DOI: 10.1111/jsr.13976 ISSN: 0962-1105

Circadian aspects in the aetiology and pathophysiology of insomnia

Leon C. Lack, Gorica Micic, Nicole Lovato
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • General Medicine


Because the endogenous circadian pacemaker is a very strong determinant of alertness/sleep propensity across the 24 h period, its mistiming may contribute to symptoms of insomnia (e.g., difficulties initiating sleep and maintaining sleep) and to the development of insomnia disorder. Despite the separation of insomnia and circadian rhythm disorders in diagnostic nosology implying independent pathophysiology, there is considerable evidence of co‐morbidity and interaction between them. Sleep onset insomnia is associated with later timed circadian rhythms and can be treated with morning bright light to shift rhythms to an earlier timing. It is also possible that the causal link may go in both directions and that having a delayed circadian rhythm can result in enough experiences of delayed sleep onset to lead to some conditioned insomnia or insomnia disorder further exacerbating a delayed circadian rhythm. Early morning awakening insomnia is associated with an advanced circadian phase (early timing) and can be treated with evening bright light resulting in a delay of rhythms and an improved ability to sleep later in the morning and to obtain more sleep. There is some evidence suggesting that sleep maintenance insomnia is associated with a blunted amplitude of circadian rhythm that may be treated with increased regularity of sleep and light exposure timing. However, this is an insomnia phenotype that requires considerably more circadian research as well as further insomnia clinical research with the other insomnia phenotypes incorporating circadian timing measures and treatments.

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