What Is the Difference Between Insomnia and Sleep Apnea?

If you’re experiencing chronic tiredness on a daily basis, there’s a good chance you’re suffering from one of two common sleep problems: insomnia and sleep apnea.

In this article, we’ll be breaking down the difference between these disorders, including causes, symptoms, and possible treatments.

Although the cure may not always be easy, chronic tiredness is not inevitable for most people.

Feeling tired all the time is not something you have accept as a fact of life.

You just have to know what you’re up against.

Image: woman with insomnia stares at the clock. It's the 3am. Why can't she sleep?What Is Insomnia?

Let’s start by laying out some basic terms.

Insomnia, for its part, is defined by the National Sleep Foundation as “difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even when a person has the chance to.”

There isn’t really any clear distinction between insomnia and trouble sleeping – and in fact, the couple days or weeks many of us experience during particularly stressful life events are referred to as “acute insomnia.”

Although acute insomnia can make your life seriously miserable for a short amount of time, it will typically go away on its own after it’s run its course.

Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, describes insomnia that refuses to quite.

It’s typically said to involve getting at least three nights of low-quality sleep every week for three months in a row.

Typically, this low-quality sleep is marked by one or more of the following: difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and difficulty getting back to sleep after you’ve woken up.

Some insomniacs might find themselves taking hours to get to sleep at night.

Others might wake up multiple times throughout the night, while still others may wake up long before their alarms and be unable to get back to sleep.

Regardless of how it’s manifesting itself, insomnia invariably leaves you feeling exhausted, often despite whatever amount of time you’ve allotted for getting to sleep.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea, meanwhile, has a much more precise medical definition than insomnia.

It’s defined by pauses between breaths when sleeping, resulting in interrupted sleep.

There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, and central sleep apnea.

Of these, obstructive sleep apnea is by far the more common.

It results from issues with the muscles at the back of your throat.

These muscles, which support your soft palate, are too relaxed while you’re sleeping.

This results in your airway narrowing or even closing as you try to breath in, threatening your oxygen supply.

Your brain freaks out when it sees this happening, causing you to briefly wake up to suck in more air.

This can happen as often as 30 times each hour – but the thing is, these awakenings are often so brief you don’t have any memory of them when you get up in the morning.

Being woken up so often makes it impossible for your brain to process into the deeper stages of sleep, which leaves you exhausted come morning no matter how much sleep you get at night.

Meanwhile, the other, less common form of sleep apnea – central sleep apnea – results from your brain not sending signals to your diaphragm at the right time while you’re asleep, which again leaves you waking up gasping for breath.

Unlike obstructive sleep apnea, this form of the disorder usually results in true awakening, which means it can sometimes be difficult to get back to sleep.

Image: exhausted womanSymptoms of Insomnia and Sleep Apnea

Because insomnia and sleep apnea both result in overall sleep loss, the most major issue associated with them is simply daytime fatigue.

In addition to this, sleep apnea patients often also suffer from:

  • Loud snoring
  • Heart problems and high blood pressure. This comes from the sudden drops in oxygen levels in your bloodstream, which put strain on your cardiovascular system.
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Liver problems
  • Complications when undergoing To avoid problems breathing when unconscious, be sure your doctor knows about your sleep apnea before they put you under.

Symptoms of insomnia, meanwhile, include:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of focus
  • Memory problems
  • Increased errors
  • Constant worries about getting enough sleep

If your sleep apnea results in major sleep deprivation, you may experience many of the same symptoms as an insomniac.

The Link Between These Two Disorders

In fact, the common ground between sleep apnea and insomnia is greater than you might think.

Various studies have found that between 39% and 58% of people suffering from obstructive sleep apnea are also suffering from insomnia.

Additionally, many insomniacs suffer from a sleep apnea-like condition known as upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS), which results in difficulty breathing when asleep or falling asleep.

Although the pauses between breaths aren’t long enough to be properly classified as sleep apnea per se, UARS can trigger a stress response in your body because it feels like you’re suffocating.

This can make it much more difficult to sleep – especially since the physiological stress response often brings with it stressful thoughts, which can turn into a downward spiral of stress and worry.

Does Your Partner Have Sleep Apnea or Insomnia?

Because both of these disorders come with noticeable outward signs, romantic partners of individuals suffering from sleep apnea and insomnia may be the first to notice – or at least, the first to suggest they seek help.

For sleep apnea, a good rule of thumb is that if you notice your partner suddenly gasping for breath in the middle of the night as if, say, their soft palate is too relaxed and is obstructing the movement of air through their windpipe, it might be time to suggest a visit to a sleep specialist.

Similarly, if your partner stays up late tossing and turning, or lies for hours every night looking at some electronic device, you might want to talk to them about possible insomnia treatments.

Neither of these disorders is untreatable – but you do need to be willing to open yourself up for help.

Here’s what treatment typically entails…

Image: man with CPAP machine sleeping with his wifeHow to Cure Sleep Apnea

The cures for obstructive sleep apnea is typically a bit simpler than those for insomnia, though they’re not always easier.

The most common treatment involves the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).

A CPAP machine is basically just a mask with a tube attached to it that supplies a continuous, mild pressure to your soft palate while you sleep.

This helps keep your soft palate open, rather than drooping down and obstructing airflow.

The main issue with CPAP machines, however, is that many find their straps cumbersome and uncomfortable.

Some simply give up after a few nights of troubled sleep.

However, with persistence, you’ll likely find yourself sleeping far better than before after a couple weeks.

If using a CPAP machine is simply unbearable for you, however, you can also try a number of different oral appliances designed to keep your throat open without you having to put on a mask.

Note, however, that these are not typically as effective as CPAP machines, and can only be used in cases of mild obstructive sleep apnea.

If, on the other hand, you use a CPAP and continue to have trouble with sleep apnea, you’ll either have to turn to a more powerful airway pressure device, or else undergo one of a number of possible surgeries.

Additionally, a number of more non-invasive remedies have also proven effective in treating sleep apnea.

For instance, something as simple as sleeping on your side or stomach rather than your back can dramatically reduce sleep apnea symptoms.

Additionally, more major lifestyle choices like losing weight or refraining from alcohol or cigarettes can also play a role in reducing symptoms.

How to Cure Insomnia

Insomnia, on the other hand, is a much more psychologically-based condition than sleep apnea.

Although in extreme cases some insomniacs may resort to prescription sleeping pills, these often come with some genuinely worrying side effects and should only be used as a last resort.

Instead, insomnia cures typically involve more active changes in habits and lifestyle.

Some commonly effective treatments include:

  • Blocking out all outside light from entering your room at night
  • Stopping all electronics use at least half an hour before bed (if at all possible, avoid use of electronics in bed)
  • Avoiding heavy meals in the hours before bed
  • Setting a definitive buffer zone between the night and the rest of your day. For at least half an hour before going to bed, avoid any kind of stressful work or obligations
  • Reserving the bedroom for nothing but sex and sleep
  • Developing healthy bedtime rituals such as reading, taking a hot shower, or doing other soothing activities
  • Taking up meditation
  • Exercising regularly
  • Keeping a daily worry journal to release bottled-up stress

If self-help techniques like these prove ineffective, consult a sleep specialist.

He or she may be able to offer you help in the form of further sleep education or, if necessary, a cognitive behavioral therapy regimen.


Insomnia and sleep apnea are both very serious medical conditions that can have a major impact on patients’ basic quality of life.

Seeking appropriate treatment for these disorders is vital for returning to a healthy, happy life.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for treatment when you’re dealing with any sleep-related condition.

You don’t have to do this on your own.