Sleep Experts Weigh in on the Best Tips & Tricks for Getting Better Rest
From the best bedtime snacks to how to remedy insomnia, take a peek into the bedrooms of sleep experts to find out how they get their best night’s sleep
What can we learn from the personal lives of sleep experts who devote their careers to helping others get a great night’s sleep, night after night after night? Quite a lot! From how to set up their bedrooms for sleep success and the nighttime rituals that really work, they’re ready to share what works and what doesn’t.
Read on for this advice-filled post that should essential information for everyone who sleeps, which is all of us, right?
Terry Cralle, certified clinical sleep educator, registered nurse specializing in sleep medicine, co-author of two books on sleep and a national spokesperson for the Better Sleep Council, based in Washington, D.C.
Stop looking at the clock – I’ve been working in the field over 20 years now and the very first thing a sleep doc told me was to turn the clock face away from me at night. This was way before the topic of sleep was remotely interesting to most people and sleep tips were not in every blog on the internet. I had always looked at the clock many times during the night – as long as I could remember – calculating the hours left to sleep. At the time, I don’t think I realized how much sleep I was losing.
Ask for help – Many people don’t seek professional help for sleep issues, even though sleep is vital and fundamental to health. It should be addressed at every healthcare provider encounter. There are board certified sleep physicians that can help with sleep problems, diagnose, treat and manage sleep disorders. Don’t ignore sleep.
I prioritized sleep in my daily life to get the sleep I need and that’s enabled me to do so much more – write books, volunteer. I am completely unapologetic for my need for sleep and put it first in my efforts to lead a healthy lifestyle. It is a difficult concept to explain to people – that you can actually get MORE done by making time for the sleep you need. It’s about the quality of our waking hours, not the quantity.
Blackout curtains – I had always heard that blackout curtains were recommended – especially for shift workers. I had considered my own bedroom to be sufficiently dark at night, but sleeping in a pitch dark room at a friend’s place changed my mind. That was the next big change to my bedroom – and the difference was amazing!
Portable white noise machine – I use my phone for an alarm – and I like the white noise to be separate (not an app).
Supportive mattress – Your sleep surface is critical to your sleep quality. Far too many of us neglect the impact of the sleep surface on our sleep experience. Given that it’s one third of our day and one third of our lives, why not invest in the most comfortable mattress (and pillow, sheets and bedding)? It can make a difference!
When to break the rules – I admit to having no willpower with good fiction and have delegated that rule-breaking to weekends, morning, vacations and plane trips!
Dr. Anthony Warren, CEO, BreatheSimple (an app to help ease stress, improve sleep and reduce snoring), based in Warriors Mark, Pa.
Best bedtime snack – There’s nothing wrong with a light snack, but skip the sugar. I like rice cake, or Swedish crisp bread. No alcohol or caffeine in the evening, or no heavy meal at night.
Preparing for sleep – I try to go to bed at the same time every night. For me, that’s 11pm. I don’t allow computers or smart phones in the bedroom. It’s too tempting to take one last look at social media and the screens can be sleep preventers due to the blue light. My partner and I love to read and always have one or two good books going at any time. I can never get through more than a chapter before needing to turn off the light.
Breathe – It’s important to learn how to get your breathing rate down to about 6 breaths a minute (normally it is 12-18 during the day without attention). At the low rate, our heart rate also lowers and our breathing/heart system becomes highly efficient. And at this rate, our central nervous system flips from the fight/flight mode into the rest/digest mode reducing the chemicals in our blood stream that keep us awake.
Exercise – I don’t exercise in the evening because it turns on the adrenaline, increases heart and breathing rates, and raises body temperature. (We need to get our core temp down a degree or two before sleep becomes easy.)
Relax – To help myself fall asleep, I go over the nice things that happened in the day while slowing down my breathing. Then I relax my muscles, starting at the toes. I scrunch them up and relax fully several times, concentrating on that muscle group. Repeat at the feet, ankles, calves all the way up the body until you get to the face muscles. Important to make sure each group is fully relaxed before going on to the next stage.
