Why can’t I sleep at night? What is insomnia, causes, how to treat it and when to see a GP - explained

A GP will try to find out what’s causing your insomnia so you get the right treatment

If you regularly have problems sleeping you may have insomnia.

But what is it and how can it be treated?

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Here’s what you need to know.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia means you regularly have problems sleeping, but it usually gets better by changing your sleeping habits.

You have insomnia if you regularly:

  • find it hard to go to sleep
  • wake up several times during the night
  • lie awake at night
  • wake up early and cannot go back to sleep
  • still feel tired after waking up
  • find it hard to nap during the day even though you’re tired
  • feel tired and irritable during the day
  • find it difficult to concentrate during the day because you’re tired

If you have insomnia for a short time (less than three months) it’s called short-term insomnia, with insomnia that lasts three months or longer called long-term insomnia.

What causes insomnia?

According to the NHS, the most common causes of insomnia are:

  • stress, anxiety or depression
  • noise
  • a room that’s too hot or cold
  • uncomfortable beds
  • alcohol, caffeine or nicotine
  • recreational drugs like cocaine or ecstasy
  • jet lag
  • shift work

There are also a number of conditions and other things that can cause insomnia.

How can it be treated?

Insomnia usually gets better by changing your sleeping habits.

You can try techniques such as going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, relaxing at least one hour before bed, making sure your bedroom is dark and quiet, exercising regularly during the day, and making sure your mattress, pillows and covers are comfortable.

You should avoid smoking or drinking alcohol, tea or coffee at least six hours before going to bed, as well as not eating a big meal late at night, not exercising at least four hours before bed and not watching television or use devices, like smartphones, right before going to bed.

You should also not nap during the day, not drive when you feel sleepy, and avoid sleeping in after a bad night’s sleep but stick to your regular sleeping hours instead.

You can also buy tablets or liquids from a pharmacy that may help you sleep better.

They cannot cure insomnia but may help you sleep better for one to two weeks. They should not be taken for any longer than this and you should also check with your doctor before taking anything for your sleep problems.

When should I see a GP?

You should see a GP if:

  • changing your sleeping habits has not worked
  • you have had trouble sleeping for months
  • your insomnia is affecting your daily life in a way that makes it hard for you to cope

A GP will try to find out what’s causing your insomnia so you get the right treatment.

Sometimes you’ll be referred to a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can help you change the thoughts and behaviours that keep you from sleeping.

You may also be referred to a sleep clinic if you have symptoms of another sleep disorder such as sleep apnoea.

The NHS said GPs now rarely prescribe sleeping pills to treat insomnia as sleeping pills can have serious side effects and you can become dependent on them.

Sleeping pills are only prescribed for a few days, or weeks at the most, if your insomnia is very bad and other treatments have not worked.