The Sleep Environment
Does that drip, drip, drip of the faucet keep you up at night? Do you need to keep your fan running because "white noise" helps you sleep? Have you ever tossed and turned because you were too hot, or too cold? What about the barking dog or the cat that jumps onto your bed – have they ever disrupted your zzz's? Most of us recognize that our sleep environment can greatly affect how (and if) we sleep, but are you doing everything you can to make your bedroom a sleep haven? Learn about the do's and don'ts of the sleep environment and then get tips for making your bedroom more sleep-friendly.
Noises at levels as low as 40 decibels or as high as 70 decibels can keep us awake. That means that a dripping faucet can steal your sleep, as well as the next door neighbor's blaring stereo. But the absence or presence of a familiar noise can have as great an impact on your sleep as out-of-the-ordinary noises. Studies show that sirens and traffic noise from a city street can actually become soothing to longtime city sleepers (they will cringe at the thought of sleeping in the serene desert or mountain climate) just as the absence of the tick, tick, tick of your favorite clock while you try to sleep at a hotel can become a sleep stealer.
What to do:
Try to block out unwanted sounds with earplugs or use "white noise" such as a fan, air cleaner or sound conditioner. Take your favorite clock with you when you travel in order to recreate familiar sounds that help you sleep.
In most cases, temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit and below 54 degrees will disrupt sleep, but even sleep researchers fail to agree on the ideal temperature for sleep. The point at which sleep is interrupted due to temperature or climate conditions varies from person to person and can be affected by bed clothes and bedding materials selected by the sleeper. In general, most sleep scientists believe that a slightly cool room contributes to good sleep. That's because it mimics what occurs inside the body when the body's internal temperature drops during the night to its lowest level. (For good sleepers, this occurs about four hours after they begin sleeping.)
What to do:
In general, sleep scientists recommend keeping your room slightly cool -- Turning the thermostat down at night in cold weather sets the stage for sleep and saves on fuel bills. Blankets, comforters or electric blankets can lock in heat without feeling too heavy or confining. Or the heat-seeking partner might dress in warmer bedclothes while the warmer partner might opt not to wear sleep clothes or bed covering. A room that's too hot can also be disruptive. In fact, research suggests that a hot sleeping environment leads to more wake time and lighter sleep at night, while awakenings multiply. An air conditioner or fan can help, and a humidifier can provide relief if you're suffering from a sore throat or dryness in your nose.
Much of our sleep patterns – feeling sleepy at night and awake during the day – are regulated by light and darkness. Light - strong light, like bright outdoor light (which is brighter than indoor light even on cloudy days) - is the most powerful regulator of our biological clock. The biological clock influences when we feel sleepy and when we feel alert. As a result, finding the balance of light and darkness exposure is important. Bright light helps to keep you awake during the day, but in the evening prior to sleep, bright lights can be disturbing.
What to do:
Make sure to expose yourself to enough bright light during the day. Find time for sunlight, or purchase a lightbox or light visor to supplement your exposure to bright light. At bedtime, think dark: a dark bedroom contributes to better sleep. Try light blocking curtains, shades or blinds. If you find yourself waking earlier than you'd like, try increasing your exposure to bright light in the evening. It may delay sleep onset but as little as one to two hours of evening bright light exposure may help you sleep longer in the morning. Also, make sure to avoid light if you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Minimize light by using a low illumination night light.
For the most part, we know people sleep better when horizontal and not cramped by space, and it is clear that the sleep surface plays a role in getting a good night's sleep. For example, tossing and turning on a lumpy 20-year-old mattress that doesn't provide support for your back or neck can impede you from getting the sleep you need and make you very sleepy (and stiff) the next day. Mattress experts say that too often consumers believe that ultra-firm mattresses are good for them, but research on patients with back pain found this was not true and a more supple, comforting mattress may lead to better sleep.
What to do:
Give yourself enough space to sleep. If you share a bed with a partner, make sure it is large enough to give both of you room to move around. Replace an old mattress with a new one, and choose a pillow and mattress that fits you best (soft, firm, thick, thin?) and will be comfortable throughout the whole night. Consumer Reports recently found that consumers who spent 15 minutes or more testing each mattress at the store were more likely to be happy with their purchase. When choosing pillows, find the shape and construction that supports your head and neck and that you find most comfortable. And change your pillows regularly. If you have allergies or asthma, you may also wish to purchase hypo-allergenic covers designed to protect from possible allergic triggers such as dust mites.
Bed partners with sleep disorders can negatively impact your sleep. Have you ever been kept awake by your partner's snoring? Or been jolted out of a sound sleep by your partner's restless movements? If so, you're not alone. According to the National Sleep Foundation's 2005 Sleep in America poll, 67% of respondents reported that their partner snores, 27% said their intimate relationship was affected because they were too sleepy, and 38% said they have had problems in their relationship due to their partner's sleep disorder.
What to do:
Start off by talking to your partner about the problem. If he/she has not sought treatment for a potential sleep disorder, encourage them to see a doctor. Consider ear plugs if snoring prevents your sleep. Try to create a sleeping arrangement that is comfortable for both you and your partner. Keep the lines of communication open.
TVs, computers, and work in the bedroom are sleep stealing culprits. NSF’s 2005 Sleep in America poll found that 87% of respondents watched TV within an hour of going to bed at least a few nights a week. Doing work, watching TV and using the computer, both close to bedtime and especially in the bedroom, hinders quality sleep. Violent shows, news reports and stories before bedtime can be agitating. The sleep environment should be used only for sleep and sex.