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Insomnia > What Is Insomnia?

What Causes Insomnia?

When you’re experiencing insomnia, what does that really mean? Our understanding of how our brains regulate sleep and wake has evolved. As a result, we are learning more about insomnia and what may cause it.

The science of wake and sleep

Your brain has a sleep system (which helps you sleep) and a wake system (which helps keep you awake).

  • The wake system sends out signals that put your brain into an alert, or more active, state. This helps you wake up in the morning and stay awake during the day.
  • The sleep system sends signals that help you fall and stay asleep at night.

When you wake in the morning, your brain sends signals that move it into an alert, or active, state. This helps you stay awake during the day. If these signals don't slow down at night, your brain stays alert. When this happens, your sleep system may not be able to take over. This may be what's causing your insomnia.

Your lifestyle may be contributing to your insomnia

Certain substances and activities, including eating patterns, can contribute to insomnia. If you are having difficulty sleeping, review the following lifestyle factors to see if one or more could be affecting you:

  • Alcohol can make you fall asleep initially, but may disrupt your sleep later in the night.
  • Caffeine is a stimulant. In moderation it is fine for most people, but excessive caffeine can contribute to insomnia. Caffeine can stay in your system for as long as 10 hours, so the effects are long lasting.
  • Nicotine is also a stimulant and can contribute to insomnia. Quitting smoking can be good for your sleep, as well as the rest of your health.
  • Heavy meals close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep. Spicy foods can also cause heartburn and interfere with your sleep.
Learn About Possible Lifestyle Causes of Insomnia
Learn About Possible Lifestyle Causes of Insomnia

Are you sabotaging your sleep?

Certain lifestyles and sleep habits can cause insomnia on their own (without any underlying psychiatric or medical problem), or they can make insomnia caused by another problem worse. For example:

  • You work at home in the evenings. This can make it hard to unwind, and it can also make you feel preoccupied when it comes time to sleep. The light from your computer could also make your brain more alert.
  • You sometimes sleep in later or take naps to make up for lost sleep. This can confuse your body's clock and make it difficult to fall asleep again the following night.
  • You are a shift worker (meaning that you work irregular hours). Nontraditional hours can confuse your body's clock, especially if you are trying to sleep during the day, or if your schedule changes periodically.

  • Take a Sleep Habit Quiz
    Are you sleep-habit savvy?

    Visit WhySoAwake.com and take this sleep quiz to find out how much you know about the things coming between you and more sleep.

Can medicine contribute to insomnia?

Yes, even some of the medicines you’re taking may be affecting your ability to sleep. Talk to your doctor if you think that’s the case.

Ask your doctor about insomnia

Whether you're new to insomnia or have been dealing with it for years, the more you know, the more effective you can be in discussing it with your doctor.

Talk to your doctor about your insomnia and about what might really be keeping you awake.