Unfortunately, just like with a good diet, simply knowing the importance of sleep isn’t enough to make it happen. More than just knowing the importance of sleep, we have to create a good sleep environment and optimize the factors that lead to good sleep.
Sleep is certainly one very-important aspect of health that I struggle with personally. It is easy to make the excuse that I’ve had babies or toddlers to keep me awake for the last (almost) decade, but the truth is that I’m also bad about turning off and unwinding, even when all the kids are already asleep.
I’m still a work in progress for being able to stop working and get to bed early, but I’ve found several factors that really improve my sleep quality and make it easier to fall asleep quickly.
Why Create a Good Sleep Environment?
We spend about 1/3 of our life sleeping. This is, of course, an average of the 23.5 hours a day we sleep as infants and the 1.5 hours a day we sleep as parents of infants, but by the time we sleep for the last time, we’ve spent approximately 1/3 of our life snoozing.
In fact, we statistically spend as much or more time in our beds and bedrooms as we do anywhere else, so it is important to make sure that your sleep environment is promoting health in as many ways as possible. Improving sleep environment can have lasting benefits to other aspects of your life, including your physical health, mental focus and even work performance.
These factors can make a tremendous difference in improving a sleep environment:
Lose the Light…
Light, or lack thereof, is vital for regulating circadian rhythm and sleep patterns. The presence of even a small amount of blue light in the bedroom at night can reduce vital melatonin levels and disrupt sleep.
This is the reason I wear dorky orange sunglasses at night and cover the blue light on my smoke alarm with electrical tape.
Many of us think we are sleeping in darkness, but forget mini light sources like clocks, charging cell phones, TV lights and other tiny light sources.
Why does it matter so much?
For much of human history, we had sunlight during the day and no light or only orange hues from the moon, stars, or campfire at night. Now, we have artificial light in various shades and spectrums and our bodies respond to these differently. Even ambient light in a normal house is 12-30 times brighter than natural moonlight and in much different colors.
At night, in darkness, our pineal glands produce melatonin which is vital for regulating cortisol, hormones and body temperature. Even small amounts of artificial light can interrupt this process, and this partially explains why so many of us have disrupted cortisol patterns.
As this article explains:
And just to add insult to injury, many modern devices emit blue light from light-emitting diodes (LEDs) — light that’s especially good at suppressing melatonin. This is because melanopsin — a photopigment found in specialized cells of the retina involved in the regulation of circadian rhythms — is most sensitive to blue light.
Crazy as it seems, even a little bit of light in your bedroom at night, especially blue light, can disrupt hormones and potentially lead to weight gain, blood sugar problems, increased cancer risk, higher chance of depression and anxiety, premature aging and heart problems.
What To Do:
- Get your bedroom (and your child’s bedroom) as dark as possible!
- Cover light sources and remove any unnecessary electronics
- If you have artificial light outside (like streetlights), use blackout curtains to cover windows or try a sleep mask
- Avoid computers, phone screens and TV for at least 90 minutes before bed, or if you must, use orange glasses to block blue spectrum light
Keep Your Cool…
Temperature is another important factor for great sleep. Your body temperature naturally cools slightly during sleep, and this occurs most easily when your bedroom is at certain temperatures.
A room that is too hot or too cold can affect sleep quality and even reduce the quality of REM sleep. Most experts recommend a bedroom temperature of 62-68 degrees with comfortably warm bedding and socks.
Temperature is so important, in fact, that one initial study showed that insomniacs who wore cooling caps that helped reduce body temperature were able to sleep as soundly and for the same amount of time as those without sleep disorders. (1)
What to Do:
- Keep your bedroom at a cool but comfortable temperature for you.
- Choose bedding that warms but doesn’t make you hot
- Wear socks so you don’t get cool when your body temperature drops during sleep
- Completely anecdotally, I’ve found that an ice pack on my forehead or the back of my neck helps me fall asleep if I’m having trouble
- Use a temperature regulating device for your bed like the Chili Pad to stay cooler and improve your sleep
The Right Kind of Noise…
Many people use sound machines to block out noise and help them sleep. This is helpful for many people and in theory, this is great, but with a caveat. Heather explains it in detail in this post,:
White noise is actually machine-generated static that is used to mask annoying or distracting sounds. It works by combining all the frequencies we can hear – about 20,000 tones – into one sound. Basically, it’s the equivalent of a huge orchestra all playing a different note at once. What you get is not music, but a wall of sound that blocks other sound.
Of course, few of us (if any) can relax to the sound of scratchy static generated by a radio, or any other form. White noise manufacturers know that, so they embed the static within sound clips of waves or rain to make it more palatable. Though it seems like a sensible solution, this approach may actually cause several problems.
Some studies suggest that these artificial forms of white noise can create a cortisol response in the body and reduce focus and that long term, they may even impair brain function and development in children.
