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Insomnia

Find out about insomnia, including why it happens, what you can do about it, and what treatments your GP can offer.

Insomnia means you have an ongoing problem sleeping. It usually gets better by changing your sleeping habits.

Check if you have insomnia

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 can't 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

You can have these symptoms for months, sometimes years.

How much sleep you need

Everyone needs different amounts of sleep.

On average we need:

  • Adults – 7 to 9 hours
  • Children – 9 to 13 hours
  • Toddlers and babies – 12 to 17 hours

What causes insomnia

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

There are some illnesses and medications that can disrupt sleep. Talk to your GP if you are concerned about this.

How you can treat insomnia yourself

Insomnia usually gets better by changing your sleeping habits.

Watching television or using devices such as a smartphone right before going to bed can result in poor sleep. You should also avoid smoking, or drink alcohol, tea or coffee at least 6 hours before going to bed.

Try to:

  • go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
  • relax at least 1 hour before bed – for example, take a bath or read a book
  • only go to bed when you feel tired
  • make sure your mattress, pillows and covers are comfortable
  • exercise regularly during the day

The following might also contribute towards a bad nights sleep:

  • eating a big meal late at night
  • exercising at least 4 hours before bed
  • napping during the day
  • driving when you feel sleepy
  • sleep in after a bad night's sleep – stick to your regular sleeping hours instead

How a pharmacist can help

You can get herbal remedies from a pharmacy. However, they won't get rid of your insomnia and they have many side effects.

Herbal remedies can often make you drowsy the next day. You might find it hard to get things done.

You shouldn't drive the day after taking them.

It's important to see a GP if:

  • changing your sleeping habits hasn't worked
  • you've had trouble sleeping for months
  • your insomnia is affecting your daily life in a way that makes it hard for you to cope

They could interact with other medications. Let your pharmacist know what tablets you are already taking.

Treatment from a GP

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

Sometimes you will be referred to a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy. This can help you change the thoughts and behaviours that keep you from sleeping.

Poor sleep is often a sign of:

  • anxiety
  • panic
  • low mood

Sleeping pills

GPs now rarely prescribe sleeping pills to treat insomnia. Sleeping pills can have serious side effects and you can become dependent on them. They have also been shown to increase the risk of hip fractures and dementia.

Sleeping pills are only prescribed for a few days, or weeks at the most, if:

  • your insomnia is very bad
  • other treatments haven't worked

Sleep disorders

Sleep disorders are also known as parasomnias. The most common ones are:

  • night terrors - a sudden shock from sleep occurs, usually with a scream or shout about 90 minutes or so after falling asleep
  • sleep paralysis - where you are awake but you are unable to move your body and unable to speak when you wake up from sleep
  • sleepwalking - walking around the house, wandering outside, carrying things or searching in cupboards
  • restless leg syndrome - constant, involuntary irritation of the legs causing movement, when you go to bed

Obstructive sleep apnoea

Obstructive sleep apnoea is a condition in which causes occasional and repeated upper airway collapse during sleep. This results in irregular breathing at night and excessive sleepiness during the day.

Talk to your GP if you are experiencing any of these sleep disorders or sleep apnoea.

Related topics

Anxiety

Generalised anxiety disorder

Panic disorder

Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE.

Page last reviewed: 04/10/2018
Next review due: 04/10/2021

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