Struggling to sleep every once in a while can be expected, given the many underlying elements at play (stressors, hormones, age-related shifts and more). And yet when should you suspect that intermittent sleeplessness may stem from an insomnia disorder or other medical issue? After all, how do we differentiate between short-term versus chronic insomnia? The answer lies within having key knowledge of what constitutes poor sleeping habits.
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is more than just an occasional night of tossing and turning. According to its clinical definition, it's a condition that can persist for at least one month if you experience difficulty with sleep initiation, duration or quality despite having adequate time allocated for rest. If this rings true in your life – as evidenced by troubled sleeping three nights per week over the course of four weeks – it’s likely that chronic insomnia has found its way into your daily routine.
The six most common types of insomnia
Sleep Foundation has outlined six distinct categories of insomnia:
- Chronic: when sleep difficulties occur at least three times per week for three months or more
- Sleep onset: difficulty falling asleep, usually after 20-30 minutes
- Short-term: also referred to as “acute insomnia,” this type typically results from a temporary stressful event
- Early morning awakening: waking up considerably earlier than desired
- Sleep maintenance: difficulty staying asleep, or waking up at least once each night and then struggling to get back to sleep
- Mixed insomnia: a combination of the above
People who are at the highest risk of insomnia
As many as a quarter of young people, from children to young adults, struggle with insomnia. But recent research has uncovered several potential risk factors that may put some individuals at an increased vulnerability for difficulty sleeping.
- Genetics: While certain hereditary influences may contribute to a person's chances of developing chronic insomnia, its complexity is such that there are many other factors at play. Recent findings suggest nearly one-third of those diagnosed with this affliction have an affected family member (typically the mother), prompting researchers to explore further the potential genetic basis for sleep disturbances.
- Mental health: The majority of adults living with depression also suffer from insomnia, and the numbers are even higher for those struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from military combat. In fact, a staggering 90% or more of people dealing with PTSD experience symptoms related to sleeplessness.
- Childhood: Insomnia in childhood can have long-term consequences, with more than 40% of those affected developing into a disorder as they enter young adulthood.
How to get diagnosed with insomnia
In order to accurately diagnose and effectively treat chronic insomnia, your doctor or sleep specialist may ask you for a comprehensive sleep diary spanning two weeks. This will help them identify any patterns in sleeping behavior alongside meal times, exercise sessions, and general mood, thereby allowing them to craft an approach tailored specifically for you.
There are a number of tools that sleep doctors may use to diagnose insomnia. For instance, actigraphy is a small motion sensor worn for up to two weeks that provides insight into sleep quality. Additionally, blood tests may be used to screen for hormones or medical conditions potentially causing insomnia. Finally, health questionnaires are used to help determine whether sleep troubles represent an “independent” issue or, conversely, are linked with other lifestyle factors, such as alcohol consumption, smoking habits or and caffeine intake.
Tips to manage insomnia
If you're struggling to get a good night's rest, your doctor may help address this issue using sustainable lifestyle changes. These often include:
- breaking the habit of constantly checking the clock
- minimizing blue light exposure, especially before bed
- sticking to regular sleep hours and practicing good overall sleep hygiene
- practicing muscle relaxation techniques
- Practicing cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I)
For a full guide on how to improve your sleep, check out our comprehensive guide here.