There’s a song in the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Iolanthe that begins, “When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is taboo’d by anxiety….” and goes on to describe a horrendous night that begins with sleeplessness and ends with a horrible dream.

W. S. Gilbert, it seems, was no stranger to insomnia. Nor are roughly three million Canadians, who also find it hard to fall asleep, don’t sleep soundly, or wake up early and can’t go back to sleep.

Insomnia can be caused by dozens of things. For most people, it’s an occasional thing, triggered by a change in routine such as starting a new job, going into the hospital or moving into a new home. Other occasional causes can include stress, noise (late-night parties at the neighbors’, for instance), being too hot or too cold or jet lag. (Even fear of insomnia can cause insomnia–worrying about whether or not you’re going to fall asleep pretty much insures that you won’t!) Alcohol, caffeine or cigarettes just before going to bed can also cause insomnia.

Chronic insomnia, however, may be caused by something more serious–a medical problem such as depression, pain or breathing difficulties. Certain drugs have insomnia as a side-effect. And then there are some people who are just born poor sleepers.

Insomnia is more often reported by women than men, and occurs more frequently in people older than 60.

There are a lot of ways to prevent insomnia, obviously beginning with avoiding some of the causes mentioned above. Other methods include establishing a bedtime ritual that tells your body that it is time to go to sleep now (hey, it works with babies), taking a stroll or a warm bath, or drinking a glass of warm milk (milk boosts the production of a sleep-enhancing compound called serotonin in the brain).

But once you’re in bed and unable to sleep, what then? Sleeping pills aren’t always effective, and they can have side-effects, such as confusion and poor balance. Prescription medicines such as Valium help some people sleep, but once the prescription ends, they may suffer from even worse insomnia due to withdrawal.

Most people opt for something a little less drastic, such as counting sheep, a technique for falling asleep that dates back to at least Gilbert’s day.

Unfortunately, a study recently conducted at Oxford has discovered counting sheep doesn’t work. Researchers Allison Harvey and Suzanna Payne asked 50 insomniacs to try different techniques: one group counted sheep, another imagine a relaxing, tranquil scene like a waterfall or a beach, and a third control group did nothing specific.

Imagining a tranquil scene proved most effective; those who took that approach fell asleep more than 20 minutes earlier than if they did nothing. Those who counted sheep, however, took just as long to fall asleep as the control group. “Picturing an engaging scene takes up more brain space than the same dirty old sheep,” was how Harvey put it.

Counting sheep wasn’t the only heralded sleep-inducing technique that proved ineffective. A new, highly touted method called “thought suppression,” in which the insomniac attempts to block an anxious or negative thought by burying it as soon as it occurs, also failed. A group using though suppression actually took 10 minutes longer to fall asleep than if they did nothing at all, probably because attempting not to think about something is almost impossible–like telling someone not to think about polar bears. Pretty soon, all they can think about is polar bears.

People with chronic insomnia can’t rely on merely picturing a tranquil scene, however; they may require additional therapy. Possibilities include relaxation therapy, sleep restriction (which limits the time in bed so people don’t lie there worrying about their failure to sleep), and reconditioning, in which people are trained to associate their bed–and bedtime–with sleep, by ensuring that they don’t use their beds for any other activity except sleep (well, and sex–which, by the way, also helps some people fall asleep). The person undergoing reconditioning is told to go to bed only when sleepy and to get up if unable to fall asleep and stay up until sleepy again.

Further research into the causes and cures of insomnia is vital, since scientists estimate that one in 10 people suffer from chronic insomnia and sleeplessness costs the U.S. economy alone $35 billion a year in absenteeism and accidents.

That’s a worrying figure. But, please–try not to lose any sleep over it.

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