The Can’t Sleep Chronicles: Testing Old Wives’ Tales

The Can’t Sleep Chronicles: Testing Old Wives’ Tales

Hello again from Insomnia HQ, also known as my bedroom. My insomnia reared its rude head more than usual this past week, and my white noise machine and bedtime stories aren’t doing anything to remedy it.

I decided to turn to some of my favorite old-as-time solutions to see if there’s any merit to them. I’m going to give you both my personal experience with trying these cures and what the experts say.

1. Counting sheep

Anecdotal: Counting sheep is absolutely a form of meditation. It’s suggested for people new to meditation to get into it by closing their eyes and counting their breaths, and gently allowing their thoughts to flow in and out. The concept of counting sheep is similar, but imagining a sheep jumping over the moon (this is how I tried it) over and over and over again didn’t really allow me to let my thoughts flow. I was so focused on the visuals and remembering where I was that I was actually concentrating too hard on the task to relax.

Data: No dice for this method, according to an Oxford University study. The study found that subjects who were instructed to count sheep took longer to fall asleep than those who were instructed to simply imagine a relaxing scene. Why? The scientists believe counting sheep is just too boring to do for an extended period.

2. Warm milk

Anecdotal: I don’t drink dairy milk, so I warmed up some tryptophan-containing soy milk one evening before bed. It was… weird. I think this might just be too old-timey for my millennial self. I can firmly say that it did not put me to sleep.

Data: It’s hairy. Many studies find that the whole tryptophan element is hogwash, because it’s an amino acid that doesn’t enter our brains if consumed without carbs. A lot of studies suggest that the main reason warm milk before bed helps us to fall asleep is that it’s supposedly relaxing. So if the idea of sipping warm milk is relaxing to you, go for it.

3. …or a warm bath

Anecdotal: I took a bath at 2 a.m. this past week when I was fully awake. My mind was racing, I was tense, and I was hyper alert. There seemed to be no sleep in sight for me, so I figured, what could a bath hurt? I stayed in the tub for 30 minutes, toweled off, and crawled into bed. My body was so relaxed that I conked out in about 10 minutes.

Data: Science says yes! But not necessarily because of the muscle relaxation to which I attributed my warm bath and my subsequent snooze. On a recent episode of NPR’s Life Kit, neuroscientist and sleep specialist Matthew Walker explained that our core body temperature needs to drop by 2-3 degrees for us to sleep the night away. And to release the heat from our body, we need to get it out through our hands and feet. “What happens with a bath,” Walker explains on the podcast, “is you actually bring all of the blood to the surface. And your hands and your feet are wonderful radiators of that heat. So you are essentially like a snake charmer—you are charming the heat out of the core of your body to the surface of your body.”

4. Read a good book

Anecdotal: It works for me and I kind of hate that it does, because I can’t get through a book anymore. I feel like my brain and attention span are ruined thanks to smartphones, that when I concentrate on simply reading for a half hour or longer I just turn off.

Data: It turns out that the scientific evidence behind reading is that it reduces stress. A small study conducted by Sleep Junkie, those who read before bed slept an additional hour and a half more than their non-reading counterparts. But do you need to read something boring to fall asleep? No, according to Dr David Lewis, who conducted a study on reading and sleep in 2009 at the University of Exeter. “It really doesn’t matter what book you read,” he says to the Telegraph. “By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.”

5. Crank the A/C

Anecdotal: I absolutely can’t sleep in a remotely warm environment, so this is definitely a big fat yes for me. I’d actually say that, for me, sleeping in a cool room is a necessity. I’ve always just assumed it was a personal preference, though.

Data: Turns out science backs this one, too! Harking back to the warm bath evidence, our body temperature needs to drop a few degrees in order to sleep. “Our body temperatures follow a natural pattern of highs and lows during a 24-hour period,” writes Dr. Christopher Winter in the Huffington Post. “Sleep is typically initiated during the time when body temperature really starts to decline due to decreased heat production and increased heat loss.” How cold should we be making it? According to the Sleep Foundation, many experts agree that a temperature around 65 degrees is optimal for sleep. And here I thought setting my thermostat to 70 was excessive!

6. Just catch up on the weekend

Anecdotal: No, I can’t! I’m up at 6 every morning walking my dogs to avoid the summer heat. Weekends are busy in my house, even during this time. We’re always running errands, dropping something off at my mom’s, meal-prepping, or planning our weeks. I can’t just sleep in!

Data: The data’s with me on this one but not for the same reason. A Harvard Medical School study found that chronic sleep loss can’t be fixed by sleeping it off. “According to the study, even when you sleep an extra 10 hours to compensate for sleeping only 6 hours a night for up to two weeks, your reaction times and ability to focus is worse than if you had pulled an all-nighter,” says the Sleep Foundation.