At the same time, sound machines are an important sleep solution for many families, helping children (and adults) fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer.
For years, we would let our children fall asleep listening to choral music, soothing classical or even Gregorian chant, but after they broke about six CD players and we realized that CDs and CD players are getting harder to buy, we needed a better solution.
What to do:
Our family now uses the Sleep Genius app, which provides soothing ambient noise without the high-pitched white noise frequencies found in most sound machines and apps. There are two options for this:
- Sleep Genius App (inexpensive): Sleep Genius makes this simple app that provides the correct frequencies of ambient noise that won’t raise cortisol or impair mental function and that help the brain sleep more restfully. This $5 app works wonderfully on its own. I use this in our room, but turn my phone on airplane mode at night (to avoid call/text interruptions and the wi-fi and cell tower signal). The only downside of this app is that we don’t have enough smart phones to use it in all of our bedrooms
- Sleep Genius Sound System: This system has speakers and an iPod shuffle loaded with the Sleep Genius tracks. It is wired and does not require a smart phone, so this was a better solution for our kids rooms. TIP: If you get this system for your kids, I recommend putting it on a shelf up-high so it doesn’t meet the same fate as our six CD players did. If you want to order the whole system, you can find it by clicking this link and scrolling to the bottom to “Accessories.” Use the code “WellnessMama” for 10% off.
A Good Mattress…
I feel like our mattress saga could be a book on its own. For years, we slept on a mattress that we bought new off Craigslist for $100. It worked and was comfortable but it wasn’t organic and it started to really show its wear after about 7 years (and a bunch of toddlers bouncing on it while I folded laundry).
We eventually made the jump to an organic mattress, which was wonderful for the kids, but after a few months, my husband started having back pain because the mattress was too soft. We realized the mattress was the problem when we would travel and his back would immediately stop hurting.
I knew we would have to switch mattresses… again, but organic mattresses are not inexpensive, and we were determined to try (and only buy) a mattress that we could try and return if it didn’t help his back.
What we did…
After a lot of research, the recommendation of two close friends, and the chance to try it, we settled on Intellibed and his back pain has been completely gone ever since. Long way of saying that finding the right mattress can be a long (and expensive) road and I hope you don’t ever have such a long journey of finding one that works for you.
In general, look for a mattress that is organic and contains only inert materials. For us, Intellibed was the perfect mix of support and comfort with all safe materials. (You can get a 10% discount on an Intellibed with the code “WellnessMama” at this link if you want to try it too).
Whatever you choose, make sure you research your mattress (and try it!) before buying it.
Clear the Air…
Air quality can directly affect sleep. The Harvard School of Public Health found that poor indoor air quality increased the risk of sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, which is one of the fastest growing sleep disorders. Listen to this podcast episode with expert Dr. Meghna Dassani for more on sleep apnea.
Indoor air pollution and the resulting sleep disorders may also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. This makes sense because we are sedentary and indoors at night, and are breathing more indoor air, which we know is often up to 70 times more polluted than outdoor air.
What to do:
- Plants: NASA research found that house plants were an effective way to clean indoor air, and they used plants to purify that air in space facilities. Here is a list of child and pet safe plants that effectively purify indoor air. Bonus: plants are beautiful to look at and some research shows that just like being outdoors, seeing plants on a regular basis can help reduce stress and improve mental outlook.
- Inexpensive Air Filters: Three inexpensive ways to clean indoor air are: Bamboo Charcoal bags, Salt Lamps and Beeswax Candles. This post explains why they work and how to use them.
- The Most Effective Option: Not inexpensive, but this Austin Air Purifier is the best I’ve ever found. It has five filters and can remove dander, allergens, mold, and smoke from indoor air. I got this for our family last year for Christmas.
Put Your Feet Up…
This is technically done before bed, but I’ve found that this is one simple (and free) thing I can do that really improves my sleep quality and helps me fall asleep more quickly.
The theory is that since most of us are standing or sitting most of the day, blood and lymph fluid can collect in the legs and this can actually affect cortisol patterns as well. I explain more in this post and Ian Clark explains in detail in this podcast, but putting your legs up at a 90 degree angle before bed can help this fluid drain and can also help balance cortisol levels.
What to do:
For about 30 minutes before bed, lay on a flat surface (bed or floor) and put your feet up on another surface a couple feet higher at a 90 degree angle. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is on the bed with pillows stacked under my legs, or on the floor with my legs and feet up on a couch. Basically, it should look like you are in the sitting position, but with your back on the ground.
I hope that some of these tips will be as helpful to you as they are to my family. Certainly, some of these options are not in every budget, but even if you just cover your windows with some dark cloth or old blankets and create a dark sleep environment or sleep with the windows open when it gets a little cooler, I hope you’ll experiment and figure out how to make your own perfect sleep environment.
Strong what do you do to create a better sleep environment?