Insomnia – an epidemic of our times


It is estimated that only 70% of people get enough sleep at night.

The incidence of insomnia is on the rise  –  so much so that it is labelled an epidemic by the medical world.

Insomnia defined

So, what is it that stops people from drifting off at night? The South African Society of Sleep Medicine defines insomnia as an experience of inadequate or poor-quality sleep. The insomniac may battle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up in the early hours – exhausted. Sleep deprivation, especially long-term deprivation, can have devastating effects on a person’s physical and mental health.  The ramifications for the sufferer’s family, social and career life can be equally devastating. People have been known to lose jobs and families because of insomniac fall-out. The older you get, especially if you’re a woman, the more likely you are to experience insomnia.

Between 30 and 40 percent of adults will encounter some sleeping problems during the course of a year.  For 10 to 15 percent, however, the insomnia is chronic and severe – a genuine psychiatric disorder.


Stress, illness, noise, temperature, or even jetlag can prevent sleep in the short term.  But if the sufferer has difficulty sleeping three nights a week for more than a month, the condition becomes chronic.

While insomnia can be caused by psychiatric, medical and neurological disorders, this is the case in less than 50 percent of sufferers. Mood and anxiety disorders may also be big culprits.  Other factors to be taken into account include pain, immobility, difficulty breathing, dementia, hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy or menopause and gastro-oesophageal reflux. Substances, including prescription and recreational drugs, can also cause lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep. Other sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome or sleep apnoea may also account for nightly wakefulness.

Psychiatric insomnia

Psychiatric or primary insomnia is the condition diagnosed when all other causes are ruled out. It may be attributed to various factors, including chronic stress, poor sleeping habits and behavioural conditioning. Be that as it may, sufferers need treatment.

Doctors routinely prescribe pharmaceutical medication for insomniacs.  Evidence does however exist that this is not desirable in the long term and medicated sleep is not necessarily the most restful.

Studies over the last few years have shown that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most effective long-term treatment for insomnia. CBT for insomnia is a structured programme that helps you identify and replace thoughts and behaviors that cause or worsen sleep problems with habits that promote sound sleep. Unlike sleeping pills, CBT helps you overcome the underlying causes of your sleep problems.

If you are among those having difficulty sleeping, find out from a medical professional whether there is a facility in your neighbourhood that offers the treatment you need.

By Linda Cilliers

Image Source: Nadine Kovalchuk

Please note: The content on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Related Posts