Causes of Insomnia: 9 Things Stopping You from Falling Asleep

Causes of Insomnia: 9 Things Stopping You from Falling Asleep

One of these could be why sleep is so elusive

Sleep is critical to our health. But not everyone can easily fall asleep or stay asleep because of persistent causes of insomnia.

According to one study, about 20 to 30 percent of people have insomnia. 

So in this article, we’ll take a closer look at what causes insomnia and what you can do about it.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is the persistent inability to sleep or stay asleep. It’s more chronic than the usual tossing and turning most of us do in bed.

Insomnia is perilous.

No matter what you try, sleep just continues to elude you. And other times when you sleep, you’re not able to sleep soundly and longer. 

In a survey by the National Sleep Foundation, researchers asked over 1,000 adults about their sleep. 


Turns out that 35 percent experienced one of these symptoms each night or almost every night the year before:

  • difficulty falling asleep, 
  • waking a lot during the night
  • waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep, or 
  • waking up feeling unrefreshed. 

It’s not surprising that nearly a fifth of the people surveyed admitted to using sleep aids or medication to help with sleep.

But insomnia is not just a problem in the US.

In New Zealand, researchers surveyed over 1,500 patients. The findings were published in the British Journal of General Practice.

It showed that 41 percent of people had difficulty with sleeping. Out of that group, 12 percent experienced insomnia

Canadian researchers also found insomnia to be a problem. They reported that nearly 1 out of 4 people aged fifteen and older had trouble going to sleep or staying asleep.

So what are the common causes of insomnia? What have researchers found over the last decades? Let’s answer these next.

Related: Shift Work Sleep Disorder: Everything You Need to Know

What are the causes of insomnia?

1. Mood disorders

Mood disorders are a major cause of insomnia. Particularly, depression and anxiety.

A lot of anxiety and depression comes from stress. It could be stress at home, at school or in the workplace.

When we are stressed, we activate the defense system of the central nervous system. 

If the stress is excessive, it further alters the activity and immune function of a system called the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis

HPA influences our sleep and wake cycles. Stress affects HPA and then negatively influences sleep.

Research shows that stress-induced mood disorders are one of the major causes of sleep problems. 

2. Jet lag

When you have jet lag, your body’s internal circadian rhythm is out of sync with your external environment. This happens after traveling across multiple timezones.

Jet lag comes with tiredness. You’re unable to sleep. And for days after your trip, you continue to find it hard to sleep.

The circadian system is not able to keep up with the speed and shift that comes with air travel across several timezones. 

And keep in mind the circadian system depends a lot on external cues. 

For example, the brighter it is around us, the stronger the cue for alertness is. Our brain knows when to release melatonin based on light exposure.

3. Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is also one of the causes of insomnia. 

When you experience RLS, you often have the forceful urge to move your legs when it’s rested.

It’s painful. And it creates this awful sensation especially at night that stops you from falling asleep. 


Part of the reason is that with RLS, the only way to get relief is to move your limbs. And moving your legs doesn’t help your body to wind down.

Sometimes the need to move could be so strong that it leads to involuntary limb jerks. That either happens right before you sleep or during sleep.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that between 7 and 10 percent of people in the US have RLS. 

And it happens whether you’re male or female, although it’s more prevalent for women. 

While moderate symptoms are about twice per week, more intense cases of RLS tend to experience symptoms three times or more in a week.

Not only does RLS lead to sleep deprivation, but it also increases daytime sleepiness.

4. Hormonal changes

Studies have shown that women who experience the onset of menses or menopause are more likely to experience higher cases of insomnia.

In one study, researchers did an exploratory investigation into adolescence. They found that the start of menses more than doubled the risk for insomnia. 

Menses were strongly linked with the difficulty to maintain stay asleep. Also, post menses girls had an increased risk for this type of insomnia than boys.

So why is that the case? Why does menses cause insomnia? 

Researchers from Duke University Medical Center examined this. Their findings were published in the journal, Psychology Medicine.

The findings suggest that during menses, hormones like testosterone and estrogen increase depression risk for girls, compared to boys.

These hormonal changes affect the mood of girls and increase social pressure. And this pressure often leads to troubles in staying asleep and other non-restorative sleep problems

All of these problems are strongly linked to the physiological causes of insomnia.

5. Gastrointestinal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is an uncomfortable experience. 

It’s when food contents in the stomach get back up into the esophagus.

GERD is more common than you’d think. Research estimates that between 18.1% and 27.8% in North America experience GERD.

Whenever you eat something that your body does not accept or the timing of eating is not right. 

The stomach reacts to it, and all stomach acids travel up to our esophagus and cause acidity. 


It is an inconvenience for the person and results in constant burps. And it often is the cause of chronic insomnia.

6. Chronic pain

Persistent pain like Arthritis may make it difficult for your body to become less alert and wind down.

Winding down is key to falling asleep. 

Chronic pain means you’re more alert either focused on the pain or trying to ignore the pain. It’s not a good feeling.

If you’re suffering from chronic pain, listening to music while sleeping can be a good distraction. 

Whether it’s back pain or neck pain or any kind of pain, music takes your mind off the pain.

study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing reported that listening to music can help distract from pain in the postoperative period.

If the pain is due to stiffness and a lack of mobility, doing some bedtime stretches can help.

Point is: you might want to find something that can take your mind and alertness off the pain.

7. Bruxism

Bruxism is one of the causes of insomnia. Bruxism is when you grind your teeth at night. 

It’s involuntary. And even sometimes unconscious. But it happens at night when you’re sleeping. 

The tension of grinding of the teeth happens makes it difficult to relax your body. Because it’s benign, you might not even know you’re doing it.

Bruxism as behavior can last for years. Sometimes, it’s your dentist who brings it to your attention.

When unchecked, bruxism can evolve into bigger challenges that can hurt your health. Jaw pain, broken teeth, and headaches are a few of those health risks.


8. Surgery

After surgery, be it minor or major, a lot of people think that they will be able to heal and recover fast by sleeping well. 

But, the truth is that it can be hard to get better sleep after surgery. There are many reasons, which may vary from one person to another.

Take for example anesthesia. Contrary to normal belief, anesthesia cannot replace a person’s normal sleep cycle. 

So after waking up from an operation, you may face sleep debt for some time. 

Anesthesia can also induce a kind of fatigue in your body which may get worse if you have not slept well in the days leading to the operation. 

Some other factors like stress and anxiety over the upcoming surgery could affect your sleep schedule and cause trouble later on.

9. Excessive alcohol 

Although alcohol helps people to sleep faster, it adversely affects the quality and hours of sleep.

It has many negative effects such as blockage of REM sleep, breathing problems, and snoring which can be explained medically. 

Drinking alcohol right before bed has also been linked to sleep paralysis.

“Alcohol tricks people into thinking they are getting better sleep,” says Scott Krakower, DO. 

He is an addiction specialist at North Shore-LIJ in Mineola, N.Y. “People who drink alcohol often think their sleep is improved, but it is not.”