"If you want amazing sack time, the kind that will boost your energy levels and slow the aging process, you need to build it from the bed up." In this article the experts weigh in on everything from the best beds to the best sleeping pills. Insomniacs, prepare to crash. Peter Powers puts people to sleep. He isn't boring; he's a hypnotist. In 1993, the Australian entertainer brought his trance-inducing act to Liverpool, where he made a man lie down in a shop-window display and fall sound asleep. Eight days later, the guy woke up (no doubt with a store-clearing case of morning breath). Neat trick, huh? Unfortunately, unless you're sporting a gold pocket watch and excel at mind control (your own), this isn't something you can try at home....
A truckload of mattresses, sheets, blankets, and pillows to identify the ultimate combination for catching serious shut-eye were tested. And for those occasional stare-at-the-ceiling emergencies, the best over-the-counter sleep supplement and prescription sleeping pill were recommended. Does all of this mean you'll snooze like the Liverpudlian? No, but you'll feel like you did.
THE MATTRESS - There's more to take home from hotels than mini shampoo bottles. Chains such as Four Seasons, Westin, and W have been working with mattress manufacturers to create the most comfortable sleep surface possible. Made to the exact specifications of each hotel, the beds feature more coils and cushioning than even high-end store models. "It's the same reason hotels develop special blends of coffee," says Richard Adie, director of the Statler Hotel at the Cornell school of hotel administration. "Positive reactions mean return business." And, like the coffee, they're for sale. We tried five: the W Mattress, Westin's Heavenly Bed, Sheraton's Sweet Sleeper, the Four Seasons Signature Mattress, and the Four Points Four Comfort Bed. Although all were conk-out comfortable, only one was a sleeper hit.
Best in class: Thanks to a near-perfect balance of support and padding, the Four Comfort Bed ($1,300, starwoodhotels.com) provides the ultimate slumber surface. The specially designed Sealy mattress sits atop a foundation made of heavy-gauge, high-carbon steel, which does a better job of flexing to absorb weight and movement than a traditional box spring. Need something softer? Check out the Heavenly Bed ($1,450, westin.com); its pillow-top mattress provides an extra layer of padding that you can sink into without being swallowed up.
THE SHEETS - If you shop for sheets, you'll come across the term "thread count." This is marketing jargon for the number of threads woven into 1 square inch, the idea being that the higher the count, the softer the sheet. And that's true--up to a point. "You can't get more than 500 threads into a square inch," says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a senior vice president at Phoenix Sleep LLC. "Companies will take two 500-thread-count sheets and weave them together and call it 1,000." Instead of looking for quadruple-digit counts, pay attention to the fabric. The rule: Go with natural fibers, such as cotton, and avoid synthetics, which are less absorbent, says Breus. "Over the course of an evening, you can release close to a half gallon of sweat and oils."
Best in class: Make your bed with Garnet Hill Signature flannel sheets ($135 for king size, garnethill.com). A napped cotton surface makes these sheets somnolent soft. And, while warm, they weren't oppressively so. Runner-up: Pure Beech sateen sheets ($100, bedbathandbeyond.com). They're woven with fiber from beech trees and were lighter than the Garnet Hill flannels and nearly as soft.
THE BLANKET - Remember the best sleep of your life? Probably not, since it was when you were only hours old, says Gerard Lombardo, M.D., director of the sleep-disorders center at New York Methodist Hospital. He says that one reason infants are born to sleep is because they're swaddled with blankets, which gives them the secure sensation of being in utero. So where does that leave an overtired adult? Shopping for a new cocoon. "Using a comforter can give you that feeling again," says Dr. Lombardo. Our mission: Crawl under a variety of fabrics filled with a range of insulations and discover which comforter is king.
Best in class: For that just-out-of-the-womb feeling, you can't beat the Isotonic Indulgence down-alternative comforter ($180, bedbathandbeyond.com). It's filled with hypoallergenic synthetic-down fibers, which kept us warm but not baking the way goose down can. Of course, if you live in a hot zone, even the Isotonic may prove stifling. "If you're sweating, you're not going to sleep," says Dr. Lombardo. Go with Wamsutta's Egyptian cotton weave blanket ($70, springs.com); the weave allows cool air to circulate through.
THE PILLOW - If you're pillow-fighting with lingerie models, any old stuffed sack will do. But for sound, safe sleep, you need a pillow that will keep your neck aligned with your spine. "The more neutral your neck's position, the wider the nerve passageways running through it will open," says Mark McLaughlin, M.D., a spinal surgeon at University Medical Center at Princeton. The results: a reduced risk of neck pain, and more restful sleep. So what's the best prop for the job? Memory foam. "It's been a great advancement in pillow technology," says Dr. McLaughlin, explaining that memory foam molds to your head and neck, keeping everything lined up as if you were standing straight. And, unlike with feather fills, it won't lose its shape over time.
Best in class: Lay your noggin on the Select Comfort's Grid-Zone pillow ($90, www.select comfort.com). The egg-crate surface conformed perfectly to our tester's head and neck, dramatically reducing how much he tossed and turned. If you sleep on your back, though, the Grid-Zone might be too thick. Try the TempurPedic Classic ($100, tempurpedic.com); it's a bit thinner but still supportive.
THE SUPPLEMENT - Despite its rep, melatonin isn't nature's knockout drug. "It's mostly effective in treating sleep loss related to your circadian clock," says Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D., director of the Northside Hospital Sleep Medicine Institute, in Atlanta. So if you're lagging from a transatlantic flight or logging a 7-to-3 shift, pop a small dose of the hormone when you need to sack out (3 milligrams is plenty). But if all you want is a better, longer night's sleep, you'll need to swallow something else. We tried several supplements purported to provide quality shut-eye, then woke up and reviewed the research behind each.
Best in class: Only valerian root left us refreshed and had sound science to explain why. The root contains valerenic acid and valepotriates, two chemicals that have powerful sedative properties. In fact, a study in the European Journal of Medical Research found that valerian is comparable to Oxazepam, a medication sometimes used to treat insomnia. Look for the version from Nutrilite ($25, nutrilite.com), which not only contains the most-studied formulation--450 milligrams, plus hops--but also, according to tests by Consumerlab.com, is free of contaminants.
THE SLEEPING PILL - Popping a supermarket sleeping pill is a lot like whacking your head with a mallet: Both strategies will send you into la-la land, but it won't be a restful trip. "Over-the-counter products will change your sleep architecture," explains Gary Zammit, Ph.D., of the Sleep Disorders Institute at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City. In other words, OTC sleep meds shorten the time you're in the deep stages of sleep, leaving you exhausted in the a.m. What's more, the effects can last long after the alarm goes off, and may make your head feel fuzzy. So if you try everything else and your sleep is still subpar, talk to your doctor about a pharmaceutical fix. "Prescription pills are appropriate for both chronic and occasional insomnia," says Zammit.
Best in class: Ask your M.D. about Lunesta, a sleep drug that was approved by the FDA in late 2004. Unlike its chemical cousins Sonata and Ambien, which tend to lose their potency toward morning, Lunesta is effective throughout the sleep cycle--without disrupting the critical deep stages. It put our guinea pig to sleep in record time, kept him there for 8 hours, and left him feeling wide-eyed and alert the next day. And, according to Rosenberg, "your insomnia won't return twice as bad when you stop taking it," a common complaint about other prescription sleeping pills.