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Medicine or Malarkey: Counting Sheep – Can It Help Me Sleep?

It’s advice that has been passed down through generations: if you can’t get to sleep, just “count sheep” until you drift off into a peaceful slumber. Some scholars believe that this advice originated centuries ago with sheep herders who could not get to sleep until they had counted all of the sheep in the field to make sure none were missing. Does a tactic like counting sheep work in modern life? The answer may surprise you.

Does Counting Sheep Really Help Me Fall Asleep?

When you are lying awake unable to sleep, it may seem worthwhile to give anything a try. Maybe the monotony of counting sheep sounds like it could help. However, there is very little evidence to suggest that counting sheep actually helps you drift off to sleep. In fact, scientists have put this question to the test. Researchers at Oxford University asked participants to try different distraction techniques while trying to fall asleep over several nights; and the researchers found that counting sheep was no better than doing nothing at all for people struggling with insomnia.

The reason for this is that counting sheep is terribly boring. Why doesn’t that boredom help you sleep? Part of the purpose of a distraction strategy is to prevent you from thinking about the things in your life that are stressful or worrying. Counting sheep is so simple that it does not prevent your mind from going back to those other thoughts. Therefore, counting sheep does not help any more than doing nothing at all.

The verdict is in: counting sheep for insomnia relief is… malarkey. But that does not mean that you are doomed to nights of restlessness and insomnia! There are other scientifically validated strategies that can help you get to sleep.

Alternative Sleep Promoting Strategies that Really Work

Poor sleep does not have to be a part of life. Practicing the following strategies can help you drift into a peaceful night of slumber:

  • Cut out lights and phone 30 minutes before bedtime. Our brains respond to the cues around us to tell us how alert to be. Bright lights or the backlit screen of your phone or computer send “stay awake” signals to your brain. To improve your sleep quality, dim the lights and stop using electronic devices at least 30 minutes before you go to bed. (Note: Also check out your phone to see if it has a “night” mode with a lower-light option which you can enable in the evenings!)
  • Engage in relaxation imagery. While counting sheep is not distracting enough, that does not mean that imaginative exercises will not help you sleep. Aim for relaxation imagery that immerses your five senses. For example, picture yourself on a beautiful beach. What does it look like? Can you smell the sea air? Hear the waves? Immerse yourself in this relaxing environment to calm your mind.
  • Stick to a fixed bedtime. A fixed bedtime helps your body know what to expec — this means that you should fall asleep within the same 30-minute window, regardless of whether it is a weeknight or weekend.
  • Steer clear of alcohol. Many people mistakenly believe that alcohol promotes sleep. However, having more than one drink actually prevents you from getting to sleep and can create sleep disturbance during the night.

Sleep easy with these tips, and if you still have trouble, contact a trusted health professional.