Insomnia Vs Sleep Apnea: Know The Real Difference

It’s frustrating to deal with, treat, and diagnose sleep disorders, including insomnia and sleep apnea. In cases where both sleep apnea and insomnia are present, the situation becomes even more severe.

If the lines between these two sleep disorders start to blur, it might be hard to figure out what’s causing your strange sleep patterns.

The most common sleep issue is insomnia. In fact, around half of the population has occasional symptoms. But about 10% of Americans have chronic insomnia. Also, about 22 million Americans have sleep apnea.

While both of these issues can prevent you from getting enough sleep, there are important distinctions between them.

Read on to learn the main differences between these two common sleep disorders.



Insomnia is the most frequent form of sleep problem. It is defined as having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep most nights, despite having the time and space to sleep.

Other indicators include early morning awakenings, an inability to get back to sleep, and periods of disturbed sleep. Some potential side effects of insomnia are increased irritation, fatigue, and impaired focus. But, these symptoms may manifest differently from person to person.

Although insomnia can occur for no apparent reason, it is often a symptom of underlying physical and mental health conditions. These could be:

  • depression
  • thyroid issues
  • hypertension
  • heart disease
  • asthma
  • arthritis
  • nasal allergies
  • sinus infections.

Also, various sleep problems, like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, might be related to insomnia.

General insomnia can last anywhere from a single night to several weeks, while chronic insomnia can last months or even years. Other forms of insomnia include transient insomnia, which lasts only a few nights, and intermittent insomnia, which returns but for shorter periods each time.

The underlying causes of sleep disruption are the primary factor in deciding the treatment approach. Nonetheless, treating the root cause of insomnia requires changing one’s lifestyle. Some examples include:

  • avoiding distractions
  • limiting day naps
  • eating light food at night
  • refraining from caffeine and smoking

Insomnia can be avoided by following a healthy sleep routine early, consulting a doctor if necessary, and modifying any medications that may be contributing factors.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a fatal sleep disorder characterized by brief, but frequent, breathing interruptions while sleeping. Those over the age of 40 have a higher prevalence of sleep apnea, while women are more likely to go undiagnosed.

Sleep apnea is more likely to happen as you:

  • get older
  • drink more alcohol
  • take sleeping pills
  • are overweight
  • have heart problems
  • have had a stroke
  • have had a head injury

Although there are various forms of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea is the most prevalent. Causes include structural abnormalities like big tonsils or a large uvula and conditions like obesity and asthma, which can cause the airway to become narrow and obstructed.

When you look at the pathophysiology of sleep apnea, you see that the person has difficulty breathing because airflow into the lungs is blocked. This situation makes them work harder to breathe and creates a suction force in the upper airway.

This scenario will show airflow breakdown and the sound of uncontrolled snoring. Also, periodic messages will be transmitted to the brain to encourage the relaxation of airway muscles in response to low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels in the blood.

The technique will cause the subject to alternate between periods of normal sleep and moments of jarring wakeup accompanied by a loud gasp.

Getting rid of sleep apnea often requires finding and treating the underlying medical problem that is causing it. Changes to one’s lifestyle, such as regular exercise, weight loss, a healthy diet, and not smoking or drinking, will also help recovery.

Difference Between Insomnia And Sleep Apnea

Difference Between Insomnia And Sleep Apnea

What sets them apart is their root cause. The occurrence of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is unquestionably the most frequent of the three kinds of sleep apnea. Physical obstructions to airflow are the most common cause of OSA.

If a person has problems breathing while sleeping due to a blockage, their nervous system may rouse them up to allow them to take a breath. Likewise, insomnia can occur if people predisposed to worry, stress, and depression have problems falling asleep after waking up.

Anxiety, stress, depression, and menopause are hormonal and behavioral factors that can lead to insomnia. Stimulants like nicotine, caffeine, heavy drinking, drug abuse, and over-the-counter medications can also trigger insomnia.

It is easy to diagnose and treat Sleep apnea. But, insomnia is more difficult to detect and treat due to its complex etiology and lack of a simple solution.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy treats and keeps sleep apnea under control. Unfortunately, even though many people with sleep apnea try home remedies to relieve their symptoms, these treatments will only mask the problem.

If you deal with sleep apnea, your doctor will likely prescribe CPAP therapy as a guaranteed approach to help you get better sleep.

While sleep apnea has a single, effective treatment, insomnia does not. Prescription sleep aids are the most common treatment option. Some other options include cognitive behavioral therapy, stimuli control, and alternative medicine.

It can be a long and tough road to discover the root of the sleeplessness and find an effective treatment; sleep apnea is occasionally the culprit.

How Does the Doctor Determine If You Have Sleep Apnea Or Insomnia?

How Does the Doctor Determine If You Have Sleep Apnea Or Insomnia

An overnight sleep study is a gold standard for diagnosing sleep apnea. This standard is often carried out in a sleep lab under the watchful eye of a sleep physician. Measurements taken during sleep include the following, as reported by the US National Library of Medicine:

  • Brain activity
  • Levels of blood oxygen
  • Pulse rate
  • Breathing rate
  • Eye and leg movement

Another option is to do a sleep apnea test at home with the help of a portable kit. According to the US National Library of Medicine, the following data is collected during home sleep studies:

  • Pulse rate
  • Breathing rate
  • Levels of blood oxygen
  • Snoring

The diagnostic findings will reveal whether your breathing disrupts during sleep and, if so, how frequently. According to the US National Library of Medicine, sleep apnea is present if there are more than five instances of shallow or stopped breathing during the night.

But after you get tested, your supervising doctor can tell you more about what’s happening.

A clinical interview with the patient is mainly used to decide whether or not they have insomnia. Even though it’s not required for diagnosis, keeping a sleep diary or wrist actigraphy can reveal trends in your insomnia symptoms. Doing this can help your doctor decide on treatment.

If your physician has determined that you have insomnia, they may suggest you participate in a sleep study. This participation ensures that no underlying medical issues, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, are to blame.

The Bottom Line

If left untreated, insomnia and sleep apnea can significantly influence your health and happiness. But these are two different problems requiring different approaches to therapy.

The first step toward getting a decent night’s sleep again may be figuring out if you have insomnia, sleep apnea, or both.

Despite being very common, sleep apnea and insomnia are very different from each other and have varied symptoms. Both conditions are difficult to manage because there is currently no cure available for either one of them.

Cognitive behavioral treatment may be perfect for insomnia, whereas CPAP therapy will help with sleep apnea. However, to control either of these diseases, you must consider making serious adjustments to your way of life. But, again, this is regardless of the therapy options at your disposal.

You should go for therapy, take your prescribed medications, lose weight, eat well, and get plenty of sleep.

Sarah Wagner

I'm Sarah Wagner, and I founded Sweet Island Dreams in 2022. It's a blog dedicated to helping people mental vacation virtually anytime they want. By providing information about the best sleep of your life, I help people drift away to paradise without ever having to leave their bed!