Insomnia can mean both:

  • struggling to get to sleep
  • difficulty staying asleep

It’s a common problem thought to affect around 1 in every 3 people in the UK. It’s particularly common in elderly people.

Symptoms of insomnia

If you have insomnia, you might:

  • find it hard to fall asleep
  • lie awake at night
  • wake up several times during the night
  • wake up early in the morning and not be able to get back to sleep
  • not feel refreshed when you get up
  • feel tired and irritable during the day
  • have difficulty concentrating because you’re tired

Occasional episodes of insomnia can come and go without causing any serious problems. But, some people can have insomnia for months or even years at a time.

Persistent insomnia can have an impact on your quality of life. It can limit what you’re able to do during the day and affect your mood. It also can lead to relationship problems with friends, family and colleagues.

How much sleep do I need?

Everyone needs different amounts of sleep. 

Most adults sleep for 7 to 9 hours a night. Children and babies may sleep for much longer than this, whereas older adults may sleep less. What’s important is whether you feel you get enough sleep, and whether your sleep is good quality.

You’re probably not getting enough good-quality sleep if:

  • you always feel tired throughout the day
  • tiredness is affecting your everyday life

Speak to your GP practice if:

  • poor sleep quality is affecting your daily life
  • you’ve struggled with insomnia for over a month
  • improving your sleep hygiene has not helped

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia can be triggered by many factors. It’s not always possible to identify a clear cause.

The most common causes of insomnia are: 

  • stress, anxiety and depression 
  • noise
  • a room that’s too hot or cold 
  • uncomfortable bed
  • alcohol, caffeine or drugs
  • jet lag 
  • shift work 

If you feel unwell or think your sleep problems could be caused by medication please speak to your GP or pharmacist

Treating insomnia

Because the causes of insomnia vary, the treatments used can vary from person to person.

Self help

Insomnia can often be treated by improving your sleep hygiene.

To improve your sleep hygiene, you need to look at both your sleep environment and your daily behaviours.


  • make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet – use thick blinds, curtains, an eye mask or ear plugs
  • keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature for sleeping
  • make sure your mattress, covers and pillow are comfortable
  • exercise regularly during the day
  • create a relaxing bedtime routine, like taking a bath or listening to gentle music
  • write down any worries and ideas down before going to bed, so that you’re more likely to be able to forget them until morning
  • get up at a specific time each day and try to stick to this, even if you feel you’ve not had enough sleep


  • do not nap during the day
  • do not exercise for at least 4 hours before going to bed
  • do not drink caffeinated drinks (like tea, coffee or fizzy drinks) for a few hours before going to bed
  • do not drink alcohol or smoke shortly before going to bed
  • do not eat a big meal just before bedtime
  • do not go to bed before you feel tired – it’s better to stay up until you’re ready to fall asleep than to go to bed early and worry about not sleeping
  • do not use back-lit devices (like televisions, phones, tablets and computers) shortly before bed
  • do not use over-the-counter sleeping tablets
  • do not watch the clock when trying to sleep, as anxiety will only make your insomnia worse
  • do not use your bedroom for anything other than sleeping or sex
  • do not watch television, make phone calls, eat, or work in bed

If you’re struggling to fall asleep

If you find you cannot fall asleep and you’re growing anxious about it, you should:

  • get up and go to a different room
  • do a relaxing activity, like reading or listening to music
  • try going to sleep again in around 20 minutes, or whenever you feel tired again

Your GP will first try to identify and treat any underlying health condition that may be causing your sleep problems. If it’s possible to identify an underlying cause of your sleeping difficulties, treating this may be enough to return your sleep to normal.

Try a self-help guide

You could try our sleep problems and insomnia self-help guide. It covers topics like:

  • symptom of a sleep problem
  • causes of a sleep problem
  • improving your sleep
  • calming a busy mind

Try an online CBT course

You could try an online course like Sleepio. Sleepio is a digital sleep improvement programme based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT.) It’s clinically proven to help address the root causes of poor sleep and insomnia.


If changing your sleeping habits doesn’t help, your GP may refer you for a type of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for people with insomnia. This is called CBT-I.

CBT-I aims to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that contribute to insomnia. It’s an effective treatment for many people and can have long-lasting results.

Medication for insomnia

In some circumstances, medication over the counter or on prescription can be used to help with insomnia.

Medication can be effective in the short term but it can also cause insomnia to get worse, cause addiction, or other side effects.

Last updated:
31 May 2024