it's essential to seek help if you're experiencing persistent sleep problems for your mental and physical well-being.

Are there any particular diets or foods that can help improve sleep quality for people with insomnia?

Yes, certain foods may enhance your sleep quality. Try incorporating sources of tryptophan, like turkey or eggs, in your diet. This amino acid helps produce serotonin, which regulates sleep. Also, cherries and kiwis naturally contain melatonin that can encourage sleep. Foods rich in magnesium like almonds and fatty fish help promote relaxation. Remember to avoid heavy meals before bedtime as they could disrupt your sleep. Always consult a healthcare professional for personalised dietary advice.

How does insomnia affect mental health over a long period of time?

Long-term insomnia can significantly impact your mental health. It's not just about feeling tired; it can lead to anxiety, depression, and even cognitive issues over time. You may struggle with focus, memory, or decision making. It's also common to experience mood swings or irritability. Remember, you're not alone in this battle - many people are facing similar challenges and professional help is available for you.

Can exercise help in combating insomnia? If so, what kinds of exercises are recommended?

Absolutely, exercise can help you combat insomnia. Regular physical activity improves sleep quality by promoting faster onset of sleep and deeper restfulness. Cardiovascular exercises like jogging or swimming are highly recommended. Also, mind-body exercises such as yoga or tai chi can greatly assist in managing stress and anxiety, which often contribute to insomnia. Remember though, try not to exercise too close to bedtime as it could potentially interfere with your sleep cycle.


You're not alone if you're struggling with insomnia. It's a common condition that can impact your quality of life. Understanding its causes, symptoms, and diagnosis methods is the first step towards managing it effectively. Remember to seek professional help when necessary - they're there to guide you through this journey. Don't let insomnia steal your night's peace; take control of your sleep today.

Key Takeaways

  • Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that affects one in three adults globally.
  • It can be caused by biological, psychological, and environmental factors, as well as medical conditions and lifestyle habits.
  • Insomnia can lead to fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and mood disorders, and is often linked with mental health conditions.
  • Effective treatments for insomnia exist, including cognitive behavioural therapy, and identifying the root cause is crucial for developing a treatment plan.


This information is intended solely for New Zealand residents and is of a general nature only. No person should act in reliance on any statement contained in the information provided, but at all times should obtain specific advice from a health professional.

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