How do you feel when you wake up in the morning? Do you wake up groggy and foggy or are you refreshed and rarin’ to go? Did you know that sleep disorders affect 50 million to 70 million Americans of all ages?
Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our waking life. Recent research shows that the optimal number of hours is between 6 and 8 hours. Much less and you suffer from cognitive issues and put your immune system at risk. Sleep deprivation is known to increase the risk of numerous chronic health problems including diabetes and heart disease. Drowsy driving can put more than your health at risk. It can put others’ lives on the line too, along with your own.
Sleep much more than the prescribed number of hours and your metabolism can suffer, potentially adding unwanted pounds and, ironically, creating a sense of fatigue. But it’s not just quantity. Research reveals that quality seems to be even more important. The big question is how? What needs to be done to ensure that the hours we spend in The Land of Nod add up to real rest and rejuvenation?
If we give ourselves the gift of a full eight hours per night, we’re spending 30% of our life in bed. To make the most of this time and ensure that you get the rest you deserve, there are some things that you can do to make sure that time is well invested, and that you wake up feeling strong and rested, ready to take on anything that comes your way. The items we’ll discuss below are even more important if you’re one of the approximately 100 million Americans who suffer from respiratory problems such as asthma, allergies, chronic sinus problems, which by themselves can make having a good night sleep even more challenging.
The indoor environment is something we have far more control over than most of us realize. So, let’s take a look at what you can start doing to start enjoying the best sleep possible, for the rest of your life.
1. Moisture and Humidity
The target humidity in your home is 45%. Much above 50% and you start to be at risk of mold growth and dust mite proliferation. Below 40% for too long and you’ll start feeling some physical discomfort such as drying of the mucus membranes and dehydration. Far too many sinus infections are caused by low humidity. This is completely preventable.
My house is particularly dry in the winter, and unless we humidify the bedroom, I wake up parched, with swollen glands and sinus problems. Not fun. So, we have two humidifiers running all night and make sure to monitor the humidity in the room with a digital humidity gauge making sure not to overdo it. It has made all the difference in the world.
Also, fans of any kind blowing directly on you will dry you out, regardless of the humidity. If you insist on having a fan in the bedroom, make sure it points away from you or oscillates.
2. Light and Sound
Our bodies’ 24-hour biological cycles are known as circadian rhythms (from Latin: circa “about” + dies “day”) and are largely driven by how our bodies interact with light, natural or artificial. It’s well known that exposure to certain types of light can limit or prevent the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Red-light frequencies, like what we get from fire, don’t create sleep disturbance. Certain spectrums of light, which naturally come from the sun – especially of the blue-type – are actually nature’s way of waking us up. Computer screens and televisions are common sources of blue light, as are many light bulbs. Night lights often have blue light within the spectrum of light they emit.
So as we adapted to become indoor creatures dependent upon electricity, we became more exposed to blue light and other sleep disturbing frequencies during the evening hours. For the best night’s sleep, we should reduce exposure to television, computers and any other backlit screen for at least an hour or two before bed. As I said earlier, most incandescent AND fluorescent (yes, even your super-efficient CFL light bulbs) are major violators. Some people light candles late at night to bridge the gap, and while this works well, it should be done in moderation for reasons we’ll discuss later.
The other big one is ambient light from outside. Street lamps are huge in blue light. If you have any outside sources, which are detectable in your bedroom, find a way to “black out” your windows to eliminate that light from coming in. You’d be amazed at the difference. The last resort (or perhaps the best test) is to get a sleep mask, which will quickly show you how stark the contrast is between your bedroom “as is” and how it actually should be for the most spectacular snoozing. What you’ll quickly see is that your eyelids are lousy blinds.
Sound is an obvious one. Everyone’s been awakened by an uninvited noise. Some people are more sensitive than others. While it’s often recommended to use earplugs, safety precautions prevent me from endorsing this. What if you can’t hear the phone or alarm, etc? If your house is very noisy, some people find relief with heavy area rugs and curtains, which absorb sound, but also provide a haven for dust mites, so if you choose this route, keeping your humidity under control is even more important. Also, double and triple-paned windows help to mute outdoor noise sources, but the indoor ones are still a problem. Appliances that create “white noise,” such as fans, can help, but as I said earlier, avoid having the fan blow directly on you. Some people play soothing sounds all night and find that to be successful.
