I'm terrible in bed. The worst. And yes, it's sleep I'm talking about. When the lights go out, my mind switches into overdrive. I start crunching numbers, checking the time, replaying conversations, and worrying about how losing hours of sleep is going to ruin the upcoming day.
I've tried all the deep breathing and relaxation techniques to help bring on sleep and still found myself popping Ambien in all-too-frequent desperation. I'd love to ditch the pills and learn how to drift off like a normal person — a reasonable thing for an otherwise healthy middle-aged woman to ask.
But who could solve my problem? The nation's foremost clinical sleep psychologist, Michael Breus, Ph.D., seemed like a good bet, and when I rang him, he graciously agreed to help me. But before telling him my story, I wanted to know his.
For starters, how did he come to be a sleep doctor in the first place? I assumed that in the distant past, he'd had a personal history with insomnia too. "Why specialize in sleep otherwise?" I asked.
"Actually, I've always been a good sleeper," he said. "I'd intended to specialize in sport psychology, but I didn't get a slot in the residency program I applied to. They did have a sleep track, though, so I sold myself to the hospital as a sleep guy, fully intending to transfer to sports. By day three, I'd fallen in love with clinical sleep medicine and have never looked back. I change lives in 24 hours. Where else can you make such a big impact in so little time? It's an amazing gift, and I've been doing it for 15 years."
My nightly wrestling match with slumber was anything but a gift. I described my frustration with not falling asleep, and Breus gave a diagnosis: sleep onset insomnia associated with anxiety. "I can offer suggestions," he said.
I'd already read about and researched the to-dos, I told him. What I really needed was for someone to show me how it was done. So I floated an idea. "You know what'd be cool?" I began. "Having a sleepover with you, the sleep doctor. I could learn by good example."
"I love it," he said. "Will you be in the neighborhood?"
At the time, he lived in Scottsdale, AZ, and I was in Brooklyn, NY. "How's next week?" I asked. When you can't remember the last time you woke up refreshed, 2,400 miles doesn't seem like too far to travel to learn healthy sleep habits from the master.
The Sleepover Begins
I arrived chez Breus in the afternoon. It was a very lovely house in the desert hills, with a pool and an airy great room, plus cacti. Lauren Breus, Michael's wife, was welcoming and gave me a quick tour of the house, starting with their bedroom: a warm and cozy space with cream-colored walls, a plush maroon duvet, soft carpeting, and wood furniture. I couldn't help but comment on the TV on the dresser. "Do you watch in bed?" I asked. A major no-no when it comes to getting good sleep, I thought.
"Every night," she said.
And where were the blackout shades I'd always heard were a must? In the Breuses' bedroom, there were curtains but no blinds at all. "You keep these open?" I asked.
"Yes. There aren't any city lights up here, so it's dark at night," she said. "But at dawn, the sun comes in, and we wake up."
I was baffled. Were America's most famous sleepers breaking all the rules?
The Sleep Doc Tells All
Breus arrived home, and we sat down to eat dinner at 8 P.M. No one brought a phone or gadget to the table — not even the kids, who were chatty and polite.
"We stick to a tight schedule," Breus said. "Dinner at the same time, whenever possible. Regular workouts. Lauren and I try to exercise a few times a week." But sometimes life gets in the way, he admitted. "And you can't stress out about it; worrying is worse for sleep than missing a workout."
The most important scheduling rule in the Breus home is the wind-down hour before bed. During this time, no homework, housework, work-work, or deep talk is allowed. "The point of wind-down is to let the brain quiet and the body relax," he said. "Answering emails, having an intense conversation, and doing a lap on social media are stimulating. We do those things earlier in the night."
"OK, but Lauren watches TV to wind down? In bed? Really?" I was still shocked. Research says that looking at blue light from computers, phones, tablets, and televisions before bed messes with our melatonin levels. For a bad sleeper, that can be the difference between dozing off and staring at the ceiling for hours.
