Sleep Apnea vs. Insomnia: Guide + Differences

Sleep apnea vs. insomnia — how do they differ? Stellar Sleep explores the key differences as well as what you can do about each.

When you’re not getting quality sleep, it can impact every part of your life — how you feel physically, your reaction time, your mood, and even your long-term health. Learning what may be keeping you up at night is one of the first steps in making a plan to counteract these effects.

Two of the most common sleep disturbances — sleep apnea and insomnia — may seem similar, but they actually have significantly different treatment plans. Here is a guide to sleep apnea and insomnia and what you can do if you suspect you might be dealing with either.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Let’s start with sleep apnea, a common condition affecting millions worldwide. Sleep apnea causes the body to stop breathing during sleep, leading to a lack of oxygen in the entire body. 

The impact of untreated sleep apnea can impact a person’s ability to concentrate, remember things, and make decisions. Chronic sleep apnea has also been linked to a variety of serious health problems, including heart problems, diabetes, obesity, and a lowered immune system. 

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is divided into two different types — central and obstructive. 

Central sleep apnea is caused by a dysfunction in the part of the brain that controls how you breathe while you are asleep. This dysfunction can be related to genetics or certain health conditions but can also be triggered by lifestyle choices and opioid use.

Obstructive sleep apnea is more physical in nature and is caused by an obstruction in the upper part of the airway during sleep. Certain factors, like family history, enlarged tonsils, hormone imbalances, and obesity, can increase your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea.

What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

The symptoms of sleep apnea aren’t always obvious to the person dealing with it. Most people find out that they may have this sleep disorder because their partners make them aware of their symptoms.

Commonly, these symptoms include loud snoring, breathing that may seem to suddenly stop, or gasping for air as you sleep. This lack of quality sleep translates into more subtle signs and symptoms, including daytime sleepiness, frequent headaches, and dry mouth. 

Women also tend to have different symptoms of sleep apnea than men. Specifically, they are more likely to exhibit anxiety and depression related to sleep apnea.

What Is Insomnia?

The other common sleep disturbance is insomnia, which can impact both the amount and quality of sleep you get. Insomnia can be either acute or chronic (occurring at least three nights a week for at least three months), which comes with its own set of risks and health impacts. 

The longer you go without getting a good night’s rest, the higher your likelihood of developing diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), and heart disease.

What Causes Insomnia?

While insomnia can be caused by physical issues, it is far more likely to be triggered by mental or lifestyle factors. Diet, sleep hygiene, and stress level are a few of the more common triggers of insomnia.

People who work alternate shifts, like night shifts, or travel frequently are also generally more at risk for developing insomnia. Like sleep apnea, insomnia is also thought to be more common in women, especially during pregnancy or menopause.

What Are the Symptoms of Insomnia?

Insomnia can impact two different parts of the sleep cycle — falling asleep and staying asleep.

Common symptoms of insomnia include:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Increased mental health symptoms, especially anxiety and depression
  • Lying in bed at night, unable to fall asleep
  • Sleeping only in short bursts or waking frequently in the middle of the night
  • Waking up earlier than intended and being unable to fall back asleep
  • Waking up feeling like you didn’t get quality rest

If you’re wondering if you may be dealing with insomnia, take our free sleep quiz. We’d love to help you narrow down what may be stopping you from getting quality sleep and help you come up with a plan to fight it.

What Are the Main Differences Between Sleep Apnea and Insomnia?

Sleep apnea vs. insomnia — there are plenty of factors that make them similar, but what makes them different?

The main difference between the two is how they impact the physical body. Sleep apnea is nearly always the result of a physical issue, while insomnia is far more likely to be caused by a psychological component. Sleep apnea is also treated by wearing a CPAP at night (more on this in a moment), while insomnia should be treated with a far more psychological approach. 

How Are These Conditions Diagnosed?

Diagnosing sleep apnea and insomnia requires slightly different approaches — so the method used will depend on which the provider is leaning toward.

For example, sleep apnea diagnosis revolves around the results of a sleep study. Sleep studies, which can be done at home or in a sleep lab, monitor for periods of apnea while you sleep. At the end of the night, those periods are quantified so that providers can decide the most effective treatment options. 

Insomnia isn’t quite as black and white. Because it’s rarely due to a physical condition, diagnosing insomnia typically involves keeping a self-reported sleep diary and discussing your symptoms with a professional. 

It’s generally best to keep this sleep diary for at least a week or two, writing down when you fall asleep and when you wake up, any naps you may take, and how sleepy you feel during the day. If you drink caffeine or exercise, note that as well.

However, that doesn’t mean that sleep studies aren’t useful for insomnia — if your provider suspects a physical reason behind your sleep disturbances, like a circadian rhythm disorder, a sleep study can help discover that, too. 

How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?

Sleep apnea treatment depends on the results of the sleep study. 

If sleep apnea is severe enough, treatment usually includes wearing a CPAP machine. CPAP (short for continuous positive airway pressure) machines provide mild pressure with optional oxygen delivery that helps to keep the upper airways open during sleep.

How Is Insomnia Treated?

Because of the many causes of insomnia, treatment must start with investigating what may be triggering these issues. Often, this begins by ruling out any physical causes first, then moving on to address psychological issues that may be playing a role.

Counteracting life stressors, creating healthy sleep habits, and seeking out cognitive behavioral therapy focused on insomnia (CBT-I) are effective components of insomnia management. There are also official insomnia medications available, although these are often used as a last resort.

How To Support Your Sleep Quality With Insomnia or Sleep Apnea

While sleep apnea and insomnia have different triggers and causes, the result is still poor quality sleep in both situations. In addition to seeking an official diagnosis and treatment plan (especially in the case of sleep apnea), there are other ways to support your overall sleep quality. 

Focusing on creating a better sleep routine can be an excellent way to do this. All the factors surrounding your sleep routine — from your daily habits to your physical sleeping environment — are known as sleep hygiene. Those dealing with poor sleep, for any reason, also frequently have poor sleep hygiene. 

Factors like room temperature and darkness, technology usage, diet, exercise, and routine can all play a role in the quality and quantity of your sleep, and are all parts of your sleep hygiene. 

To practice better sleep hygiene and support a good night’s rest, try the following tips:

  • Keep your room cool and comfortable. 
  • Turn out the lights and close your curtains to block outside light. 
  • Do your best to put screens away at least an hour before bed. 
  • Avoid caffeine in the late afternoons and evenings. 
  • Exercise during the day, but not too close to bedtime. 
  • Give yourself time to wind down before crawling into bed.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to sleep apnea and insomnia, both sleep disorders significantly impact how well-rested you feel when you wake up in the morning. This can have a wide-reaching impact on the rest of your life. 

If you’re ready to get better quality sleep, start by taking our free sleep quiz. Don’t suffer through another night of poor sleep — take charge with Stellar Sleep.



What are Sleep Disorders? |

What Is Sleep Apnea? | NHLBI, NIH

What Is Insomnia? | NHLBI, NIH


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