3. Dust and Other Particles
Dust is a generic term for the visible accumulation of non-descript particles whose origin you would rather not know. Most household dust is an incredible mixture of atmospheric dust, human skin cells, pollen, mold spores, clothing and carpet fibers, paint particles and other tiny little pieces of our buildings which constantly shed in the process of our world being whittled down by nature’s forces.
The biggest violators in the bedroom are carpets, curtains and downy blankets on the bed. They are HUGE reservoirs of dust, and if the humidity goes up for more than a few days, that’s where the microbial critters start to party. Candidly, carpet in general is bad, especially for those who have asthma, allergies and sinus problems, but when we put it in the bedroom, it’s a real problem. Remove it. If you must, use some area rugs, but keep them clean.
People often ask me about air purifiers. I always respond the same way. They are required appliances in every home. Rarely do we, as a culture, open the windows for fresh air anymore, and when we do, are we really getting “fresh” air? HEPA-filtered (High Efficiency Particulate Air) air purifiers such as the IQAir HealthPro Plus are incredible allies in this battle against air pollution in our home. Not only do they help reduce exposure to all things impure, they also reduce the amount of dust that settles on surfaces, which inevitably has to be cleaned. This brings up two points:
- The key to preventing mold growth is to keep things clean and dry. It’s that simple. When things are clean, and a moisture problem creeps up, mold growth still occurs, but not with the voracity that occurs when things are dusty or dirty. Mold needs moisture to get rolling AND nutrients to accelerate the growth. Keep both under control and you’ll be in the clear.
- HEPA air cleaners are great, and a must have. HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaners are just as important. All vacuum cleaners that lack a HEPA filter fail to capture the micro-fine dust, and actually redistribute it throughout your house. It’s not bad enough that this is a huge waste of time, but many of these particles fall into a size range that can cause all sorts of irritation in sensitive people and trigger asthma attacks.
While it’s important to use HEPA-filtered air cleaners and HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaners exclusively, washing your curtains very regularly is also key. And when’s the last time your moved your bed or dresser? If you need to throw on an N-95 dust mask, do it. Dust bunnies don’t bite. Go for it! You’ll be glad you did.
Lastly, candles are an inviting part of an amorous bedroom, but burning them for too long, too often can contribute a substantial amount of very unhealthy, super-fine, combustion-related dust and, in the case of scented candles, release lots of potentially toxic (albeit pleasant-smelling) chemicals into the air. Use candles in short increments, but enjoy the benefits, by all means!
4. Chemicals and Fragrances
Over the last few decades, we have become a chemical society. We are literally steeped in them. It’s truly incredible. Many of them we cannot avoid or even limit our exposure to. In fact, there is very little known about what we’re actually ingesting or absorbing every day.
On the other hand, there are very clear and distinct ways to consciously live healthier lives and one of them is through better choices about what things we bring indoors and how we use them. Most new homes are built of materials that emit, or “off-gas,” chemicals which evaporate into the air. Also, many of our household products contain them. They are know as VOCs, or “volatile organic compounds.” Some common examples are formaldehyde – a known carcinogen – and chlorine. You wouldn’t want to inhale either one, yet you probably often do.
- Reducing the number of chemical cleaners is a good first step. Believe it or not, most natural cleaning products work better than their chemical counterparts, but up until recently, were far too expensive.
- Also, reduce the fragranced products you use. Some are stimulating, which you don’t need in the bedroom, but ALL are unnecessary. Clean doesn’t have a scent.
- When remodeling or sprucing things up, choose No-VOC paints, building products and finishes which carry the Greenguard Certification (www.greenguard.org). The “new home smell” is toxic. So is the “new car smell.” Sorry to break the news to you. The “new new” doesn’t have a smell.
- One of the worst violators of all is “air fresheners” of any kind. If you’re using Febreeze or Glade Plug-Ins, let me be clear: STOP! Not only is this horribly unhealthy, but Glade Plug-Ins and other devices like it have been implicated in countless house fires.
5. Electro-Magnetic Frequencies (EMFs)
Perhaps the most controversial item on this list is EMFs. Electro-magnetic frequencies are much like chemicals these days. We are awash in them. While we are flesh and blood, our existence relies on electrical impulses throughout our body. According to a significant amount of research, this delicate natural balance can be disrupted by the waves of electromagnetic energy emitted from high-tension power lines, badly wired houses and certain very common household appliances. Some things as benign as a dimmer on a light switch can wreak EMF havoc.
