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What Causes Insomnia?

Learn Which Risk Factors You Can Control

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Most people have experienced sleep problems at one time or another, but what causes insomnia is very individual. There are actually two different forms of insomnia—secondary (when insomnia occurs as a symptom or side effect of something else) and primary (when insomnia is a disorder in itself, not occurring as the side effect of another condition). Both are characterized by the inability to fall or stay asleep.

There are two main categories of risks that can contribute to insomnia—those that you can't change, and those that you can.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors
These variables are out of your control. Although you can't do anything to change them, it's important to know what has been associated with the development of insomnia.
  • Your age. You are more likely to experience sleeping problems as you get older. After age 40, for example, your sleep patterns change, resulting in more awakenings during the middle of the night and a harder time staying asleep.
  • Your gender. Insomnia is more common among women, but experts aren't exactly sure why. Some theories include: Women experience more extreme hormonal changes (from pregnancy to menstruation to menopause); women are more sensitive to the sounds of their own children, which causes them to wake up more often during the night; and women are at higher risk for conditions that can result in secondary insomnia, such as depression and anxiety.
  • Your health history. Several medical conditions can cause secondary insomnia. Emotional disorders (depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder), neurological disorders (such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases), respiratory conditions (asthma), heart failure (resulting in sleep apnea and/or breathing problems), hyperthyroidism, gastrointestinal disorders (such as heartburn or GERD), and conditions that cause chronic pain (arthritis, severe headaches and fibromyalgia, for example) can all disrupt sleep quality and quantity.
  • Your socioeconomic status. Insomnia is more common in people of low socioeconomic status.
  • Your work hours. Shift workers are at a high risk for insomnia. In one survey, 65 percent of shift workers experienced symptoms of insomnia several nights each week. Shift workers over the age of 50, and those whose shift hours change on a regular basis are even more prone to sleeping problems.
While you can’t change things like health history or your work hours, you can control certain factors related to your lifestyle—the choices you make each day about what to eat and how to care for yourself. These are areas of your life where you can take proactive steps to help prevent and treat insomnia and enhance your overall health.
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About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.

Member Comments

    http://www.sparkp - 8/1/2014 5:19:16 AM
    I am also facing the same problem but not getting the solution for it but hopefully i will try the above things.

    http://www.coom - 3/6/2013 6:10:48 AM
  • I 've tried lots of things to sleep and now that I'm trying spark people to improve my health,bad habits and lengthen/strength
    en my life.
    - 5/23/2012 12:50:42 PM
  • I have sleep problems, on and off and currently find myself waking in the night a lot. I am in many of the catagories who you say are at risk; I am a shift worker and my shifts change from night to days every week. I have a chronic ill health condition and some of my medications hold insomnia as a side effect.. I'm older- in my 40's and so it looks like I'm stuffed!! However, as a positive, I drink a lot of caffeine (probably to get me through my shifts and stay awake), but because of your article - I'm giving it up slowly and turning decaf instead! - 6/21/2011 10:23:04 AM
  • Thanks for this article. I have been battling this issue for quite some time and have never taken the time to research it or talk to a doctor due to lack of health insurance. I used to sleep an average of 4 hours at a time and since being unemployed I have slept a full 8 hours! However, this past week, I would go to sleep at 8pm and be wide awake at midnight to fall back to sleep anywhere between 2 and 6am. I am in my late 30's not quite 40 but still close. - 1/4/2011 10:00:33 PM
    As a 50+ former shift worker I have to disagree with the statement that you can't change your hours of work. I was always on the lookout for day jobs, especially when I found I could not sleep in the daytime anymore, as I used to be able to do when I was younger. I had to accept a temporary reduction in hours, and give up shift premiums, but now a few years later I'm at last starting to sleep better through the night, and my wallet is no worse off. - 9/9/2010 8:29:24 AM
  • Appreciated the article. Now I have several additional issue I can observe to improve the quality of my sleep. Thanks.

    Ken - 2/12/2009 7:53:14 AM

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