For an alternative, lie on your back – this is a bad way to sleep as it promotes snoring and mouth breathing – and then imagine which side it would be nicer to turn to – left or right. I find that one side feels really enticing over the other. Once this becomes clear, role over onto that side and bingo – sleep.
Marietta Paxson, marriage and family therapist, specializing in sleep for babies, toddlers and young children, based in Pleasant Grove, UT.
Bedtime snacks – Personally, I’m not a snack person, so I try to eat a hearty dinner that will keep me full till morning. My kids go to bed at 7:30pm so they rarely get anything after dinner. It’s also an incentive for them to eat their dinner! However, I do specifically give my kids a banana at lunch, if I really need them to take a good nap!
Bedtime rituals – The best thing for my sleep is to turn off all screens an hour or two before bed. When I am able to do this, going to sleep is so much easier and I am able to go to bed on time. Ironically, as a full-time mom and baby sleep consultant, I tend to work a lot after my kids go to bed. Right now, I work late and rush to get to bed so I can get enough sleep to survive another day with three young children, while running a home and my own business.
When to break the rules – I am almost always on my computer (not always in bed) up until it’s time to sleep. Professionally, I try hard to only tell my clients to do things that I am able or willing to do as well.
When to break relax – Before I began working as a baby sleep consultant I was rigid about my family’s sleep. As a baby sleep consultant, I have seen how flexible children are and have helped children recover their sleep after the worst conditions. As a parent, this has allowed me to loosen up with my own children.
Sleep success – I am in love with a specific noise machine and constantly advocate it for babies, toddlers and moms alike. Yet, I still don’t have one for myself. Part of that is that my husband doesn’t want one for us. Instead I use earplugs, an eye mask, and a humidifier.
When you can’t sleep – I count backwards from 100 in increments of 3 – and always make sure my earplugs are in. If sleep doesn’t come easily, it’s usually a sign that I’m not getting enough.
Tzivia Gover, certified dream professional/therapist and author of The Mindful Way to a Good Night’s Sleep, based in Northampton, Mass.
Bedtime snack – As someone with low blood sugar and a speedy metabolism, a little snack at bedtime helps me sleep better. I try to eat a diet high in whole grains and protein, and low on sweets. My last snack of the day is often carb-rich, sometimes chocolatey. Carbs help us feel cozy and sleepy. For me, that might mean a small bowl of cereal and milk or oatmeal, a piece of toast and butter, or (my very favorite) a square or two unsweetened extra dark chocolate. I love chocolate and happily it also contains magnesium, which some studies show helps bring on sleep.
Bedtime ritual – My friends and family know not to call me after 9 p.m. That’s because an hour or more before bed I try to “unplug.” I close the laptop and stop answering my phone. I usually meditate in the evening, stretch, and read (an actual physical book) before bed.
When to break the rules – The sleep rule I break with abandon is not to get out of bed if I can’t fall asleep. I use that time to “beditate,” instead (meditate in bed). I’ll also write down any dreams I’ve had thus far in the night in my dream journal.
Sleep success – I follow my own advice: I keep the bedroom dark, clutter-free, and electronics-free. But the most important part of how I’ve outfitted my bedroom for cozy sleep is my bedside table. It has a lamp with a dimmer switch so I can turn it up to have enough light to read by before bed, or turn it down to a dim glowing light to write dreams by if need be in the night without waking my husband. I also stock my bedside table with: a sleep mask, earplugs, an iPod loaded with guided relaxation and meditation recordings for when I have trouble sleeping, lotions and oils for evening foot massages, and of course, a pencil and notebook for writing down dreams or jotting down any inspired ideas.
