Insomnia is when you experience disruptions in how you feel or function because you aren’t sleeping well or sleeping enough. About 10% of the world’s population experience insomnia that qualifies as a medical condition. It’s usually not dangerous, and there are many ways — including medications and mental health options — to treat it.
Insomnia is when you aren’t sleeping as you should. That can mean you aren’t sleeping enough, you aren’t sleeping well or you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep. For some people, insomnia is a minor inconvenience. For others, insomnia can be a major disruption. The reasons why insomnia happens can vary just as widely.
Your body needs sleep for many reasons (and science is still unlocking an understanding of why sleep is so important to your body). Experts do know that when you don’t sleep enough, it can cause sleep deprivation, which is usually unpleasant (at the very least) and keeps you from functioning at your best.
Sleep habits and needs can be very different from person to person. Because of these variations, experts consider a wide range of sleep characteristics “normal.” Some examples of this include:
There are two main ways that experts use to put insomnia into categories:
Both the acute and chronic forms of insomnia are very common. Roughly, 1 in 3 adults worldwide have insomnia symptoms, and about 10% of adults meet the criteria for insomnia disorder.
Insomnia has several potential symptoms, which fall into a few categories:
When you have trouble sleeping is an important symptom of insomnia. There are three main ways this happens, and people commonly shift between them over time:
Because you need sleep to be your best, disruptions like insomnia commonly cause symptoms that affect you while you’re awake. These include:
The characteristics of insomnia symptoms are also important. If your symptoms have certain characteristics, you may have chronic insomnia. The characteristics include:
Experts don’t fully know why insomnia happens, but the current understanding is that this condition can involve many factors. Some of these factors could be causes or they could simply contribute to it. More research is necessary to understand exactly how and why insomnia happens.
The factors that could cause or contribute include (but aren’t limited to) the following:
Insomnia is also more likely to happen in people with the following characteristics or circumstances:
When insomnia is severe or lasts a long time, it causes sleep deprivation. A major concern with sleep deprivation is daytime sleepiness, which can be dangerous if you’re driving or doing other tasks that require you to be alert and attentive.
Sleep deprivation can also increase the risk of certain conditions:
A healthcare provider can diagnose insomnia using a combination of methods, especially by asking you questions about your health history, personal circumstances, sleep habits, symptoms and more. They may also recommend certain tests to rule out other conditions that could cause or contribute to insomnia.
There aren’t any tests that can diagnose insomnia directly. Instead, tests help rule out other conditions with similar symptoms to insomnia. The most likely tests include:
Other tests are also possible depending on your symptoms and other factors. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what tests they recommend.
There are many ways to treat insomnia, ranging from simple changes in your lifestyle and habits to various medications. The main approaches to treating insomnia are:
Many different types of medications can help you fall or stay asleep. Many of these are sedative or hypnotic drugs — both prescription and nonprescription — as well as mental health medications, and certain herbs and supplements.
In general, your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you about the possible treatments and which they recommend for you. They’re also the best source of information about the possible side effects or complications with treatments.
The following information contains examples of medications, but it isn’t a list of every treatment available. Remember that medications that treat insomnia may not help everyone. Some medications can interact with others, and your age and physical health play a role, too.
It’s also important to keep in mind that while medications can help you sleep, some may also negatively affect your sleep cycle. Sleep quality, not just quantity, is important. That means you should use medications — even over-the-counter ones — cautiously.
Prescription drugs for insomnia
Several prescription drug types can treat insomnia. Depending on your location, some medications might have legal restrictions because of how they work or their effects.
Controlled drug types include:
Noncontrolled drug types include:
*NOTE: Don’t take more than the recommended amount of melatonin without first talking to your healthcare provider. Doses above 10 milligrams may be harmful.
Nonprescription drugs for insomnia
Antihistamine drugs, which treat allergies, can also make you sleepy. Examples of this include diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in drugs like Benadryl®) and doxylamine (commonly known under the brand name Unisom®).
Herbs and supplements
Many herbs or supplements can help treat insomnia. While many of these are common and well-known, it’s best not to assume that an herb or supplement is automatically safe for you. You should talk to a healthcare provider about herbs and supplements before taking them. That helps you avoid possible side effects or interactions, especially if you have any medical conditions or take any other medications.
Because your mental health can greatly affect your ability to sleep, mental healthcare is one of the most effective ways to improve your sleep, either directly or indirectly. A healthcare provider is the best person to tell you more about the possible mental health options and provide you with resources on how to get this kind of care.
Some causes of insomnia are preventable, while others can happen for reasons that aren’t well understood. While it’s impossible to prevent insomnia entirely, there are many things you can do to help yourself sleep better (see below under “Living With” for more information about what you can do to avoid insomnia or reduce how it affects you).
Insomnia usually isn’t a major concern. Most people who experience insomnia may feel tired or not quite their best the next day, but that feeling often gets better once you do get enough quality sleep. Chronic insomnia is disruptive. While it usually isn’t dangerous, it can still negatively affect your life in many ways.
If you notice you’re having symptoms of sleep deprivation, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare provider. They can look for possible causes for why you’re not sleeping. They can also offer guidance and treatment that can help you sleep better.
Short-term insomnia is insomnia that you have for under three months. Chronic insomnia lasts more than three months.
The causes of insomnia can vary widely, meaning how long you have insomnia can also change and shift over time. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about your insomnia and what you can do to limit how it affects you.
Some of the most important things you can do to help your insomnia — and your sleep overall — revolve around sleep hygiene. These include, but aren’t limited to:
You should talk to your healthcare provider (especially a primary care provider) if you notice that insomnia lasts more than a few nights and/or if it starts to affect your daily routine, tasks and activities. You should also talk to them if you notice the following:
Yes, being pregnant (and conditions that happen while you’re pregnant) can significantly affect your ability to sleep. Being pregnant commonly causes changes throughout your body, including physical, hormonal and psychological effects. Those can affect your sleep routine and make it harder to get enough quality sleep. If you’re pregnant and notice you’re having issues sleeping, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider. They can often help you better understand why you aren’t sleeping well and what you can do to help yourself.
Yes, COVID-19 can affect how you sleep, but experts still don’t fully understand how or why it does that. Researchers are investigating how exactly COVID-19 affects both your brain and your body. They also think that the overall stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic may play a role in this.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Sleep is something that people can take for granted until they aren’t getting enough of it. Sleeping is a critical component of your health. A lack of quality sleep can cause disruptions — great and small — in your overall health.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider. They can often help you improve your sleep or refer you to a provider or professional who can assist you. That way, you can put sleep-related concerns to rest and feel restored and ready when you wake up.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/13/2023.
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