How do you feel when you wake up in the morning — groggy and foggy or refreshed and rarin’ to go?
If, more often than not, you find yourself in the former category, you’re not alone. According to the Cleveland Clinic, around 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders, with an additional 30 million regularly getting less sleep than they should.
Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our waking life. Recent research shows that the optimal number of hours is between six and eight hours. Much less and you may 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. And drowsy driving can put more than your own health at risk, it can put other lives on the line, too.
On the flip side, sleeping too much can do damage to your metabolism, potentially adding unwanted pounds and, ironically, creating a sense of fatigue.
But it’s not just an issue of too much or too little. Sleep quality matters tremendously and is perhaps even more important than quantity, according to recent research.
So the big question is this: What can we do to ensure that the hours we spend in The Land of Nod add up to real rest and rejuvenation?
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, or chronic sinus problems, which, by themselves, can make having a good night’s 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 get the best sleep possible, for the rest of your life.
1. Moisture and Humidity
The target humidity in your home should be 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 we monitor the humidity in the room with a digital gauge to prevent going oo far above 50%. 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 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. But 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. Even night lights can be detrimental to restful sleep, as they often emit some degree of blue light.
Unfortunately, as we’ve adapted to become indoor creatures increasingly dependent on electricity, we’re more exposed to blue light and other sleep-disrupting frequencies during the evening hours. For the best night’s sleep, reduce exposure to television, computers or other backlit screens for at least an hour or two before bed. The same goes for most incandescent and fluorescent lights (yes, even your super-efficient CFL bulbs). 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.
Another big bedtime disrupter is ambient light from outside. Street lamps, in particular, 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 show you how stark the contrast is between your current bedroom lighting and how it actually should be for optimal snoozing. You’ll quickly realize that your eyelids are lousy blinds.
Sound is an obvious problem. Everyone’s been awakened by an uninvited noise, though 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 rugs and curtains 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. Generally speaking, carpet is bad, especially for those who have asthma, allergies and sinus problems. But when we put it in the bedroom, it’s a major 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 (high efficiency particulate air)-filtered air purifiers such as the IQAir HealthPro Plus are incredible allies in this battle against air pollution in our homes. Not only do they help reduce exposure to all things impure, but 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 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 that evaporate into the air. Also, many of our household products contain them. They are known 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. 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. Electromagnetic 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 bodies. 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 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 kind of 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 I wager that 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 that 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 in 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 choices. It’s not hard to imagine why.
- Using fabric softeners and scented detergents is 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. Basement apartments or basement bedrooms, for instance, almost always pose problems, with a lack of fresh air exchange and a high probability of excess moisture being chief among them. Other bedrooms may allow in too much natural or unnatural light or are situated near high-traffic areas in your home that produce too much noise. Perhaps you’ve chosen a bedroom beneath your child’s room and it sounds like the sky is falling each time they spring out of bed. Whatever the case, don’t be afraid to experiment with your setup in pursuit of better sleep.
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 be overkill, though, unless you enjoy getting up in the middle of the night to hit 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 the health of loved ones. We see it every day.
If you have any questions or feedback, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
To your health!