5 Common Insomnia Cures: Do They Really Work?

We put warm milk, counting sheep and more under the microscope.

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1. A mug of warm milk

Mum was right on this one, although not for the reason you've probably heard. Conventional wisdom says that milk lulls you to sleep because it contains tryptophan, a soporific amino acid also found in turkey. But recent studies have found tryptophan isn't very effective when it's ingested alongside a lot of protein – which milk contains in spades.

So why does warm milk make you drowsy? Most likely, it's just plain comforting, according to a myth-busting New York Times article, and a glass before bed also means you're less likely to be kept awake by hunger.

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2. Counting sheep

The oldest, best-known, most endearingly weird insomnia remedy of them all. Why sheep? Nobody really knows, but the idea is that counting them in your head will distract you from other thoughts that might be keeping you up at night. Plot twist: this doesn't work.

At least that's what researchers at Oxford University found, when they tested different techniques for falling asleep faster. When instructed to distract themselves by counting sheep, study participants actually took longer to fall asleep than on nights when they were given no instructions at all.

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3. Visualisation

"Imagine yourself on a beach…" We've all been there, right? Picturing yourself somewhere tranquil and idyllic is one of the simplest sleep hacks out there, and the great news is that it actually does work.

In that Oxford University study we mentioned before – the one that outed sheep-counting as a myth – the insomniac research subjects fell asleep fastest when they were instructed to distract themselves using imagery. The researchers concluded that this is because visualising yourself on a beach (or whatever tranquil landscape you choose) takes more cognitive energy than a more basic distraction task like counting sheep. Although that kind of depends on how much effort you put into your imaginary flock.

4. Lavender oil

Most people would agree that the smell of lavender is relaxing, but its effect on sleep is dramatic. Several studies have found that a few drops of lavender oil on your pillow improves sleep quality, with participants in one British study reporting a 20% better night's rest after sleeping in a lavender-infused room. Another study actually found that subjects who smelled lavender oil at bedtime also felt more refreshed and energetic the morning after, so this one's a win all round.

5. A warm bath

You tend to feel energetic as your body temperature rises and sleepier when it falls, so this one might seem counterintuitive – but think about it. After you emerge from that steaming hot bath, your core temp will drop dramatically as you dry off, which should in turn make you drowsy. So does it work?

It really depends on your body. Some people are naturally less efficient at cooling down, which could mean that their core temperature stays elevated after a bedtime bath and actually makes it harder to get to sleep – and studies have shown that getting hot before bed reduces sleep quality. So if a warm bath works for you, go for it, but it's definitely not a guaranteed fix.

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