How do sleep experts get to sleep?

In a recent article on Oprah Winfrey’s website, six leading specialists in the field of sleep medicine and research shared their personal secrets for getting a good night’s rest. As well as their top tips, they also revealed their biggest disappointments when it came to treating insomnia. Here’s our summary of what the experts said. You can read the original interview here.

Expert #1

Dr Michael Breus PHD, certified sleep specialist, author
Personal tip: become a math bore
Research has shown that the age old advice of falling asleep by counting sheep is a myth and doesn’t actually work. The reason is our brains find this task too easy, and we’re likely to get distracted and start thinking and worrying about something else.

Dr Breus uses his own modified version of the sheep trick by doing maths problems that are mildly challenging, but still repetitive. This provides enough enough stimulation to occupy the mind, but with a level of monotony that  eventually induces sleepiness. He advises counting backwards in threes,

“This forces me to focus enough to blocks out stressors, but at the same time, it’s really boring and puts me right to sleep. I guarantee that even if you do it every night for a month, you still won’t make it to the single digits.”

Not a fan of : memory foam mattresses

Dr Breus likes the support that memory foam gives but finds it frustrating that you can get stuck in one position

“..trying to turn to your other side can take five minutes.”

Expert 2  

David N. Neubauer, MD, professor, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Personal tip: join the fan club
Professor Neubauer make clever use of two important techniques for falling asleep, with the help of a simple fan. The first principle is white noise, a method for ‘masking’ unexpected sounds in your sleep environment.  This reduces the difference between background noise and other sounds that might otherwise keep you awake, like a car alarm or barking dog. Real white noise is like radio static, but the gentle hum of the fan acts in the same way, drowning out any other stimuli.

Secondly the fan ventilates the bedroom, allowing for a cooler temperature. Contrary to some beliefs, the ideal sleep environment should be slightly cool, not warm. Body temperature needs to be slightly lower than normal in order to get the maximum benefits of a night’s rest.

Not a fan of: banning books in the bedroom

Some sleep experts warn insomniacs to stay away from reading in bed, saying that books can create unnecessary  stimulation before bedtime. Dr Neubauer thinks that a complete prohibition is an over reaction for most people,

“I think the ‘no reading in bed’ rule makes sense for chronic insomniacs, but I find reading relaxing. I feel like I can put the book down when I get tired.”

Expert #3

Sam J. Sugar, MD, FACP, physician and Director of  Sleep Health Programs, Pritikin Longevity Center

Personal tip: get into the routine
Establishing a routine before you go to bed each night is one of the foundations of good sleep hygiene. Children benefit the most from a consistent pre-bedtime routine, so they will develop healthy sleep patterns later in life. However, adults can benefit too from setting up  similar night-time rituals. Dr Sugar remarked,

The idea is that you’re creating a habit that the body then wants to stick to, so it tells you that it’s tired at the chosen time…. (you) might find it helpful to set a go-to-sleep-now alarm, or create a bedtime routine (turn the computer off at 9:50, or wash your face at 10:45).” 

Not a fan of: sleeping pills for jet lag

Following advice from a colleague aboard a transatlantic flight, Dr Sugar took a sleeping pill to “take the edge off”,

For 18 hours, I sat wide awake, watching everyone snooze. It was a reminder that we all react differently—and unpredictably—to medication.”

Expert #4 

John Dittami, sleep researcher and author

Personal tip: get your own blanket
This piece of advice is for couples only, but the idea is that having one blanket can increase sleep disturbances for some couples. Separate covers means that each partner can have their own space, without risking the dreaded tug of war in the middle of the night.

Not a fan of: melatonin supplements

Having tried melatonin for jet lag, Mr Dittami was unimpressed with the results, citing it’s drowsy effects but without the benefit of feeling rested afterwards

Expert #5

Michael A. Grandner, PhD Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania

Personal tip: get out of bed
Stimulus control therapy is a psychological technique used to treat a range of problems including sleep disorders. It works by gradually breaking down negative associations between your sleeping environment and your being wakeful. Dr Grandner reckons that this type of treatment can be more effective in treating insomnia than sleeping pills.

“I used to have a really hard time falling asleep, but I’ve since learned that spending time awake trains us that the bed is a place for worry and rumination. The bed needs to be a cue for sleep, period.”

Not a fan of: exercise before bed

“I’ve tried exercise, but it didn’t work nearly as well as the stimulus control.”

Expert #6 

Clete A. Kushida, MD, PhD, medical director of Stanford Sleep Medicine Center

Personal tip: light up your life
Light is one of the biggest cues the body uses to synchronise it’s internal clock. Dr Bushida takes advantage of this natural process, avoiding bright light 2-3 hours before bedtime and opening the curtains to letting in natural light, 30 minutes after waking in the morning

Not a fan of: valerian herbal sleep remedy 

Valerian is a natural herb used for thousands of years because of it’s natural soporific effects. Although some studies have shown that valerian root can make some patients drowsy, it doesn’t have the same effect on everybody. As Dr Kushida said,

“I was curious, but it didn’t affect me.”

Got any top secret sleep tips you’d like to share? let us know in the comment section below.

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Jeff is a certified sleep geek, and the chief tea-maker at Sleep Junkies A passionate sleep advocate, he also runs SleepGadgets.io and has been writing about all things sleep-centric since 2012. In his spare time he loves playing the bass and dreaming of retiring to the Mediterranean…..