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I'm A Sleep Researcher & This Is Exactly How I Prep For A Night Of A+ Sleep

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October 5, 2022
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Our new sleep series, The Wind Down, provides a minute-by-minute peek into the wind-down routines that get well-being experts ready for bed. Today, we're relaxing with Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., a sleep researcher and clinician who ends every night with small, sweet gestures—and starts every morning with an ice-cold shower.
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For roughly the past 20 years, I have spent most of my waking hours thinking about, studying, and coaching people through sleep. It stands to reason then, that sleep is a nonnegotiable priority for me. I know—not only from the strong scientific evidence but also from my own personal experiences—that sleep is truly the foundation on which healthy lifestyles and health itself rests. Science clearly demonstrates that chronic sleep loss or poor-quality sleep is directly linked with increased risk for mental and physical health problems1, and cognitive decline2 (which is something I am increasingly more wary of as I get older).

The consequences of disturbed sleep go well beyond the individual, also affecting our closest relationships. As I write in my book, Sharing the Covers: Every Couple's Guide to Better Sleep, if you're not going to sleep for yourself, then do it for your partner and everyone else around you! Frankly, we are all just better human beings when we are well slept.

Frankly, we are all just better human beings when we are well slept.

As for my personal relationship with sleep, I almost always fall asleep quickly, and most nights, I get good-quality sleep. But there are some nights when I wake up around 3 or 4 in the morning and I can't fall back to sleep. Generally, this happens when I am feeling a lot of pressure at work, or I am feeling worried about how one of my kids is doing. Like so many other women of a certain age, I am also rapidly approaching the menopausal transition and am finding that these middle-of-the-night awakenings are happening more frequently than they used to.

The good news is, I practice what I preach. If I wake up in the middle of the night and can't fall back to sleep, I don't just lie there and wish I could fall back to sleep. Rather, I do exactly what I teach my clients to do, which is to get out of bed, go to the living room, and read a book until I find my eyelids getting droopy and I feel sleepy enough to return to bed. This teaches my brain that the bed is for sleep, not for frustration, worry, or "working" to fall asleep. Knowing that I have this backup strategy of what to do if I wake up and can't fall back to sleep gives me a sense of control and reduces the chances that I will start feeling anxious or nervous about the consequences of not sleeping. Having a go-to strategy of what to do when you have "one of those nights" is a great way to avoid catastrophizing about the consequences of not sleeping, which will only lead to more anxiety and sleepless nights.

I know that most of the time, I get good sleep because I practice a variety of healthy sleep behaviors, like having a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, keeping the room cool and dark, and keeping my phone out of the bedroom. Here's a peek into my go-to habits and routine.

sleep stats written over line gradient
  • Average hours I sleep a night: 8 to 8.5 hours
  • Ideal bedtime: 10:30 p.m.
  • Ideal wake-up time: 7 a.m.
  • Nightstand essentials: Eyemask, Kindle, rosemary-scented pillow spray 
  • Favorite place I've ever slept: Believe it or not, some of my best nights of sleep have happened while camping with my husband in northern Utah. There is nothing I love more than snuggling into a cozy sleeping bag. It's cold outside, completely dark, and absolutely quiet, except for the sound of a river running next to our campsite.
  • Sleep bad habit: Six days a week, I am fairly religious about getting out of bed as soon as I wake up. But on Sundays, although I still wake up at about the same time, I allow myself the luxury of staying in bed for an extra hour or so while drinking coffee and watching CBS Sunday Morning. It is a guilty pleasure of mine for sure, as I know that maintaining a consistent wake-up time is critical for healthy sleep.
  • Caffeine consumption: While I certainly advise people on the potential sleep-interfering effects of caffeine consumption (particularly later in the day or taken in excessive quantities), I am not going to be the one to tell you to cut caffeine completely. I love my daily coffee and look forward to it every morning, but I do follow a few simple rules: No caffeine after 1 p.m. and no more than two cups (OK, maybe three in dire situations) in a day.
  • How I track my sleep: I tend to be low-tech when it comes to my sleep. I trust my own perception of my sleep more than a sleep tracker. I know what it feels like to wake up feeling refreshed and alert.
  • The last product or habit that changed my sleep for the better: I have been really focused lately on sticking with a strong morning "wind-up" ritual. My wind-up includes 10 minutes of morning light exposure and a cold shower! I never thought I'd be able to stick with the cold shower bit, but I find that taking a one- to three-minute cold shower first thing in the morning is an incredibly effective way to make me feel awake and alert, even if I had a not-so-great night of sleep. I also find that it helps to build my mental resilience, as I can tell myself "that was probably the most difficult thing you will do all day!" After my cold shower, I throw my bathrobe on, grab my coffee, and take my dogs out in our backyard, so they can run around and I can get a healthy, circadian-effective dose of morning light. A good night of sleep starts with a strong wind-up routine.
my sleep routine written over gradient
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8 p.m.: Fasting begins. Intermittent fasting (typically a 15/9 schedule) is helpful for me because I know nothing I consume (food or drink) after 8 p.m. is ever healthy or good for my sleep.

