Respected shut-eye expert W. Chris Winter, MD—who Arianna Huffington dubbed “The Sleep Whisperer”—doesn’t prescribe Ambien (or any drug for that matter) to help patients drift off to dreamland.
Instead of a quick fix, Dr. Winter is all about incorporating healthy habits into a daily routine so that by lights-out, perfect sleep is inevitable. In his new book, The Sleep Solution, he reveals some of the most effective shifts for falling asleep fast—and staying that way until the alarm clock goes off. (Goals, right?)
As you can imagine, Dr. Winter rarely has trouble sleeping himself, but it’s not because he religiously sticks to every rule out there. Instead, he’s honed in on the tricks that make the biggest difference for him, and is a bit more relaxed about the rest.
Curious about his POV on caffeine, late-night eating, TV before bed, and other habits that most experts swear are no good?
Keep reading for the surprising bedtime advice that “The Sleep Whisperer” personally follows.
Dim the lights
It’s not just blue light from computers and cell phone screens that you should avoid before bed. Even as early as 6pm, you won’t find any overhead lights on in the Winter household. “I really turn them down,” the sleep expert says, adding that he uses dimmers for more control. “If my kids are doing homework, I have them turn on a lamp instead of something really bright.” That’s because melatonin, one of the main sleep hormones, is released in response to darkness—and a brightly lit room disrupts that process.
Eat dinner early
While some experts will give you a list of foods to avoid before bed, Dr. Winter doesn’t stress too much about the ingredients in his supper. He doesn’t have to, since he eats between 6 and 7 p.m.— early enough that it doesn’t really matter what’s on his plate. So maybe grab a bite before your evening workout, rather than after.
Two things he does cut off early are caffeine and alcohol. (You knew this was coming, right?) “I’m not going to tell you not to go out on Friday night and have drinks with your friends, but I will tell you that it won’t help with your sleep,” he says. Alcohol may knock you out, but it messes with your sleep quality, leaving you feeling fatigued the morning after.
As for caffeine, Dr. Winter says to save your coffee for the morning and afternoon. Yes, your 2 p.m. latte is safe, but obviously don’t break out the cold brew to power through a late night at the office—unless you want to stare at the ceiling all night.
Take care of anything stressful right after dinner
Any expert will tell you that replying to work emails from bed isn’t going to promote good sleep. But Dr. Winter is realistic—he knows that you are Very Important and can’t just shut off your phone.
His personal fix? Any work he didn’t get done at the office gets tackled immediately after dinner, and then he’s officially off duty. “I do anything stressful in the early evening, so I can have the rest of the night to wind down,” he says. “I reserve that last hour to do things that are peaceful.”
This won’t just have a positive impact on your REM cycle, but your daytime hustle, too. “Honestly, my work is so much better if I do it the next day, after I’ve had a good night’s sleep,” Dr. Winter notes.
Create a ritual
Dr. Winter points out that parents are really good about creating bedtime rituals for their children, but they aren’t so good at sticking to one themselves.
“For kids, you have them get into their PJs, brush their teeth, you read them five stories, and always end on Goodnight Moon,” he says. So how does an adult interpret this routine? For some, it might mean a good book and a cup of tea. (Dr. Winter likes one called Get Some Zzzs, made with chamomile and passion flower). If bullet journaling calms your mind, go for it.
Dr. Winter personally likes winding down by—wait for it—watching a little TV. Unlike lots of sleep experts, he’s not against it at all. He just keeps his Scandal sessions confined to the living room.
Go to bed to rest—not to sleep
On those nights when Dr. Winter gets into bed but doesn’t fall asleep immediately, he never lies awake frustrated. “I go to bed to rest, not to sleep,” he says. “It’s important to make that distinction. The goal was to turn off the lights and computer, get in a comfortable bed in a quiet, dark, cool room. If you take away the performance aspect of sleep, it works much better.”
So what does he do on nights when he just can’t conk out? He thinks about how awesome it feels to lie down and have a moment to daydream. And before he knows it, he’s, well, actually dreaming.
Serious about sleep? So is this Well+Good editor, who gave herself a 9 p.m. phone curfew for better zzz’s. If you’re trying to wake up earlier, here’s how to sleep-train yourself to become a morning person.