Inspired by her struggle with insomnia, Jihee Junn tries out some of the most viral sleep hacks on social media.
Despite watching the show more than a decade ago, there’s an episode of American Dad I still remember to this day. Stan, the main character, who finds he has no time for himself, starts taking pills developed by the CIA that make you “feel like you just slept eight hours”. Suddenly, without the need to sleep, Stan finds he has all the time in the world to read books, write songs and play games overnight, all the while still having enough energy to keep on top of his regular life commitments.
At the time, I remember thinking how amazing it would be if those pills were real, and how – instead of lying on the couch watching late-night TV because I couldn’t get to sleep – I could be doing something productive or at least enjoyable with my time without having to worry about how I was going to survive the next day. I was 16 and chronically sleep-deprived, but somehow, three hours was just enough to get by. Now, in my late 20s? Not so much.
Thankfully, the severity of my insomnia has subsided in recent years, but getting to sleep is still a chore. While “revenge bedtime procrastination” – or the decision to sacrifice sleep for leisure time driven by a daily schedule lacking in free time – seems to be the latest source of my relentless exhaustion, I still have nights every week when I want to sleep but my body says “no”.
Like most sleep strugglers, everything from chamomile tea and warm milk to guided meditation and nighttime yoga have been tried and tested with minimal results. Magnesium’s never worked for me, melatonin gives me daytime sleepiness, while benzodiazepines like temazepam and clonazepam have usually been saved as a last resort.
But with a lifetime of sleep still ahead of me, I’m not averse to trying out new tricks just yet. Sleep is now a billion-dollar industry shilling weighted blankets, silk pyjamas and spooning robots for hefty sums, yet our most trustworthy source of information – the internet – is awash with strange and intriguing suggestions that don’t cost a thing. Tired yet sceptical, I tried out four.
The weirdest and most intriguing suggestion I came across was on TikTok from a woman who swore by lettuce water. The method, she explained, was simple: put lettuce in a cup, pour in hot water, brew and enjoy. The video went viral with more than 1.5 million likes, along with dozens of other videos touting it as a huge success. And unlike most trends, there’s actually some early science to back it up, with a 2017 study finding that some varieties of lettuce extract, specifically red romaine (aka cos), actually increased the duration of sleep in mice.
The problem, however, was that lettuce water sounded disgusting. But with a bag of $5 cos from the supermarket in hand, I was willing to at least give the green juice a try. Unfortunately, after tossing some chopped leaves in a mug with boiling water, it turns out lettuce water is, in fact, quite disgusting. While I tried to imagine I was drinking a new kind of herbal tea, every sip conjured up sickly images of wet caesar salads or that weird slime you get when you leave vegetables in the fridge for far too long. Feeling queasy, I drank about half and poured the rest down the sink.
However, about 20-30 minutes after getting in bed, I did start to feel slightly drowsier than before. In fact, I probably would’ve fallen asleep shortly afterward if it wasn’t for the fact I was still trying not to chunder. Bummer about the reflux, but if you’ve got a stronger stomach than mine (or have peppermint tea to mix it with to help with the taste), lettuce tea’s probably worth a shot.
Apparently, listing random things in your head will make you “fall asleep in five minutes”, according to this viral TikTok. Sharing a trick they learnt from their psychology professor which apparently “cured” their insomnia, the author of the video claims that if you start listing things in your head that aren’t directly related, like “potato”, “Tarzan” and “violin” you’ll eventually fall asleep. The more random they are, the better it’ll work.
However, having tried almost every mental exercise in the book from counting backwards to imagining a single leaf floating down a stream, I was sceptical. It’s hard to tune out when you’re actively trying to think, and sure enough, I found I was expending more mental energy than should’ve been stressing about finding things that were unrelated. I’d think “computer, cable, table” and get mad at myself because I’d realise those were all things on my desk, or I’d think “blue, baboon, balloon” and worry I wasn’t doing it right because they were all words that started with the letter ‘B’. When I tried not to think as hard, it wasn’t long before my mind wandered to actual real-life events. In the end, I relented and picked up my phone. Thinking randomly: turns out it’s harder than you think.
Sleep with me
While I’ve fallen asleep listening to podcasts before, it hasn’t usually been intentional. Often it’s because they’re long, and filled with genteel voices discussing complex topics (the study of chalk, the advent of technopopulism) that are somehow fascinating yet dull enough for my brain to eventually shut down and go to sleep.
Sleep podcasts, however, are a whole new genre for me, so when I search for one, I go with the top result: Sleep With Me, a narrative sleep podcast boasting rave reviews and millions of downloads every month. Describing itself as a show that gets “progressively more boring until you fall asleep”, I on the other hand would probably describe it as a show that gets progressively more confusing until you turn it the fuck off. Filled with unfinished sentences and trailing thoughts that induce more annoyance than boredom, Sleep With Me feels like listening to someone who doesn’t know how or when to stop talking about topics you never asked to hear about in the first place. In real life when this happens, my instinct is to run away. With Sleep With Me, 10 minutes of unrestrained tangential rambling was more than enough for me.
Based on pranayama, the ancient yogic practice of controlling your breath, the 4-7-8 technique has been a recent discovery for me, mostly via social media accounts claiming it would help put me to sleep as fast as one minute. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to sleep in less than 20, but the exercise seemed harmless enough: inhale for four seconds, hold for seven, and exhale through the mouth for eight, all the while keeping the tip of your tongue against the back of your top front teeth.
The exercise is designed to reduce anxiety and increase mindfulness, but there’s limited evidence to support this method other than anecdotal. And in reality, exhaling for eight seconds while keeping your tongue against your teeth isn’t easy, not to mention having to hold your breath for seven. It kind of reminds me of a spirometry test, but less intensive. But maybe practice makes perfect, and while I didn’t fall asleep, at least I felt kind of tired and winded.
The truth about sleep is it’s actually very simple: have a regular schedule, get at least eight hours, don’t eat or work in bed, and stop looking at your goddamn phone. We all wish there was a magical candle/meditation/pillow/gadget that we could just turn on so we can tune out. But in the same way we try to fool ourselves into thinking a kale smoothie cancels out a box of pizza, no amount of herbal tea is going to flush out the five cups of coffee you downed that afternoon.
Getting good sleep is about behaviours not remedies, and while there’s no harm in trying – especially if it’s free – don’t expect miracles from mindfulness if you’re still watching TV at 2am.