Sleep: Room for improvement

Small changes in your sleeping environment can greatly improve your quality of sleep.

Your bedroom, the bed, your mattress and your pillow all matter because that's where you ultimately sleep. Any problem in any of these factors can seriously compromise the quality of your sleep—leaving you feeling groggy and tired the next day instead of fresh and chirpy.

Get the right gear

Bedroom: Keep it simple

Decorate your bedroom as simply as possible. Choose muted colours such as neutrals or light pastels for the walls and bedding. A light blue ceiling is generally considered soothing. If you use brighter accents, avoid contrasting colours because they discourage rest.

Keep the bedroom decor to a minimum and reduce visual clutter and stimuli. For example, leave toiletries in the bathroom. Clear off that bureau. Get rid of all those magazines and books on the night table.

A plant, a scenic painting and photos of family are sufficient decorations to balance a bedroom with pleasant memories and produce equally pleasant dreams.

Mattress: Get a good one

Do you wake up stiff or in pain? Are there visible sags and lumps [in the mattress, not you]? Have you recently gotten a better night's sleep somewhere else [maybe even in a tent]? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it's probably time for a new mattress. Here are some tips for buying a great one:

  • Try it out: Don't get lured or bogged down by product claims. Test it. When you lie down, your head, neck and spinal cord should be aligned as if you were standing. Make sure your body is well-supported at all contact points, especially the lumbar region [lower spine]. It doesn't matter if the mattress is classified as soft, medium or firm as long as it provides a good foundation. If you and your partner prefer different mattresses, consider buying twin beds and pushing them together.
  • Look under the hood: If you're considering an innerspring mattress [a mattress that has wire coils for support], ask about coil count [higher is better]. The coils should also be individually pocketed for low motion transfer. Otherwise, you'll be sleeping on a trampoline, and a light movement by your partner will disrupt up to 20 per cent of your deep sleep. Some foam mattresses generate heat, so ask your mattress dealer if you can test one at home for two weeks in the summer to make sure you're comfortable. If you like waterbeds, make sure the vinyl is thick enough to ensure durability, and that the bladder has several compartments to reduce seasickness.
  • Give yourself plenty of room: If you share your bed, be aware that a full-size mattress only affords enough space for a single sleeper who's, at most, 5ft 5 inches tall. Thus, you should be considering only queen- and king-size models. To be safe, test the mattress with your partner to be sure there's enough room for both of you to sleep comfortably.
  • Spend what it takes: You spend one-third of your life in bed. This is not the place to pinch pennies. Buy the best mattress you can afford. And if we still haven't convinced you, know that you are not the only one who reproduces in your bed. The weight of your mattress doubles every 10 years due to dust mites!

Pillow: Comfort counts

Just as there are different sleeping styles, there are different pillows to suit them. When selecting a pillow, try it out just like you did your mattress. Make sure it's firm enough to support your head and neck and maintain your spine's normal curve. If you tend to fold or stack your pillows, do exactly that in the store.

A good way to test if your old pillow is still good to sleep is to fold it in half. If it unfolds and returns to its original shape, it's still usable. But if your pillow doesn't return to its original shape, you have a dead pillow. Throw it out.

If you usually sleep in a foetal position [most people do], consider a ‘side-sleeper' pillow. These have two seams so the pillow doesn't cause neck discomfort. Although a high-quality down [fine feathers] or synthetic pillow with high fill power is often preferable, foam, air, water and buckwheat pillows can provide good support as well.

Bed sheet: Feel matters

Picking a great sheet should start with the feel. Don't pay too much attention to thread count [the number of threads per square inch of fabric] because sheets may be woven with 2-ply yarns in order to double the thread count. This allows the manufacturer to label the product in a misleading way.

Although thread count plays a part, the preparation of the yarns [i.e. if they're spun or combed] ultimately determines how the product will feel and wear. For maximum comfort, stick with 100 per cent cotton. It is an ideal fabric due to its absorbent, breathable qualities.

Nightwear: Dress for rest

Soft, loose-fitting, breathable garments are ideal. Do not wear nightclothes that are too light or heavy for the season. Avoid fabrics like wool that can irritate your skin. Cotton is a great choice for nightwear because it's comfortable and breathable.