When you can’t sleep – I view sleeplessness at night as an opportunity. I use the time to “beditate.” Also, if I want to experience lucid dreams (dreams in which I know I’m dreaming and can make choices within the dream as to what I’d like to do or experience, or get guidance on a problem I’ve been having), I practice specific breathing techniques or mind-focusing techniques to bring on lucid dreams. Or, if I just want to fall back asleep quickly, I might choose a random letter from the alphabet and think of (and picture in my mind’s eye) as many things as I can that start with that letter.
Best sleep advice – As a child, when I couldn’t sleep, my mother would say, “Don’t worry about falling asleep, just try to rest and relax.” I have found that’s the best advice I can give anybody. My only regret about the boom in books and blogs about sleep and its importance is that it’s making people so anxious about sleep and missed sleep that their anxiety over the number of hours they log asleep exacerbates their insomnia.
Catherine Darley, naturopathic doctor and founder of The Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine, Inc. based in Seattle, WA.
When to break the rules – The one rule I sometimes break is the no reading in bed rule. If I wake early I will read or journal in bed until the rest of the family is up so I don’t wake them.
When you can’t sleep – If I’m awake for long at bedtime or in the middle of the night I focus my mind on something that will put me back to sleep and not get into thinking about my responsibilities. The strategy I use is telling myself a story, the same story. The story is one I made up, of a family going apple picking, which I think is fun, but not too interesting. When I first used this strategy they’d actually get to the orchard and start setting up the ladder. Now that I’ve used it consistently for years it’s strongly associated with sleep onset, so now they hardly get out of the kitchen having decided to go apple picking and made lunch.
Best sleep advice – Your sleep environment makes a much bigger impact than most people realize. With sleep problems, one of the first things to do is go through your bedroom and eliminate any disturbances – light, sound, temperature, clutter, pets, etc.
Bedtime ritual – I have a very regular routine – low lights and just relax at 9pm, bedtime at 10pm, and most importantly, I get up and get bright light at the same time – 6:30am – every day.
Sleep environment – You need to make your bedroom a sanctuary. One of the patterns busy families can get into is using the bedroom as a dumping ground for clutter, and it’s hard to sleep when surrounded by “to do’s.” Mine is a painted a deep blue, has a couple lamps so I can have just the right amount of low lighting (angled up, not at eye level), and just essential furniture, along with some beautiful calm paintings and a few inspirational books. The windows have double curtains which Velcro to the edge of the window frame so that it is pitch black for sleep with no city light coming in. This makes a big difference as light pollution definitely impacts sleep.
Derek Lacey, life coach for insomniacs, Derek Lacey Coaching, based in Los Angeles, Calif.
Bedtime snack – As a rule, I don’t eat anything that requires my body to digest food at bedtime. If I’m craving something, or if my routine has been thrown off that day by extraneous factors, I’ll make myself a lavender or banana peel tea an hour before bed. To make the banana peel tea, tear the peel off the banana and boil it for 10 minutes in about 2 cups of water. The mixture will reduce to about a cup and you can add cinnamon and turmeric, or be more creative and enjoy it as a hot cocoa by adding coconut milk and cacao powder. Make sure the banana is organic. You don’t want a tea made from pesticides.
Dinner can help with sleep too – I do have a dinner I eat consistently that I highly suggest to anyone willing to try it. It’s a raw, low-carb salad high in healthy dietary fat. I use spinach/arugula/mixed greens/butter lettuce as a base and mix in plenty of ingredients like olives, red onion, fresh herbs, mushrooms, pine nuts, avocado, apple cider vinegar and olive/garlic/sesame/avocado oil. It’s very satisfying and leaves me feeling very light, yet full. This is very digestible and assures I will be ready to detox by the time I go to sleep, so my body isn’t multitasking.
Bedtime rituals – My unbeatable ritual (that I wish everyone did) is making the switch from blue light to red light. I have my home tuned to visible red light and dim incandescent light. When the clock strikes about 3 hours before my bedtime, I flip all the red-light switches, in addition to using candlelight, which emits mostly infrared light. Along with using blue-blocker glasses once the sun goes down, this routine allows me to protect the melatonin I created throughout the day, as the blue light from technology is a melatonin killer.