These waves can be measured using something called a Gauss meter, named after Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the lesser known electrical pioneers, along the lines of Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison. While these devices are often used to hunt ghosts (this is where you chuckle), they can also sniff out areas of high EMF emission, and they’re not terribly expensive.
I used to scoff at EMFs a while back, but while living in a compact apartment, my tower PC was on the floor between my desk and the head of my bed. I had been sleeping fitfully for a very long time and was also, spontaneously and unrelatedly, inspired to consolidate all of my computers into one laptop. I bit the bullet, made the move and got rid of the tower PC, which also removed the massive power strip and wires from underneath my bed. When I laid down that night, there was an eerie quiet. The EMFs had been accompanied by a white noise, one I couldn’t hear until it was gone. That night, and for very many nights to follow, I recaptured a very healthy, deep, rejuvenating sleep pattern. Do you have lots of electronics in your bedroom? If so, get rid of them.
6. Mattresses and Bedding
People think nothing of spending significant sums of money on a car, while trying to save money on a budget mattress. Don’t be cheap with your mattress. You’ll spend more time there than anywhere else in your world. Make it the best it can be.
I don’t want to be the preacher of doom, but very few people would willingly sleep on most mattresses if you knew how they were made and what they were made of. Fire retardants are required in most mattresses by federal law, and are among the most toxic substances we’re exposed to. Certain mattress types are exempt. Regardless, even without the fire retardants, the chemicals used in the manufacture of most mattresses are simply unacceptable. There are some other interesting materials which are more appealing, but natural latex seems to be the most popular.
Natural latex is a favorite among many people who suffer from allergies, unless, of course, it’s a latex allergy. It’s naturally antimicrobial and dust mites don’t like it very much. That being said, dust mites are more abundant in your bedding than your mattress, but we’ll discuss that later. In essence, latex mattresses are a foam alternative to the spring type. You’ll pay up, but most people love them. They are often encased in organic, unbleached cotton and lack springs, which is also a very good thing. Interestingly, there is some evidence that springs in mattresses can help conduct EMFs, causing amplification of related problems. Who knows? Mattresses without springs are simply more comfortable. If my mattress doesn’t also serve as a radio receiver, all the better.
Bedding is a two-fold discussion. One, the bedding itself. Two, the way it’s handled.
- Not to beat the chemical issue into oblivion, but less is more. Organic cotton sheets and blankets are the best choice. It’s not hard to imagine why.
- Using fabric softeners and scented detergents are a sure way to ensure that your sheets are NOT in fact clean. Again, clean doesn’t have a scent.
Lastly, ALL beds should have mattress and pillow encasements to contain allergens as much as possible.
8. Location, Location, Location
Just because your bed is in your bedroom doesn’t mean it’s the best place to sleep. Sometimes you might need to make changes to which room you’ve chosen. Far too many people have called us over the years who were concerned about a basement apartment or bedroom. These are almost always a problem for too many reasons to list here, but lack of fresh air exchange and a high probability of moisture problems should serve as two pretty good examples. By the same token, a bedroom with tons of glass, facing south, might present other problems sleeping past dawn, if you’re one of the lucky few who can blissfully do so.
9. Other Thoughts…
Although most of these items are generally not a big part of bedroom behavior, all of them can contribute to a poor night’s sleep.
- Caffeine: Do I really need to elaborate?
- Exercise: Do it, regularly, but not within two hours of bedtime.
- TV & Computer: Try to turn them both off a couple of hours before turning in. The blue light and other stimulating qualities can really make getting to bed in the right state, at a decent hour, an unnecessarily difficult task.
- Food: The rule of thumb is not to eat within four hours of going to bed. Also, eating spicy foods or those likely to cause heartburn can really screw up your night. One who sleeps well chews wisely.
- Proper hydration: Having a glass of warm or room-temperature water before bed is not a bad idea. Having two might not be so good, if you intend to sleep the night through without hitting the bathroom. A glass of cold water will likely keep you awake longer than you might like.
- Alcohol & tobacco: Alcohol may make you sleepy, but it also causes sleep disturbances as it’s metabolized. Try not to drink alcohol within four hours of bedtime. The nicotine in tobacco is a stimulant. It does not mix with healthy sleep, regardless of what smokers say
I know this is a lot to swallow, but if you only do a few of these things, it can make a dramatic and positive impact on your health, and of the ones you love. We see it every day.
If you have any questions or feedback, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
To your health!