Sleep disorders (insomnia)

Chronic sleep disorders are diagnosed when a person sleeps badly on more than three nights a week and this continues for more than a month. Taking prescription medications is only advisable for short periods.

At a glance

  • There are huge differences in how long people sleep.
  • But if a person sleeps badly on more than three nights a week for more than a month, this indicates that they have a chronic sleep disorder.
  • The commonest factors in disturbed sleep are stress, worries and physical symptoms.
  • Women and older people are most likely to suffer from sleep disorders and chronic sleeping problems.
  • Prescription medications such as benzodiazepines should not be taken over prolonged periods.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Sleep disturbances: older woman lying in bed clutching her head and looking at the ceiling. There is an alarm clock next to her on the bedside table.

What is a sleep disorder?

People are diagnosed with a chronic sleep disorder (insomnia) if they do not achieve restorative sleep for more than a month on more than three nights a week. They can discuss the causes behind this and how to treat it with their doctor.

Woman lying in bed looking at an alarm clock she is holding in her hand.

When does it count as a sleep disorder?

Sleep is classed as non-restorative when someone:

  • takes a long time to get to sleep.
  • sleeps fitfully and wakes up frequently in the night-time.
  • lies awake for long periods in the night-time.
  • wakes up earlier than usual in the morning and cannot get back to sleep.

Whether someone has trouble falling asleep or getting a good night’s sleep does not depend on their age.

How much sleep is normal?

Adults sleep for around 7 hours a night on average.

How long a person sleeps varies and depends on factors such as how old they are.

Some generally need less sleep, others more. On average,

  • children aged 6 and up sleep around 9 hours a night,
  • adults sleep approximately 7 hours,
  • older people over 80 only sleep for about 6 hours.

For more information about “normal” sleep, visit

What causes sleep disorders?

Causes of sleep disorders include shift work, grinding of teeth, noise, drugs, alcohol, caffeine, worry and stress.

There are many different factors that can prevent people from sleeping well:

What is obstructive sleep apnea?

The video below explains more about the symptoms, risk factors and treatment options for obstructive sleep apnea.

This and other videos can also be found on YouTube.

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How common are sleep disorders?

Up to a fifth of people experience problems falling asleep or getting a good night’s sleep.

Up to a fifth of people experience problems falling asleep or getting a good night’s sleep. Sleep disorders and chronic problems sleeping can occur at any age, even in small children. But it is more common in women and older people.

How is a sleep disorder diagnosed?

People who are having problems sleeping can consult a doctor. This allows medical causes to be ruled out and treatment options can be discussed.

Severe sleep disorders and lack of sleep can be investigated in a sleep laboratory where sleep is monitored over one or more nights and sleep stages are identified. This can determine, for example, whether a person had sufficient deep sleep and REM (dream) sleep and whether they have a sleep disorder.

How is a sleep disorder treated?

Treatment options for sleep disorders include household remedies, relaxation techniques, physical exercise, sleep hygiene, cognitive behavioral therapy.

There is a wide range of products and methods that are used to treat sleep disorders but their efficacy has not been properly studied:

  • household remedies such as a hot bath, a glass of warm milk or a cup of valerian tea before going to sleep
  • sleep-inducing or relaxing herbal products such as valerian
  • relaxation techniques: progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training and other techniques
  • physical activity: going for a walk in the evening, relaxed forms of exercise such as yoga, Tai Chi or Qigong
  • sleep hygiene: no heavy meals in the hours before going to sleep, less alcohol and coffee, not watching TV in bed, only going to sleep when really tired
  • cognitive behavioral therapy: this is a way of modifying thought patterns and behaviors that affect sleep. Combining it with relaxation techniques can also help. 

Important: Prescription sleeping tablets such as benzodiazepines have a number of side effects and can become addictive. They should therefore only be used for a limited period. People may still feel sleepy, find it hard to concentrate and be slower to respond the day after taking them. Older people are more likely to fall if they have taken sleeping tablets.

Melatonin is a hormone that is important for regulating circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycle). If this rhythm is disrupted by, for example, shift work or jet lag, medication containing melatonin or light therapy can be used.

For more detailed information, such as on relaxation techniques for sleep disorders, visit

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG). As at:

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