Although nightgowns and pyjamas are fading out of style, especially among young adults, the more popular sweatpants and sweatshirts can still work as long as they're cottony and comfortable. Be wary, however, of things like hooded sweatshirts because the extra fabric can bunch up at you neck and disrupt sleep.

When the weather [or the situation] warrants, by all means try sleeping in the nude. It's equally, if not more, conducive to great sleep.

Create the mood

Your bedroom should be a personal sanctuary associated only with rest and relaxation.

Here are some vital factors that make a perfect bedroom:

Temperature

19°C is the ideal sleeping temperature. If you're used to a sauna-like bedroom, reduce the temperature gradually. A bedroom that's too warm can even induce nightmares as neural activity in the brain will increase in intensity and duration as body temperature rises.

Conversely, a room that's too cold keeps your body from fully relaxing because it's trying to protect its core temperature. If 19°C feels too frigid, add a blanket, night cap, pair of socks, a special someone or a warm puppy.

Humidity

Does humidity matter? Yes! Ideal bedroom humidity is between 60–70 per cent. Invest in a humidifier, especially in winter months, to make sure your bedroom isn't too dry. A humidifier will also provide a low, constant hum that neutralises background noise. Additionally, air out your bedroom every week to ensure good air quality.

Lighting

Light is one of the most powerful cues for initiating and maintaining wakefulness. The lighting in your bedroom should provide a soft, warm glow. Use low-wattage, tungsten bulbs [45–60 watts]. Also, gradually lowering the brightness will fatigue your eyes and promote drowsiness. Once the lights are out, make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible. Wearing an eye mask is another alternative.

Sound

A quiet bedroom is crucial to a good night's rest. Noise as low as 60 decibels—the level of a normal conversation—can stimulate your nervous system. Most people can adapt to certain recurrent noise like a ticking clock or highway traffic. However, irregular, intermittent sounds like clinking radiators and honking taxis will keep you up.

You can mask these disruptive noises with the hum of an air conditioner, humidifier, fan, the static between radio stations, a CD of chirping crickets or rolling surf—generally any sound that is low and consistent. There are lots products on the market that generate white-noise. But these solutions are just as effective

Snoring spouse

If you have a partner who snores, use earplugs or invest in noise-cancelling headphones. An occasional poke in the ribs also works, although pinning a sock, with a tennis ball inside, to the back of the nightshirt is more humane. This keeps the perpetrator on his/her side and less likely to snore.

Snoring can endanger the heart by narrowing arteries and raising blood pressure. So if you or your partner snores loudly, consult your physician. The best treatments are usually non-invasive; don't hesitate, you'll both live longer.

State of your mind

Avoid watching TV, surfing the web, using Facebook, playing video games or using your iPad within one hour of bedtime. Not only is such activity cognitively-stimulating and anxiety-producing, but TV screens and computer monitors also emit a great deal of blue light. Hence, sitting in front of either within an hour before going to bed is one of the worst things we can do for our sleep pattern—it confuses the brain [our brain is getting ready for night time yet is receiving this signal to suppress melatonin and therefore be alert].

Alternatively, you can wear high-quality blue light blocking glasses that do not distort colours and in fact, sharpen the clarity of both images and text. They are intended to fit over prescription eyeglasses or can also be worn on their own.

Crawling kids

If you have young children, don't let them develop the sleep-disrupting habit of crawling into your bed on a regular basis. If they insist, try putting a sleeping bag on the floor. That way, they'll probably return to their own room after a while where the bed is more comfortable.

With inputs from Rebecca S Robbins

This was first published in the November 2010 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

 

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James Maas
James B. Maas, Ph.D. is Weiss Presidential Fellow and Professor of Psychology at Cornell University. He is co-founder and CEO of the consulting firm, Sleep for Success, which designs programs for enhancing sleep quality and daytime performance.
Sharon Driscoll
Sharon R. Driscoll is a pre-medical student at Cornell University and a member of the Sleep for Success consulting firm, where she delivers educational presentations on sleep education and research.

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