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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.

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