Causes of Insomnia

The causes of insomnia are as varied as the individuals who suffer from the condition. Insomnia affects approximately 30% of people worldwide. It can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere, and for a variety of reasons. The causes of this sleep issue also vary based on whether an individual has a short-term and chronic case.


Short term or transient insomnia may last anywhere between one day and one month. This type of insomnia can appear suddenly as a result of an external event, such as the death of a loved one or the stress associated with a divorce.

Almost any kind of stressor that is brief in duration, such as taking exams, making a speech, or having to sleep in a strange hotel room, can trigger transient insomnia. Short-term sleeplessness may also be caused by an acute illness such as the flu, bronchitis, or migraine headaches. Here's a list of the most common causes of transient insomnia.

Being Female

Women are twice as likely to suffer from insomnia than men, although after menopause the gap closes somewhat. It's thought that hormonal fluctuations (menstruation cycles, pregnancy, menopause) play a significant role in predisposing women to insomnia.

Growing Older

Sleeping patterns change with age and the onset of health problems. Research shows that those aged 65 or older, have a one in two chance of suffering from insomnia, as opposed to a one in three chance for people under 65. This makes seniors a high-risk group. The quality of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is believed to decrease with age, therefore an individual's sleep is less restorative, lighter, and more prone to night-time awakening.

Psychological Causes

Psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression can cause periods of sleeplessness and fatigue.

Physical Causes

Physical causes of insomnia can include acute illnesses, surgery, or injuries that cause a period of pain and discomfort. Often the medications that are used to treat these health problems can exacerbate insomnia symptoms.

Shift Work

If your job requires you to work the night shift, alternating or extra-long shifts, you're at a higher than average risk of insomnia. Your internal body clock is a complex mechanism that controls periods of wakefulness and sleep. It is generally set according to the natural cycles of day and night, light and dark. When work shifts disrupt this balance, insomnia is a common outcome.


For frequent fliers, all those miles and time zone changes often add up to insomnia. The circadian rhythm (natural biological rhythms) get disrupted and a person's internal clock gets out of synchronization.

For shorter trips that span one or two time zones, the body can usually adapt within a couple of days. For long trips across several time zones, it can take up to a week before the body adjusts.

Diet and Nutrition

There are many foods and drinks that can affect quality of sleep. Some are beneficial and others can compromise sleep. Click here to learn about which foods to choose and which to avoid for a better night's rest. In addition, caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can compromise your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.


Transient insomnia can easily turn into a case of chronic insomnia if left untreated. In addition, the following factors can cause chronic sleep deprivation.

Chronic Health Conditions

As opposed to an acute illness or injury that may cause temporary sleepless nights, many chronic health conditions can leave you lying awake night after night.

These include arthritis, asthma, heart problems, acid reflux disease, restless legs syndrome, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), as well as diseases such as alzheimers and parkinsons. Chronic anxiety or depression can also lead to sleeplessness.

Chronic Pain

Related to the above, the pain and discomfort associated with chronic and severe illnesses often contributes to long-term sleep loss. 

Genetic Component

The role genetics play in insomnia is an area of research that is being actively explored. A study conducted in the year 2000 found that approximately 35% of insomniacs had a family history of insomnia. A later study increased that figure to 77%. There is also evidence that overall sleep patterns, as well as restless legs syndrome, sleep walking, and sleep talking, can run in families.

In many cases sleepless nights are not just caused by one factor, but by a combination of factors that together produce insomnia.

There are also instances when transient insomnia results in strong feelings of worry and distress. These feelings build on themselves and can remain long after the original trigger has faded. This residual anxiety perpetuates the condition over time.

If you are having trouble sleeping, talk with your doctor right away. You may also want to read about tips and remedies that may help you manage the causes of insomnia and get back to healthy, restful sleep.

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