Insomnia is a disorder that makes it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep for long periods of time. About 30 percent of adults have this sleep disorder, but many manage to function even though they build up a massive sleep debt. That can lead to health problems down the road, sap energy, and affect mood and quality of life.

Sleep is a natural part of being human. Even animals need this form of recharging, and all mammals, reptiles and birds require sleep. It is a vital part of maintaining focus, good health and vigor.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports more than 50 million Americans have a long-term sleep disorder, with 20 million more suffering from occasional problems falling and staying asleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report a sleep behavior survey in which more than 37 percent of respondents reported falling asleep during the day at least once in the previous month.

Such a lack of sleep has been linked to increased accidents on the road and in industries, more paperwork errors, and even fatalities from accidents or inattention.

Additionally, Harvard Medical School did a study that claimed one in four people suffer from some form of insomnia for three nights a week or more.

Symptoms of Insomnia

Most adults should get seven to eight hours of sleep per night, but research has shown that the amount varies from person to person, as does the quality of sleep. Most adults will have a bout of insomnia at some point in their lives, particularly during stressful periods at work or in their personal lives.

Symptoms of insomnia include waking up during the night, difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early, not feeling refreshed after a night’s sleep, extreme tiredness during the day, irritability, anxiety, depression, lack of focus on tasks, memory lapses, increased frequency of accidents or work errors, headaches, upset stomach or intestinal problems, and extreme focus on the problems of lack of sleep.

Sometimes, insomnia cures itself. The cause of the stress vanishes or the medications that may cause the issue are changed or stopped. Lifestyle changes, such as resuming exercise, can also play a role in helping to restore healthy sleep patterns. But if insomnia persists, it may be time to speak with a doctor who can check for any underlying diseases that may cause the issue.

The Sources of Insomnia

Here are some typical reasons for insomnia:

1)     Stress -- Problems at work, school issues, romantic entanglements, concerns over family, a pending divorce and job loss – the list of potential stress issues seems endless. All can cause sleepless nights.

2)     Anxiety -- A close cousin of stress that can also include post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety affects most people at one time or another. Or it can be a pervasive problem.

3)     Depression – While some suffering from this mental affliction sleep a lot, others may find getting to sleep difficult. Mental health is crucial to the ability to fall asleep, and many mental disorders include sleep difficulties.

4)     Underlying medical conditions – Such symptoms as chronic pain, frequent urination, breathing difficulties and other issues may lead to insomnia. Diseases of the heart, lungs, thyroid and intestinal system have been linked to insomnia, as well as issues with cancer, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

5)     Environmental changes – Frequent travel can have a disorienting effect, particularly when crossing time zones, throwing off the inner body clock, or circadian rhythms. Shift workers also report sleep issues.

6)     Poor sleep conditions – Is your room too hot or too cold? Is it dark enough? Do you drink coffee or other stimulants late in the day? How about watching too much television or using the computer before bed? All can make falling asleep difficult.

7)     Medications – Many drugs speed up the metabolism and contain caffeine and other stimulants. If you are on antidepressants, blood pressure pills, heart pills, allergy medications or corticosteroids, speak to a doctor about how it might affect sleep.

8)     Alcohol – While a few drinks can help people relax and fall asleep, your internal organs must process them, which can stimulate metabolism. If you wake up, you may have trouble getting back to sleep.

9)     Food late in the evening – A huge meal before bedtime is never a good idea. Some people who have heartburn or acid reflux may find sleep difficult.

The Age Effect

Getting older may also be a cause of less sleep. More responsibilities can induce stress, and the cycle of life may change with the onset of children. Going to be earlier usually leads to getting up earlier, but in reality, older people need as much sleep as younger people. Being less active physically or socially can lead to troubled sleep.

Older people may be more likely to suffer from arthritis or other issues, such as an enlarged prostate gland, which can lead to getting up in the night to urinate. Women who are undergoing menopause may also be awakened by hormonal changes.

Insomnia Solutions for More Shuteye

Fortunately, there are numerous ways to help live with insomnia or even cure it. There are behavioral therapies that can promote good sleep habits, and they are generally the first choice to help patients who have issues with sleep.

Behavior therapies include education about good sleep habits; cognitive therapy to control the worries that may lead to insomnia; relaxation techniques that can promote a state where easing into sleep occurs; stimulus control, which means no TV or computer time before bed; sleep deprivation, which can make you tired enough to fall asleep at a more regular time; and light therapy, which can work on resetting the internal clock.

There are prescription medications that can induce sleep, including such commercial brands as Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata and Rozerem. These are short-term solutions for the most part, designed to ease the patient into new behavior patterns while providing a crutch. Over-the-counter medications have side effects that may affect sleep quality, but short-term use can help.

Sleep problems can be cured. Exercise, lifestyle changes, a physical exam, and perhaps a change in medications or diet all can help in the quest for a restful and relaxing night’s sleep.