Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Insomnia is when you have trouble getting enough sleep at night. You might not be able to fall asleep, you might wake up during the night and find it hard to get back to sleep, or you might wake up very early and not be able to fall asleep again.

Many people experience insomnia at some point, which can have a big effect on your daily life.

If it isn’t linked to an underlying condition, insomnia usually improves by changing your lifestyle or sleeping habits

What is insomnia?

Sleep gives your body, brain and mind the chance to rest, repair and recharge. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night; children need between nine and 13 hours, and toddlers and babies need 12-17 hours.

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that means you’re not sleeping through the night and not getting the amount of sleep you need to function well during the day.

There are different types of insomnia:

  • Short-term insomnia – When it happens occasionally or over a brief period, from a night or two to several nights

  • Chronic or long-term insomnia – When it happens for three months or longer

  • Sleep onset insomnia – When you have trouble going to sleep

  • Sleep maintenance insomnia – When you wake up during the night and can’t get back to sleep

Insomnia symptoms

Your insomnia symptoms might be different to someone else’s.

Symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty getting to sleep

  • Waking up often in the night

  • Lying awake during the night

  • Waking up very early and not being able to get back to sleep

  • Feeling tired in the morning

  • Not being able to nap in the day

  • Feeling irritable

  • Difficulty concentrating because you’re tired

What causes insomnia?

There are lots of possible causes of insomnia, and it’s usually a combination of these that leads to difficulty sleeping:

  • Stress

  • Anxiety or depression, or another mental health condition like bipolar disorder

  • Too much noise

  • A hot or cold room

  • An uncomfortable bed

  • Drinking alcohol or caffeine

  • Smoking

  • Taking recreational drugs like ecstasy or cocaine

  • Jet lag

  • Shift patterns at work

Conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease can also make insomnia more likely.

Other sleep disorders can lead to insomnia, including sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, sleepwalking, and night terrors.

Insomnia in menopause

The hormonal changes during perimenopause and menopause can affect your body and mind and lead to insomnia.

Hot flushes at night can wake you up or keep you awake. Anxiety is common, and this can increase your chances of disrupted sleep. Your sleep cycles might be changing due to the hormonal shifts you’re going through. Other problems, like joint pains and bladder issues, can also contribute to insomnia in menopause.

Insomnia in children

Insomnia in children can happen if they’re feeling worried or anxious about something or if their daytime habits are keeping their brain active at night.

They might feel stressed about changes at home like a new baby or parents not getting on, or they may be worried about a house move or have problems with friends or at school.

Watching TV or using screens before bedtime can stop them from winding down. Eating lots of sugary food or drinking anything with caffeine, including energy drinks, can affect their sleep too.

For insomnia in children, the positive lifestyle changes below can help. It can also make a difference to spend time listening to your child, letting them share what’s on their mind and enjoying family time together.

How to treat insomnia

There isn’t a single cure for insomnia, but short-term insomnia will often improve by changing your lifestyle habits and sleep routine.

If you’re suffering from chronic (long-term) insomnia, talk to a GP about getting treatment.

Positive lifestyle changes to improve insomnia

The following changes may be able to help your insomnia:

  • Stick to a regular bedtime and waking up time

  • Create a calming bedtime routine, with at least an hour to relax before bed

  • Make your room sleep-friendly, with a comfortable bed, thick curtains to block out daylight and an eye mask or earplugs, if you need them

  • Get regular exercise during the day, but not in the evening

  • Avoid drinking alcohol and smoking in the late afternoon and evening

  • Choose caffeine-free drinks later in the day – tea and coffee can keep you awake

  • Have some screen-free time before bed – avoid smartphones, tablets and TV

  • Don’t be tempted to sleep in or nap after a disrupted night. It may make it harder to fall asleep the next night

Other ways to treat insomnia

There are various sleep aids you can buy, either as tablets or liquids, that may help with short-term insomnia. Some include soothing, natural ingredients like lavender and valerian. Others contain antihistamines that can make you drowsy.

You shouldn’t take these for longer than a couple of weeks. If you’re taking something that makes you feel drowsy, it’s unsafe to drive.

When to talk to a GP about insomnia

Insomnia can have a massive impact on your daily life and, if it goes on for a long time, can cause other health problems.

Talk to a GP if you’re having trouble sleeping, and changing your sleep habits hasn’t helped. They’ll try to find out what’s causing insomnia so they can recommend or prescribe the right treatment.

Some people find their sleep improves after a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This is a type of talking therapy that can help with insomnia by changing the thought patterns that stop you from sleeping.

If your sleep is disrupted because you’re startling yourself awake, you may have sleep apnoea. This is a serious condition where you stop breathing for at least 10 seconds and suddenly gasp, snore or grunt as you start breathing again. It can be dangerous, so speak to a GP who may refer you to a sleep clinic.

GPs don’t often prescribe sleeping pills for insomnia as they can be addictive and have serious side effects. In rare cases you might need a short course of them if your insomnia is particularly bad and other treatments haven’t helped.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Lead GP at Livi Dr Rhianna McClymont
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi