What is insomnia?

Insomnia is a term used to describe problems with sleep, when the difficulty is getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking up too early. It can also refer an experience of poor quality sleep, causing daytime fatigue or sleepiness. In clinical practice, health professionals make the distinction between acute insomnia, which is short term and relatively common, and chronic insomnia which persists for more than three months and causes a significant degree of distress.

Acute insomnia

Nearly half of the population will experience short term or acute insomnia, which usually resolves within a few weeks. Acute insomnia is most often caused by a stressful situation or significant change in life circumstances, such as having an important work project due, changing jobs, travelling overseas, or experiencing a medial illness. As sleep tends to improve again once the stressful situation passes and most people will not require treatment or intervention.

Girl with insomnia

Chronic Insomnia

Chronic insomnia is typically defined as poor sleep for 3 or more nights a week, persisting longer than three months.  It affects around 5-10% of the population, with some people reporting they’ve had problems with sleep for years or as long as they can remember.

If your sleep has been disturbed for more than three months, it is important that you consult your GP for a medical assessment and advice. Your GP may diagnose and Insomnia Disorder if you meet certain clinical criteria, and other potential causes of insomnia have been ruled out. Your GP will help you decide if you need to meet with a sleep specialist, a mental health professional, or whether a self-help approach would be suitable.

For more information on how to overcome chronic insomnia, please read our page “The best treatments for insomnia”

Short term consequences

If you haven’t sleep well for a few nights you’ll know the feeling of fatigue and sleepiness that can occur in the days that follow. Other common effects of poor sleep include:

  • reduced mental alertness and ability to concentrate
  • poorer short-term memory
  • changes in mood, such as feeling down, more irritably or anxious
  • changes in perspective, such as a greater tendency towards negative thinking
  • a greater tendency to make mistakes or errors
  • slower reaction times, which can increase the risk of accidents or injuries.
Feeling stressed
complications of insomnia

Long term consequences

The consequences of long term disturbed sleep can be more serious, as it can negatively affect your physical and mental health.  Some of these long-term consequences of poor sleep can include:

  • increased weight gain (due to lower levels of an apetite regulating hormone called leptin). Also if you are tired, you may be less likely to exercise, and may choose higher energy food such as sugars and carbohydrates for an immediate energy boost)
  • increased risk of high blood pressure
  • increase risk of Type 2 diabetes
  • increase risk of depression and anxiety disorders

IMPORTANT NOTE:   If you have experienced disturbed sleep for more than 2 weeks and do not know the cause of the insomnia, it is recommended that you see your GP for an assessment and medical check-up. This information is not a substitute for proper assessment and treatment with a suitably qualified health professional.

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