"Playing Candy Crush with an iPad from 8 inches away will absolutely keep you awake," Breus said. "I tell patients to set an electronics curfew one hour before bed." You can buy screen shields for any device or wear special glasses that block out blue light, but it's still a bad idea to play games that rev up your brain before bed. And if you're a print-book reader, make sure you have low-blue-light lamp bulbs for your bedside table.
The TV, according to Breus, is less of a concern. "The tube falls into a different category for two reasons: proximity and engagement," he explained. "The screen is 12 feet from our heads. Besides, Lauren isn't watching too closely. When she gets sleepy at around 10 o'clock, she closes her eyes and just listens. The sound distracts her brain and lulls her to sleep like a white noise machine. It's more of a relaxation tool than engaging entertainment by then. I have no problem with listening to TV before bed."
Either Lauren sets the timer on the TV or Breus switches it off, since he goes to bed an hour later than his wife. "Everyone's sleep needs are different," he said. "I've been a less-than-seven-hours guy my whole life. Lauren needs eight or nine. She falls asleep around 11 and gets up at seven. I'll go to sleep around 12 and get up at seven."
At this point, it was close to 9 P.M. Arizona time, which, for me, was midnight. "Are you feeling anxious about whether you'll fall asleep tonight?" Breus asked.
I nodded. "How about some calming banana tea?" he offered. "I made this as a guest on The Dr. Oz Show. You just cut off the ends off a banana, slice it into three pieces — with the peel on — boil for 10 minutes, strain, and serve." Breus poured my "tea" into a Sleeping Beauty mug (nice touch). "The peel is packed with magnesium, which is soothing, and the potassium is a muscle relaxant. Have it an hour before bed, along with a bowl of cereal. Carbs cause an increase in serotonin, which makes you sleepy."
I took the last sip of my banana tea before we wandered into the Breuses' bedroom. Lauren had put the kids to bed and was winding down in sweats. Breus opened his night table drawer to show off a stash of six or seven sleep masks. One had eye cavities to prevent eyelash rub. Another was infused with lavender. He said he used his masks and earplugs if Lauren bucked their usual routine and stayed up late with the TV on and he needed to doze off before her.
The message: The Breuses work around each other to co-sleep peacefully, even when they're on different schedules. My husband and me? "We bicker every night," I said. "As soon as I get in bed, he starts futzing around, doing stuff or scrolling along on his phone. I'm lying there, waiting for him to shut down, getting more and more annoyed and worked up." Anxiety and frustration before bed only make your insomnia worse, Breus emphasized.
Lauren tucked herself into bed and turned on How to Get Away with Murder — her last "watch" before she switches to listening mode with the nighttime news. I asked if I could stick around and watch it with her. She made room on the bed, and I scooted onto the edge of her mattress, the Rolls-Royce of the bedding world: a $10,000 Tempur- Cloud Luxe Breeze with an adjustable base that allows you to raise and lower the head and feet on either side. According to Breus, memory foam material is preferable to springs and coils (memory foam conforms to your body, a plus if you have trouble getting comfortable) — but you don't have to go top-of-the-line. The Amerisleep Revere Bed, one of the top-rated mattresses in a 2016 Consumer Reports guide, is $1,300.
It was so comfy in the bed that I understood why the pets liked to hop up there. "Our animals are generally low-key," Breus said. "Once they're down, they don't move. But if the cat digs his claws into me, he's out."
My cat, Penny, on the other hand, would come and go multiple times each night, sometimes plopping onto my pillow and waking me. Another sleep issue, clearly.
At 11, it was time for Lauren to turn in, so Breus showed me the guest room where I'd be sleeping. A slow-turning ceiling fan was on in there. "The fan provides a white noise to drown out other loud sounds that might awaken you at night," he said. I could also turn it off and download the SimplyNoise phone app for a pink noise. "Pink noise is not as hard on your ears or as brain stimulating as white noise." The guest bed itself, also with a Tempur-Pedic mattress (although not Luxe), was smartly dressed in a chocolate-colored cotton duvet. The pillow, I noticed, was much flatter than the one I used at home, and this was by design for back sleepers like me. "That's a low-profile pillow," Breus told me. "A full pillow pushes your chin to your chest and can decrease your ability to breathe."
