This Is What a Sleep Expert Does When She Can’t Fall Asleep
She winds down with a hot shower and lavender mist.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:48 AM
It’s a great time to be a terrible sleeper. While a bad night of shut-eye used to cost us a day’s worth of productivity, it now grants us access to a $70 billion buffet of gadgets, supplements, and tinctures all designed to perfect our nightly slumber. From melatonin gummies and soothing lotions to weighted blankets and eye masks, restless sleepers are incredibly well equipped.
While all of this innovation signals an acute understanding of sleep’s importance, it also invites decision fatigue (and maybe even a touch of skepticism). The jury’s still out as to the efficacy of many of these products: How can every single one of them deliver on their promise of blissful, uninterrupted rest?
To help us navigate this particularly oversaturated segment of the wellness world, we tapped Dr. Terry Cralle, a certified clinical educator and experienced sleep consultant. Here’s how she sets the stage for a solid eight hours (plus her personal tips and tricks for a blissful night of shut-eye).
During the Day
According to Cralle, a good night’s sleep starts during the day. “Exercise, hydration, and diet are all connected,” she says. People who toss and turn at night haven’t had enough physical activity during the day. “If you get eight hours in each night, you’re going to have a healthy appetite—you’re not going to crave sugars and fats to stay awake.”
She recommends squeezing in some form of workout (even if it’s just a 10-minute walk), having an early dinner, consuming any cocktails during that early dinner, and hydrating afterward. “A drink won’t interfere with you falling asleep, but it’ll probably wake you up as it metabolizes,” she notes. She suggests keeping a glass of water on your bedside table and sipping it before coffee in the morning.
Mentally preparing yourself also starts in those early-evening hours. “Write down your to-do list at the end of your workday,” she suggests. This step is especially important if your mind goes wild the second your head hits the pillow. This can help you brain-dump and get all of those disruptive thoughts out of your head.
While Cralle generally suggests keeping your notebook out of your bedroom, she knows there are no hard-and-fast rules. If you’re the type of person who constantly thinks of work tasks, errands, or even great ideas throughout the night, keeping your notebook on your bedside table can give you a sense of relief. “It’s better than having to get up and walk across the room or typing into the notes app on your phone,” she explains.
Pro tip: If worries constantly keep you up at night, Cralle suggests adding a “worry about” column to your do-do list: “This can really help a racing mind.”
As it turns out, our fascination with nighttime routines is scientifically sound. “Always try to do things in the same order so it’s completely repetitive, mindless, and reproducible,” explains Cralle. “You should be able to go through your routine without thinking twice. It’s supposed to help you relax and give you a sense of security.”
For Cralle, that regimen consists of roughly seven things: securing the house, setting the automatic coffee maker, taking a hot shower or bath, putting on designated pajamas, gratitude journaling, reading a book of poetry, and spritzing her bedding with lavender mist. “There’s actually science behind lavender as a calming botanical,” she notes. “It just relaxes me so much.”
She doesn’t pick poetry by mistake either: Reading in particular is a scientifically proven sleep aid and a favorite trick of Cralle’s. The key is to avoid getting caught up in a page-turner and opt for something relaxing or even outright boring—there’s even an entire website devoted to boring books for bedtime.
Finally, if Netflix is a part of your nighttime routine, don’t feel ashamed. “Why fight it?” says Cralle. “Whatever works for you, do it. Just keep the content light, put it on a timer, or put the screen down and just listen to the voices.”
Pro tip: “Don’t use peppermint toothpaste or mouthwash before bed—it’s very stimulating,” she explains. Try using a less alerting flavor like mango or opt for a natural toothpaste.
When You Can’t Fall Asleep
If you follow the above steps and still have trouble dozing off, Cralle has tips and tricks up her sleeve. “It happens to everyone,” she notes. “Take the shame out of it. Don’t even look at the clock.” She recommends reframing sleeplessness as a small gift of ‘me time,’ which consists of mindless activities like flipping through a magazine or listening to a podcast. “It’s hard to find the time to do stuff like that during the day,” she notes.
If nothing seems to be working and you feel like you’re spiraling, get out of bed. “The more you get worked up, the more you’ll come to associate the bed with that anxious, tossing-and-turning feeling,” she explains. “The key is to channel that energy into a relaxing activity that you can ideally do in dim lighting.”
Pro tip: Try wearing socks to bed, especially in the wintertime. “Warming your feet will end up cooling your core temperature, which signals to your brain and body that it’s bedtime,” explains Cralle.
At the end of the day, don’t put pressure on yourself. “I view sleeplessness as an opportunity,” says Cralle. “Enjoy that little window of time where you’re not rushing off to a meeting or staring at a screen—we don’t get that often.” Now that’s one way to feel better about being wide awake at 2 a.m.
More tips on how to get better sleep: Does 45 Minutes of Extra Sleep Make a Difference? How Many Hours of Sleep You Need to Live Longer What Happens to Your Body When You Wake Up at 5 a.m. Every Day