Volume one: Your sleep environment effects your sleep
[ The role of light in sleep patterns || The quality of light is as important as the amount of it || Your bedroom surroundings will either help you or hinder you from sleeping || The perfect bed for sleep ]
Your comprehensive guide to a better nights sleep with advice on how to sleep better if you have insomnia with trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep.
This series is in four volumes that compliment each other.
Volume one: ‘Your sleep environment effects your sleep’ covers how to maximise the benefits of where you sleep.
Volume two: ‘Your daily habits effect your sleep’ covers what you do outside of sleep that can impact your sleep quality.
Volume three: ‘Getting help with your sleep’ covers getting help, supplements and alternative methods.
Volume four: ‘Your better sleep action plan’ takes a few basic idea’s and sets you the goal of doing them.
*Please talk to your medical professional if sleep is a major cause of interruption to your life. This is not a replacement for such advice but rather a list of added methods and idea’s for you to add to your knowledge to help improve your sleep.*
Volume one: Your sleep environment effects your sleep.
So, the ultimate question..,
What can you do to improve the quality of your sleep?
As far as insomnia and sleep challenges are concerned there are two main categories.., trouble falling asleep.., and broken sleep where you wake up often.
Trouble falling asleep can often be related to stress in your life. Broken sleep or middle of night awakenings can often be caused by a chemical or hormonal imbalance, sleep apnea or an environment that’s not conducive to quality sleep.
This first volume focuses on the environment that you sleep in and is the first point of focus other than signs of anything requiring medical advice on improving the quality and length of your sleep.
Some of these idea’s will be obvious and some of them will be new to you. The question is though even with the obvious one’s.., are you doing them?
The role of light in sleep patterns
Much has changed in modern times with the introduction of electricity which has led to the ease with which we can now turn darkness into daytime light conditions. Light pollution is a real thing and light pollution getting into your bedroom at night will not help you sleep well at all.
You need total bedroom darkness in your room at night to have the correct balance of natural hormones in your body. This is particularly important for shift workers who need to sleep during daylight hours.
One of those hormones is called melatonin. Melatonin is produced in the body primarily in a small gland in the forehead called the pineal gland. This is triggered by the reduction of, or lack of light, and our ancestors had the advantage of sunsets being the trigger for this to happen.
Most of our melatonin is converted in our bodies from a related hormone called serotonin which is produced during the day primarily by the effect of light.
Melatonin prepares our body and mind for sleep. It does this by slowing down digestion & brain activity, reducing our core body temperature & cortisol (nicknamed the stress hormone), and even acts as an anti-inflamatory, anti-oxidant and blood thinner. Between this chemical and the functions of sleep themselves, this really is a huge benefit to the healing properties of a good nights sleep.
Tipping the balance of light and dark
So as you will begin to see, the balance of light and dark in our lives plays a big role in not just our sleep, but also in our sense of wellbeing.
In fact SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lamps are widely used these days by people who experience feelings of depression during the winter months because they don’t get enough light during the day. Without enough light, there is a lack of serotonin, which by coincidence is regarded as a happy producing chemical.
A lack of serotonin to then convert into melatonin causes sleep patterns to get effected also leading to more depressive feelings. This becomes a vicious cycle that spirals downward.
Whatever you need to do to create total darkness in your room do it. Black out curtains or blinds will work well as will wearing a soft eye mask if blackout is not possible.
And don’t stop there. Get rid of or turn off electronics or anything that even creates a small amount of light in your bedroom. Even standby lights on a TV or phones, tablets and laptops have the potential to upset what is called your circadian rhythm or body clock. More on circadian rhythms in volume’s two and three of this better sleep series.
The quality of light is as important as the amount of it
Natural light is your best friend during the day but at night any light can be your enemy for sleep quality. Natural light is more than just the absence of darkness though.
Getting exposure to light and especially sunlight first thing in the morning (20 minutes is enough) will positively effect your sleep at night in a bigger way than you may give it credit for. Not only will it help you produce serotonin and keep your internal body clock in check with the 24 hour cycle, but will provide a number of health benefits.
In fact one tip to help with jet lag when you travel.., is to get outside as close to sunrise as possible in your destination country for the first morning or two. Do this and you will be surprised how much of a positive effect it will have. I do it regularly when I travel literally to the other side of the world.
Sunlight is your friend
Sunlight contains all the spectrum of light that your body needs for health and wellbeing. Managerial nurse Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) instinctively knew this when she started taking sick patients outside into the sun and found that they healed quicker. Of particular interest when talking about the light spectrum are UV Ultraviolet light, Blue light, and red, IR Infra-Red and NIR Near Infra-Red light.
These wavelengths of light are covered in more detail in the articles called ‘In LIGHT we trust’.