8:30 p.m.: Returned home this afternoon after a weekend in Santa Cruz, watching my son compete in a half Ironman. Even spectating these endurance events is exhausting! I am definitely feeling fatigued from the weekend and the travel, but I know I may need some extra wind-down to help shift my biological clock an hour later (from PDT to MT).

8:35 p.m.: I close the blinds in the living room and turn down all the lights in the house to help cue my brain that it is nighttime.

8:40 p.m.: After some discussion with my husband about what show we should watch, we land on a documentary about the tennis player Mardy Fish on the Untold series. Documentaries are a pretty safe bet for us for nighttime entertainment because we both enjoy them, and it's a good way to avoid watching anything too disturbing, like Ozark or the news, which tends to keep me up at night.

9:43 p.m.: I rouse the dogs from the couch and let them outside one more time before bed, then send them to their doggy beds in the laundry room. (I am not one to let my dogs sleep with us, as much as I love them. I care about my sleep too much!)

9:47 p.m.: I plug my phone into the charging station we keep in our kitchen (and out of the bedroom).

9:50 p.m.: I put on my pajamas, brush my teeth, wash my face, moisturize, fill my water bottle (which I place on my bedside table), and set my running clothes on my dresser so I'm ready for my run tomorrow.

9:55 p.m.: I spray my sheets and pillow with rosemary-scented pillow spray, climb in bed, and grab my Kindle. Technically speaking, the bed is supposed to be used for sleep and sex only, but for me, reading is soporific and it's part of my ritual. I am currently reading Stephen King's Fairy Tale. I love his storytelling, but I will need to be careful if this particular story gets too disturbing or scary. If that happens, I'll have to make this a daytime-only book so that it doesn't keep me up at night or give me nightmares. So far, though, it's a nice story about a boy and a dog and a somewhat mysterious old man.

10:17 p.m.: I've only made it through a handful of pages, and my eyes are starting to go half-mast. Time for bed.

10:20 p.m.: Kiss my hubby good night and enjoy a few minutes of cuddling. As I discuss in my book, it's really important for couples to punctuate the starts and ends of their days with small but sweet gestures. Even a quick cuddle is a great way to connect and personally gives me a wonderful sense of comfort. Then, I turn over to my side of the bed and take a moment to just experience how good it feels to be in bed, in my comfy sheets. I love this moment before falling asleep. I savor it, knowing it won't be long until I drift off to sleep.

6:43 a.m.: I wake up on my own. I check the clock and realize I have a few minutes to cuddle with my husband, which feels especially good on this chilly morning. I'm feeling a bit groggy, but that's probably just due to the busy weekend, not a reflection of my sleep. I rouse myself out of bed.

6:47 a.m.: I grab my toothbrush and bring it into the COLD shower with me. I take a deep breath and submerge myself in the cold water. It's definitely a shock to the system. I do a little jogging in place to help myself cope with the temperature, and I brush my teeth while singing the alphabet song to help pass the time.

6:50 a.m.: By the time I finish singing the alphabet song, that's my cue that I've endured the cold long enough, so it's time to get out of the shower. I am now wide-awake. As I am engaging in this bit of self-torture, my husband starts brewing the coffee for us.

7 a.m.: Coffee in hand, I grab my dogs from the room where they sleep and take them to our backyard, where I throw the ball for them, get my 10 minutes of sunlight exposure, and do Wordle. I really look forward to this ritual now. I know it's good for my dogs and it's good for me, as getting sunlight first thing is one of the most effective strategies for setting my circadian rhythm, which in turn, sets me up for sleep success at night. I relish this peaceful time to myself before diving into work or family responsibilities.

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Wendy Troxel, Ph.D.
Wendy Troxel, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Sleep Specialist

Dr. Wendy Troxel is a Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist at the RAND Corporation and author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep.

She holds Adjunct Professor positions at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Utah. She is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders. She is internationally recognized for her research on sleep the consequences of sleep loss on health, our relationships, and the economy.

Dr. Troxel co-authored the widely cited report demonstrating that sleep loss costs the US economy $411 billion per year. Her TEDx talk on adolescent sleep and school start times has received over 2.2 million views. Dr. Troxel is a highly sought-after public speaker and frequent contributor to top-tier media outlets including ABC World News Tonight, CBS Sunday Morning, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the BBC, CNN, and National Geographic. Her mission is to help people improve sleep to optimize their health, relationships, well-being, and productivity.