Can't get to sleep when you hit the pillow, or struggling to actually stay asleep when you do drop off? Insomnia affects one in 20 young people in the UK. But what is insomnia, and what might be causing it? Read on to find out.

Three young people are standing in the street talking about insomnia

What does insomnia mean?

It’s normal to have trouble nodding off occasionally. But insomnia means you regularly have issues when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. 

Over a long period of time, chronic sleep problems can increase your risk factors for all kinds of health complications. If you’re still having trouble after trying to improve your sleep hygiene, speak to your GP.

What causes insomnia?

There are many causes of insomnia, most of which can be dealt with pretty easily. But if you’ve had difficulty sleeping for a month or more you could be suffering from chronic insomnia, which can be a little more challenging. You can learn more about that in our article on sleep disorders

The causes of and techniques for how to cure insomnia include:

Your mattress

An uncomfy mattress may be to blame for keeping you up at night. Aim to strike a balance between comfort and support. Your spine should be level when lying on your back, without being too hard on your shoulders or hips. If it’s all a bit soggy, try boosting support by slipping a board underneath the mattress.

Lack of exercise

Not exercising can leave you feeling restless and twitchy. Working out on a regular basis will help you burn up that excess energy, but don’t do it last thing at night. Sleep won’t come easily unless you give yourself time to wind down first.


Being unwell can cause sleep loss, especially if you’re in pain or suffering from respiratory disorders. If it’s a long-term problem, or it’s really causing you grief, your GP may be able to help.


Sex certainly helps some people drop off, but it can have the opposite effect on many others. If you’re enjoying regular sheet action last thing at night, but it’s leaving you awake afterwards, then try rescheduling things and see if it makes a difference. 

Anxiety & stress

Both are common sleep obstacles, as personal problems can often seem worse when you’re lying awake in bed. Talking things through with someone you trust can get things in perspective. You could also ask your GP to recommend an appropriate course of counselling, or try The Mix’s free counselling service.


Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine (in tobacco), stimulants and some antidepressants can screw up your sleep patterns. Cutting down or quitting should hasten your arrival in the Land of Nod, but always seek the advice of your doctor if you’re taking prescribed medication and you suspect it’s keeping you awake.

Eating late at night

Eating last thing at night will only crank up your digestive system at a time when your body wants to slow down and recharge. Eating earlier might earn you more zeds, while avoiding the risk of heartburn and indigestion.

Long naps during the day

Most sleep specialists do recommend naps, but a nap that lasts longer than an hour can cause more problems than it solves. Experts reckon a 20-minute nap is the ideal length of time for a quick recharge, but there’s evidence that a long nap (around an hour) can be even more restorative when you set an alarm and don’t oversleep. 

Poor sleep hygiene

Chronic insomnia can be a side effect of poor sleep hygiene. What is sleep hygiene, you ask? 

Well, someone with good sleep hygiene maintains both a bedroom environment and daily routines that promote consistent, uninterrupted sleep. By keeping a stable sleep schedule, making your bedroom comfortable and free from blue light (from screens) and other disruptions, you can help your circadian rhythms (all the changes that happen to your body during a 24 hour cycle) be in sync with your daily activities, including actually sleeping. 

Following a relaxing pre-bed routine, as well as building healthy habits during the day can all contribute to good sleep hygiene. Maybe read a book before bedtime instead of playing Halo, or get out in the sunlight first thing in the morning so your body knows it’s time to start the day.

More support for sleep

You can find out even more about sleep and how to get better sleep in our article ‘how much sleep do I need’. We’ve also got a whole section of our website devoted to sleeping here

Whatever the cause of your insomnia (and it can be quite difficult to pin down sometimes), Sleepstation is a great resource for improving sleep quality, and you might even be able to get it free on the NHS, depending on where you live.

Next Steps


insomnia| sleep

By Holly Turner

Updated on 11-Oct-2022