What causes insomnia, what are the symptoms of Tom Bradby's condition, are there sleep aids available and what is fatal familial insomnia?

MANY people struggle with their sleep, but if you've been finding it hard to nod off for a while then you could have insomnia.

The condition is common, thought to affect around one in every three Brits, with older people and women particularly prone to it.

Celebrities that have spoken out about the stressful sleep disorder include Lady Gaga, Christina Applegate, Kim Cattrall and former Eastenders star Hetti Bywater.

Here is everything you need to know about it, including the best tips to beat insomnia and get a good night's kip.

What is insomnia and what are the symptoms?

Insomnia is defined by the NHS as "difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning".

The symptoms of insomnia include difficulty dozing off, lying awake for a long time at night, waking up several times every night and not feeling refreshed when you get up.

In spite of their tiredness, sufferers may also find it hard to nap in the day, and may struggle to concentrate or become more irritable than usual due to their lack of sleep.

For some people, occasional bouts of insomnia will come and go, while others could have it for months or even years at a time.

What are the three types of insomnia?

There are many types of insomnia, but they are often broken down into three main ones – acute, chronic, and transient.

Transient insomnia is that which lasts less than one week, and is usually caused by something obvious like stress.

Acute insomnia, also known as short-term, is the most common. It only lasts a few weeks of someone's life. It usually comes along because of a stressful event, such as the death of someone you love, or because of pregnancy, for example. The coronavirus pandemic is also another key example.

Chronic insomnia is less common and is when someone has difficulty sleeping for at least three days per week for between one and three months. It can have no obvious cause (primary) or occur with another condition (secondary), such as sleep apnoea, depression, chemotherapy drugs or frequent jet lag.

Chronic insomnia can affect a person's life by making it harder to carry out daily tasks, like work or taking the kids to school.

Sometimes a person suffering with insomnia may have specific difficulties with getting to sleep or waking up too early, or have a mixture of all the types described.

What causes insomnia?

It is not always clear what causes insomnia, but stress and anxiety are common triggers.

A poor sleep environment, like an uncomfortable bed or a noisy bedroom, could also be a cause.

Otherwise, lifestyle factors like jet lag, shift work or boozing before bed can stop you getting a good night's sleep.

And, for others, physical and mental health conditions are behind their lack of sleep.

What is fatal familial insomnia?

Fatal familial insomnia is a rare inherited disease which affects the part of your brain responsible for controlling sleep.

It often begins in mid-life, with symptoms including progressive insomnia, weight loss, lack of appetite, too high or too low body temperature and rapidly progressive dementia.

As the disease progresses, sufferers may begin to hallucinate and suffer severe confusion and muscle spasm, with the dementia progressing to the point when sufferers can no longer walk and talk.

Total inability to sleep is common towards the end of the disease, with death usually coming 12-18 months after the first symptoms.

There is currently no cure for fatal familial insomnia.


What sleep aids are there to beat insomnia?

If you have insomnia, some simple tricks to get back into a normal sleep routine may help first.

The NHS advises that insomniacs could try the following to help get a good night's sleep:

  • Set regular times for going to bed and waking up
  • Relax before bed time – try taking a warm bath or listening to calming music
  • Use thick curtains or blinds, an eye mask and earplugs to stop you being woken up by light and noise
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, heavy meals and exercise for a few hours before going to bed
  • Don't watch TV or use phones, tablets or computers shortly before going to bed
  • Avoid napping during the day
  • Write a list of your worries, and any ideas about how to solve them, before going to bed to help you forget about them until the morning

Persistent sufferers have probably already tried to get into a good bedtime routine.

They may find that over-the-counter sleeping pills can help, but these aren't without their drawbacks.

Sometimes, these pills can cause unpleasant side effects, and using them fails to address the issues – it just deals with the symptoms. They are not deemed a cure.

You should see your GP if you're finding it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep and it's affecting your daily life, changing your sleep habits has not worked or you have had trouble sleeping for months on end.

They may suggest keeping a sleep diary and will check your medical history for a cause if the above measures don't help to ease your insomnia.

Sometimes you'll be referred to a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or be referred to a sleep clinic to see if you have a sleep disorder.

But don't hold out for sleeping pills, as GPs are reluctant to give them out due to patients becoming dependent on them, the NHS says.

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