UV light has a reputation for being harmful but it is still needed in small amounts for health. UV light can sterilise and kill bacteria and is what stimulates our body to produce vitamin D which is responsible for strengthening bones, muscles and our immune system.
Vitamin D can even reduce the chances of getting certain types of cancer. In fact, recent studies show that far UVC light can kill harmful bacteria (including coronaviruses) without being harmful to us.
Letting natural light in through your windows will help in the goal of keeping your room and house as germ free as possible.
Blue light’s bad reputation
Blue light has a bad reputation mainly due to us getting too much of it because of all the blue light emitting devices we spend so much time on. Phones, tablets, PC’s and TV’s all give off this light. And blue light is unfortunately the worst for interrupting our sleep wake cycles and melatonin production.
Due to this it is a good idea to limit blue light exposure at night by either not using those devices at all or by employing a few simple measures to filter out the blue light.
Blue light filters are available for your devices as time controlled applications. Examples of these are two that I use called ‘F-lux’ for laptops and ‘Twilight’ for phones. The other thing you can do is use blue blocking glasses at night that are usually yellow or orange in colour.
It may take you a few nights to adjust to wearing them but the results can be surprisingly effective (see link to study below). Blue light does not deserve the bad reputation that it has gained and in fact is responsible for alertness, wakefulness, mood and activity level. Limiting it at night though, is important if you have trouble sleeping.
Artificial light lacks the full light spectrum
Red, IR and NIR light are the main wavelengths of light lacking in most artificial lights. This is unfortunate as this end of the light spectrum has the potential to have many benefits including healing. There are more science based studies every year on the positive effects of the red end of the light spectrum than any other part of light.
Some studies even show that using red light in the evening can positively help some people sleep. This is worth experimenting with but be aware that even red light in your bedroom can lead to a disruption in your circadian body clock rhythms.
Changing your circadian rhythm on purpose done well can be of great benefit but without awareness can cause further problems. More on that in the better sleep series volumes two and three. There are red lights on the market aimed at use in babies rooms that although would certainly better than standard lights, should be used only if absolutely necessary.
Obviously consult with your doctor if you have that issue in your house.
This study for example shows that 30 minutes of red light exposure before bed increased levels of melatonin from saliva samples taken.
Nature knows best with all of this. Sunrise starts with a gentle change from warm yellowish white light to full spectrum blueish (although imperceptible) white light that has all the wavelengths in it. And sunset does the opposite.
Our modern lives do unfortunately make relying on nature alone for our lighting needs pretty difficult. So the best we can do is minimise the negative side effects of interrupting natures plan. Outdoor light even on an overcast day is preferable to indoor light and cloud cover does not have a significant impact on the red end of the light spectrum due to it’s wavelength.
Making the best of artificial indoor light
As far as indoor lighting is concerned.., halogen bulbs and high CRI (colour render index) LED’s are as close to sunlight as you can get. Halogen bulbs are becoming less available unfortunately in some countries, but LED bulbs are getting closer in the reduction of blue light at least.
High CRI LED’s are becoming more common also, although they are not as complete as halogens in the light they produce. The high CRI value is a function of how it makes colours look when the light shines on them and not the same as colour temperature which is the real key to bedroom lighting.
This leads to the idea that to choose the right light bulbs is the next best thing to having no light at all at night particularly in your bedroom.
With most lighting heading toward LED’s which up till recently have been limited in choice, thankfully there are now choices in lighting with different colour temperatures called Kelvin values. The lower the Kelvin value, the lower the amount of blue light in it’s spectrum. High Kelvin bulbs are called ‘cool white’ and low Kelvin bulbs are called ‘warm white’.
Choose warm white bulbs for your bedroom and maybe for your bathrooms and lounge too.
Some bulbs even have the ability to change themselves from day to night. An example of those currently is the ‘Hue’ range of bulbs from Philips.
Your bedroom surroundings will either help you or hinder you from sleeping
What should be in your bedroom? Nothing but a bed if that is achievable!
But lets be specific about a few things about the environment you sleep in other than the light aspect we have just covered.
It should be obvious first off that if you live in a noisy environment that you can’t escape, then consider how you can reduce noise. Maybe by wearing soft earplugs. In fact it could be that your trouble sleeping is caused by someone else’s (perhaps your partners) sleeping habits. Usually though, if noise is waking you up then chances are that something else is causing you to have only light sleep.
Our brains are designed to switch off the parts of our brain that are conscious of our surroundings when asleep. Sound though, is evolutionary in it’s need to alert us to potential danger. Though for most, we have learned that we are safe in our homes and usually we only wake to something loud or to our name being called.
