Medically reviewed by
Dacelin St Martin, MD
Triple board-certified in Sleep Medicine,
Internal Medicine, and Pediatrics.
For as much information about sleep as we have nowadays, many age-old myths about our favorite topic seem to persist.
Some beliefs can be based on truth and actual observation but lack modern interpretation and language, while others have no basis other than certain forms of ancient superstitions.
But do any of them hold up to scientific research? Let’s take a closer look at seven popular sleep myths.
1) Turkey Makes you Sleepy
Few of us haven’t heard of turkey making you sleepy, which is attributed to the hormone tryptophan that turkey contains.
And even though tryptophan can improve sleep, the truth is that the hormone levels are so low in turkey meat that you would likely have to eat the whole bird yourself to feel any sleep-inducing relaxation.
Whole milk is the top source of tryptophan, with nearly twice as much of the hormone as turkey, so it seems that another potential “myth” – a glass of warm milk before bed – may work!
2) Counting Sheep
This counting tactic is likely one of the oldest and most widespread suggestions to help with falling asleep. The person experiencing insomnia is asked to close their eyes, picture a pastoral setting with fluffy sheep, and then count them (popularly depicted as sheep hopping over a fence) with the supposed result of gently falling into slumber.
The ‘counting sheep to sleep’ myth originated in medieval Britain, where shepherds counted their flock before sleeping at night.
This activity is quite strenuous for the brain and can have the opposite effect, so although this sleep tactic is practical for shepherds, it’s less for the troubled sleeper.
3) Making up for Lost Sleep on the Weekend
This myth is very common, especially in our busy, sleep-deprived world. Although many wish it were true, this one is, unfortunately, not.
Rather than hoping to “catch up on sleep” during weekends or holidays, the focus should be on getting sufficient and quality sleep every night. If you are experiencing challenges with sleep, try cleaning up your sleep hygiene as a starting point.
4) More Sleep is Better
For many struggling with getting enough sleep, those who claim to have overslept or can sleep many hours past the average 8 hours sound like they are just reaping the benefits of good sleep.
However, research has shown higher mortality among long sleepers, even with good overall health status. Habitual ‘long sleeping’ may also be a marker of undiagnosed chronic health conditions. If you’re getting more sleep than average, it may be a good idea to speak with your doctor to rule out any underlying conditions.
5) Sleeping “Anytime, Anywhere” is a Sign of a Healthy Sleep System
If you’re able to sleep for longer durations, including the ability to fall asleep anywhere and at any time, maybe looked upon enviously by insomniacs, but this, too, is a myth.
Excessive daytime sleepiness, or the ability to fall asleep ‘anytime, anywhere,’ can result from sleep deficiency and chronically sleep-deprived.
6) One Night of Poor Sleep has Lasting Health Consequences
Although one night of poor or insufficient sleep can undoubtedly cause symptoms, such as headaches and brain fog, temporarily, this usually resolves pretty quickly and has no real, lasting consequence.
However, even after two nights of insufficient sleep, cognitive tasks become more challenging, so make sure you put that one bad night behind you as soon as possible.
7) If you have Trouble Sleeping, Stay in Bed to Try to Sleep
This myth is possibly one of the least helpful out there. Although it seems counter-intuitive, individuals experiencing difficulty falling asleep or falling back asleep after waking up too early are advised to leave their bed, avoid blue light, and return to bed only when tired.
Sometimes low-key activities, such as reading a physical book or puzzles, can help. Stimulus control is part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) and can significantly improve the time it takes to fall asleep.
The key takeaway is that if you want to fall asleep faster, you’ll sometimes have to leave your bed!
What’s the Takeaway?
It’s recognized by all fields of medicine that sleep is a vital component of our health and well-being. If this weren’t the case, many of the countless myths around sleep wouldn’t exist in the first place. After all, these came to be helpful for those who experienced sleep challenges.
However, some of these myths and superstitions can be counterproductive and sometimes even harmful to those trying to get enough quality sleep.
Although fun to consider and talk about, setting these aside in favor of solid scientific research could mean the difference between a great night’s rest or endlessly counting sheep.
- Silber, B. Y., & Schmitt, J. A. (2010). Effects of tryptophan loading on human cognition, mood, and sleep. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 34(3), 387–407. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.08.005
- 2. Robbins, R., Grandner, M. A., Buxton, O. M., Hale, L., Buysse, D. J., Knutson, K. L., Patel, S. R., Troxel, W. M., Youngstedt, S. D., Czeisler, C. A., & Jean-Louis, G. (2019). Sleep myths: an expert-led study to identify false beliefs about sleep that impinge upon population sleep health practices. Sleep health, 5(4), 409–417. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2019.02.002
- Ohayon M. M. (2008). From wakefulness to excessive sleepiness: what we know and still need to know. Sleep medicine reviews, 12(2), 129–141. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2008.01.001
- Bixler, E. O., Vgontzas, A. N., Lin, H. M., Calhoun, S. L., Vela-Bueno, A., & Kales, A. (2005). Excessive daytime sleepiness in a general population sample: the role of sleep apnea, age, obesity, diabetes, and depression. The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism, 90(8), 4510–4515. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2005-0035
- Drummond, S. P., Paulus, M. P., & Tapert, S. F. (2006). Effects of two nights sleep deprivation and two nights recovery sleep on response inhibition. Journal of sleep research, 15(3), 261–265. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2869.2006.00535.x
- Harris, J., Lack, L., Kemp, K., Wright, H., & Bootzin, R. (2012). A randomized controlled trial of intensive sleep retraining (ISR): a brief conditioning treatment for chronic insomnia. Sleep, 35(1), 49–60. https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.1584