I realized at this point that it was nearly 2 A.M. back home, and I was exhausted. Breus and I said goodnight, and I was left alone with my low-profile pillow. I lay awake as the house went quiet and used a tip Breus had given me earlier: Count backward from 300 by threes. "It's complicated enough that you can't think of anything else, and it's so damn boring that you just fall asleep," he assured me. I did that whole counting thing three times — never losing track or feeling sleepy. Finally, at around 2 A.M. (I held off as long as I could), I gave in and took an Ambien.
The Groggy Morning After
We ate our breakfast outside the next morning. I had slept for six hours — I woke at 8 A.M. — and I didn't feel at all rested. Let's just say I was so not the girl in the sleep ads, waking up refreshed and stretching sexily in her white camisole. Breus, meanwhile, was chipper and smiley as he ate his berries and Greek yogurt. I was invited to help myself and peeked in the fridge. It was full of fruits, veggies, hard-boiled eggs, turkey breast, and whole-grain bread. I confessed that mine was usually empty or near-empty and I ordered takeout too often.
"Sleep deprivation causes food cravings and overactive appetite," he said. "When you're tired, you feel grumpy, out of focus, and hungry for high-fat, high-sugar food. If you sleep adequately, you'll feel less anxious, be more productive, reach for healthier food, and have more energy," he continued. "It all starts with sleep."
After breakfast I took a car to the airport, thinking over everything I'd learned, and already craving a nap.
Practicing My New Sleep Rules
As soon as I arrived back home, in a fit of inspiration, I went shopping and filled my fridge with Breusian food choices. Then I went for a run at 6 P.M., which would leave me plenty of wind-down time afterward.
Let's just say I was so not the girl in the sleep ads, waking up refreshed and stretching sexily in her white camisole.
My husband joined me for a hot mug of banana tea at 11 P.M., an hour before bed. As the week progressed, this became a nice ritual — the only time all day, in fact, that we spent together without distractions.
Over the course of that first week, I got used to earlier rising and even started waking up a few minutes before the alarm I'd set for 7 A.M. I can't say that I consistently fell asleep as soon as my head hit the low-pro pillow at midnight. That did not happen and still doesn't. But instead of stewing in frustration for hours, I seemed to lose consciousness within half an hour to an hour. If I got a big idea during that time, I used a voice app to record my thought (a Breus suggestion, because it keeps you in sleepytime M.O. more than journaling does).
Breus had mentioned his concern with my abuse of a certain drug: caffeine. "No caffeine after 2 P.M.," he'd said. I dearly missed my 4:30 coffee break and cursed Breus's name when my withdrawal headache hit during those first couple of days. But it faded, and as with all his sleep rules, this one got easier with practice.
A Year Later: Snoozing (and Living) Better Than Ever
It's been a full year since my sleepover with the sleep doctor. My precious cat, Penny, died, so her snuggling up next to me is no longer an issue. She now sleeps on a low-profile pillow in cat heaven. RIP, Penny.
Breus had said in our first conversation that he could change someone's life in 24 hours, and some big changes have stuck with me. Thanks to a consistent sleep schedule, I get about seven hours of sleep per night. This winter, I got only one cold, a big improvement over last year, when I was sick for two months straight.
Mornings aren't as groggy for another reason, too: My Ambien use is down to once or twice a month. I usually take it only on trips. When you don't waste half the day in a drug-hangover fog, you can get a lot more done. I still struggle to keep the fridge stocked with healthy food, and my weight hasn't changed all that much, but I have the energy to exercise more. Along with taking a daily morning walk outside, I'm doing yoga three times a week, as well as fitting in a weekend run, so my clothes are looser. More important, I feel great, and I'm in better shape all around.
Looking back, I'm a bit horrified by the pills and the 10 years of on-and-off chronic insomnia, crankiness, and frustration. I used to think of my bed as the enemy. But now I end the long day looking forward to a good night.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.