It’s worth noting also that constant or repetitive noise tends to fade as we become desensitised to it and can actually help us get to sleep. Like the constant hum on an airplane engine or the slow repetitive waves on a beach. It’s the irregular sounds that have the biggest impact usually. With the exception of that dripping tap. What this means is that things like white noise can actually help you get to sleep. White noise is a hiss like sound that contains equal amounts of all frequencies. And you can find examples of this on Youtube to try as a way to take your focus off other background noise.
Warm or cool, the right bedroom temperature
What about bedroom temperature. We like it to be nice and warm and cosy right!?
The truth though is that we actually need a cool bedroom temperature to sleep deeply and wake up restored and refreshed.
The ideal temperature is actually 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit) due to the reasons mentioned above about the role of melatonin and reducing the core temperature of the body.
A fan can help or of course air conditioning (preferably just to cool the room down and then turned off) in hot climates. Check out the new range of cooling sheets that are now on the market that dissipate heat away from your body. And sometimes taking a melatonin supplement or Glycine (See better sleep volume three) before bed can help cool you down also.
Along with a cool bedroom temperature one of the surprising things about sleep and in particular REM Rapid Eye Movement sleep (where most of our dreams take place) is that the brain is very active. In fact just as active as when we are awake and requires just as much if not more oxygen during this phase of our sleep cycle. So where possible have a source of fresh air getting into your room.
Keep your room for sleep only
What is the main purpose of your bedroom? Obvious question isn’t it. Then the answer to a better nights sleep has to include not having your bedroom as an office or storeroom. This may be challenging in some situations but wherever possible, make your bedroom for sleep and rest only!
A busy and messy room will produce a busy and messy mind. This is a place of peace and quiet and relaxation with none of the reminders of stress that exist outside.
It can even help to not read or meditate in bed as you want your body and mind to know without a doubt that your bed is for sleeping only.
Keep your phone away from your bed and limit or remove the use of technology at night. At least an hour before bed, put down that phone and turn off the TV. Why not read a book or talk to another human. What a concept, haha.
There’s some interesting research around phone use in particular and social media.
As you scroll through message after message and post after post you are being bombarded by the need for a decision. Reasons to either get a hit of reward chemicals like the excitation chemical dopamine from comments and likes, or cortisol (stress hormone) from the opposite. You really don’t need the EMF energy coming off such devices near you close to bedtime either.
Creating your bedroom to look and feel relaxing can involve other idea’s too. Having some plants in your room can actually have a psychological effect on your levels of relaxation. Plants release oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide and some like spider and snake plants even remove toxins in small amounts.
Some psychologists believe that the feeling of relaxation is related to our historical connection with nature. A few plants provided shelter and potential food while too many plants (which tests show can actually increase cortisol stress hormones in our body) could have the possibility of predators hiding in them.
For this same reason having a view into the distance tends to relax us because of the safety historically of being able to see anything approaching from far away.
Certain scents like using essential oils can help here too. Research shows that they can directly effect the hormones in our body and help us relax and let go. Scents like Lavender and Bergamot have been shown to have a positive effect on restfulness and mood.
The perfect bed for sleep
This should also be obvious to give some attention to quality pillows and mattresses.
After all, you do spend a third of your life sleeping. Mattresses and pillows do not last forever and most manufacturers recommend a maximum of 10 years for a mattress and 2 years for pillows. Support is key and you will need to experiment with the firmness of mattresses to suit you as well as account for how you sleep when choosing pillows.
For example if you sleep mainly on your side you may want a slightly firmer and thicker pillow to support your head and maintain as much as possible a straight spine while in bed. The filling of the pillow is also a consideration. If you find your pillow is not quite thick enough then buy a quilted pillow cover and that will help firm it up.
Soft mattresses in most cases should be avoided as they again let you sink and cause your spine to not be straight. You can always get a firm mattress and then put a softer topper on it. Memory foam mattresses in my experience can interrupt your sleep. They don’t seem to adjust fast enough to you changing position and in that time lag can cause you to wake up.
As far as bedding is concerned, that’s up to you but I would suggest that pure cotton is preferable to have against your skin compared to anything synthetic.
Here’s an interesting idea that I have used for many years now.., raise the head of your bed. Put something under the bed legs or use a piece of thin board (like a half sheet of plywood) under the mattress at the head end to do the same thing.
Research shows that having your head on a 10-30 degree incline from the rest of your body (slope from the hips or feet, whichever is easiest) reduces pressure within your head. This pressure is caused by blood collecting and can result in head pain.
Reducing this pressure may help you wake up more alert and refreshed. Gravity becomes an assistant to the natural flow of blood from the head back to the heart and you won’t even notice the slight slope.
That’s volume one done on getting a better nights sleep.
Please do get medical advice and try anything with care in mind.
It’s often the simplest of things that make the most profound difference. Start with what is easy or what feels like it’s an AHA moment for you and go from there.
Read volume two of the better sleep series where we will cover some useful habits to change or adopt to improve your sleep.