By Nancy Gottesman
You have to live in dreamland if you want a good night's sleep, according to the usual expert advice: Make your bedroom into a spa like sanctuary. Don't drink a drop of caffeine after 2 p.m. No laptops in the bedroom. So we were shocked when sleep doctor Michael Breus, PhD, admitted that he drifts off with the TV on and his Chihuahua, Sparky, and cat, Monte, in the bed -- two major no-nos. His refreshing philosophy: "Steer clear of all the hard-and-fast rules and do what makes sense for your lifestyle." That we can handle. Read on for more surprising sleep tips that mere mortals like us can actually follow.
Sleep in on weekends.
Forget all the blah-blah about maintaining a consistent wakeup time every day. Snoozing late on the weekend can have real benefits. Adults who were sleep deprived for five days (sound like your workweek?) made up for it somewhat -- bouncing back closer to their baseline brain function and alertness -- when they clocked 10 hours the next night, a study in the journal Sleep found. Still, it's best to snooze only an extra hour or two come Saturday and Sunday. "Any more than that will reset your body clock, and then you won't be able to fall asleep on Sunday night," says Carol E. Ash, a sleep specialist in Monmouth County, New Jersey. If the additional winks aren't enough to make you feel rested, take a 20-minute nap at 3 or 4 p.m. on the weekend, which won't mess with your internal timetable, Ash says.
Exercise before bed -- it's OK, really!
Working out after dinner has long been considered a don't by sleep docs. But -- surprise! -- it may actually help you snooze better. Young adults who rode a stationary bike for about 35 minutes, finishing two hours before bedtime, conked out faster and slept more deeply than when they didn't exercise, a recent study in the Journal of Sleep Research found. If you discover you're too revved up to go to bed after a nighttime sweat session, keep a weekly log of your exercise time and how you sleep afterward, advises Lisa Shives, MD, the founder of Northshore Sleep and Weight Management Medicine in Evanston, Illinois, and a medical expert for SleepBetter.org. You may learn that a treadmill jog within an hour of hitting the hay is disastrous for dozing, but that doing it two to three hours beforehand makes you sleep like a baby. Exercise, whenever you can get it, is one of the best sleep medicines, period, Dr. Shives says.
Snuggle with Fluffy.
Feel lonely? If you do, you're likely to wake up more often during the night, a University of Chicago study found. Consider picking up a new bedmate...at your local animal rescue society. "I tell my patients who don't like sleeping alone to consider getting a dog," Dr. Shives says. A pet helps many women feel less isolated, which can restore sound sleep. It's fine to break the no-pets-in-bed rule even when you're not lonely, especially if keeping your furry friend out creates more disruption than letting him in. "If I banned my cat from the bedroom, he would paw at the door all night long, and I would get even less sleep," says Breus, the author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep.
Related: 5 Gadgets to Improve Your Sleep
Play a bedtime story.
The next time you wake up in the middle of the night and can't fall back to sleep, ignore the prevailing wisdom about getting out of bed to read by dim light. Dr. Shives recommends a new strategy: Quiet your churning mind with an audiobook, preloaded on your phone or music player and at the ready, bedside. Plug in your earbuds, press "Play," and cover the display to block the glow. The story shouldn't be too stimulating, so choose a biography or your favorite book from childhood instead of, say, Fifty Shades of Grey. In 15 to 20 minutes the narrative should soothe you to sleep, Dr. Shives says. If TV has always been a snoozing aid for you, follow Breus's trick: Use a TV with a sleep timer and set it to switch off after 30 minutes.
Think before you drink.
It's generally a good idea to cut out coffee, soda, and energy drinks seven to eight hours before bedtime. But the half-life of caffeine affects everyone differently. Download Caffeine Zone 2 Lite (free at the iTunes App Store), developed by Penn State researchers, to help you predict the hour at which caffeine will still deliver a kick without stealing sleep. Also be aware that a nightcap can be as disastrous for your slumber as an after-dinner cappuccino. Under the influence, you snooze in seconds. Problem is, you'll wake up four or five hours later. And healthy women are much more susceptible to the "sleepus interruptus" effects of overimbibing, according to a recent University of Michigan study. "The best rule: Have your last drink three hours before you turn in," Breus says.
Score better sleep.
You log your workouts, so why not your zzz's? A spate of new sleeptracking devices with mobile apps, including Zeo Sleep Manager and Lark, allow you to monitor such habits as the time at which you fall asleep and get up, how much light versus deep sleep you're getting, and the number of times you awaken during the night. We like the Renew SleepClock ($200, us.gear4.com; Renew SleepClock app, free, iTunes App Store) because you don't have to wear anything on your body to use it; your movements and breathing rates are detected and monitored through your iPhone, which rests on the SleepClock's docking station on your nightstand. "None of these devices are diagnostic, so they're not going to tell you if you have sleep apnea or insomnia," Breus says. "But they give you information about your sleep and make you think about how you can improve it." For instance, an app can help you notice a pattern, like how your slumber improves on days you exercise. Or you may be surprised to learn, as one FITNESS editor did, that you're getting a lot less sleep than you think.