After this, nothing is more important to me than my hot bath. A hot bath will help your body gradually cool down and emulate the body temperature shift that takes place before sleep. But what I get most out of my bath is the opportunity to “brain dump” my thoughts. I have my most genius, well relative to me, moments in the tub with candlelight and the noise of the water running. This helps me solve mental obstacles as well as give me closure on my day.
When to break the rules –I occasionally like to read in bed. You really should only use your bed for sleep or having sex, but it works for me. I have gotten to a point where I don’t “need” to do it, in order to fall asleep. I simply enjoy it, and enjoy that first sentence where I start to doze off, turn out the candles and begin to regenerate for the next day. I don’t believe in stringent routines that don’t allow for some pleasure because people will simply stop following them before they start to see improvement.
Sleep success – I believe in editing the bedroom right down to every square inch. If it isn’t conducive to sleep, then it gets edited out. My goal is to be able to constantly walk into my room and feel like I’m walking into a luxury spa: plants, nice pictures (with no people in them), essential oils and candle. The cell phone stays in the office and black out curtains keep it dark. Phones and electronics in the bedroom do not just emit electro magnetic fields, which will disrupt sleep, but they carry immeasurable energy, like the stress of our daily lives and a window to the entire world.
When you can’t sleep – When I’m not falling asleep as quickly as I would like to, even though I’m tired, I like to imagine what is actually happening when I sleep. I use my mind to guide my body toward the active processes of sleep instead of closing my eyes and trying to disappear. I take big inhales, and on the exhales, I give my body permission to start regenerating, which is what happens when we sleep.
When I was an Insomniac, I routinely experienced multiple sleepless nights a week so when I first started to sleep better, I set up routines to protect against that. I don’t want “tricks” I occasionally use to come out of desperation or feel stressful, so I make them simple and enjoyable and see each one as a bigger opportunity to learn something about what to do in these moments.
If this mindset technique doesn’t work then I think of 5 people from my day I’m grateful for, and why. This helps me keep my thoughts stress free and produce hormones conducive to sleep. If I still can’t sleep, then it’s not my time and I get out of bed, and I’ll stretch. I’ll stretch my hamstrings, which engage my lower back muscles and hips, where we hold the most stress. This is very relaxing and makes me feel closer to sleep than I was when I got out of bed.
If this still doesn’t work, then I will tap. Tapping is a form of emotional acupuncture that frees up blocked energy in the body by tapping certain points of the meridian system. What I stress to people is that these nights are going to happen. The fact they will happen should not worry you. It’s how you react to them that you should pay caution to. Sticking to my wake-up time, no matter how much I slept, and continuing with my routine keeps my consistent sleep success intact.
Best sleep advice – When I figured out that great sleep happens first thing in the morning, my life began to change. Morning routines are so important because as we honor them more and more consistently, they become more engrained in our brains and we naturally set up our lives to prepare for them. For instance, I drink hot lemon water as soon as I wake up as a detox strategy, but this has a ton of benefits. Additionally, making sure my lemons and mug are out the night before sends a clear message. When I go to bed, my brain has a private conversation that goes like this, “Ok, you have set up your routine for tomorrow, hmm, must be time to go to sleep!”
This is an example of how to subtly get clearance past some of the emotional conflicts related to insomnia, but if you want a really powerful melatonin-making morning routine, get out in the sun as soon as you wake up. Melatonin is made in our eyes, with light from the sun, specifically red light, so as soon as I drink my hot lemon water, I head to the park and face the sun. I have made going to the park part of my morning routine. This is non-negotiable. I take off my shoes, so I can ground to the earth’s electricity, and I stretch, do yoga, or exercise with my bands. At a minimum, 15-20 minutes must be spent setting my clock and preparing for a day full of energy. Sleep and great health in general is all about being in sync with circadian biology, and there is no better way to do this then getting outside, early.