Dark, quiet, cool but not cold, not too humid or dry, calm and uncluttered – that’s the perfect setup for sleeping. So find a quite room, clear a space near your bed and turn down your heating, because better sleep leads to better health. Here are tips to reduce noise, help you unwind and make your bedroom a serene oasis for sleep.
Having a super-cluttered bedroom may affect how well you sleep, suggests a recent study led by clinical psychologist Pamela Thacher. While the research, presented at the 2015 SLEEP conference held in New York in December, focused on people who consider themselves hoarders, the findings may apply to anyone who sleeps in cramped, chaotic surroundings.
“It seemed like even people without hoarding disorder had what we call a dose response – meaning that the more clutter you had, the more likely you were to have a sleep disorder,” says Thacher, an associate professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.
Because the bedroom is a private space, it’s easier to let disorder grow. Bedrooms are often the biggest problem for hoarders, Thacher says, although living rooms and kitchens can hold “wicked” clutter as well. It’s not ideal for anyone to sleep where they don’t even have a clear path to the bedroom door.
For people with hoarding and sleep issues in the study, sleepwalking was unexpectedly low on the list of nighttime problems. The reason is functional, Thacher believes: “It’s because their bedroom is very difficult to walk in. My guess is they are literally pinned into the bedroom in the way that most of us are not.”
When Thacher treated insomnia patients in her practice, she’d encourage good sleep hygiene. That means “taking care of the context and circumstances in which you sleep,” she explains. Getting to bed at a reasonable hour, developing bedtime routines that don’t include electronics and doing calm, peaceful things like writing in a journal instead of watching a scary or violent movie on TV are all ways to safeguard your sleep.
“A cool bedroom but also a clean bedroom might set your mind at rest,” Thacher says. “This might be something we could add to sleep hygiene.” She’s conducting a new study, this time with non-hoarders – looking at whether people still have sleep problems after they declutter their homes.
Light clothing, no blankets and a thermostat set at 66 degrees combine to create a cool, healthy sleep atmosphere. Mild cold prompts your body to make more “good” brown fat by transforming stored white fat and sugars into energy to keep you warm, says Dr. Francesco Celi, who led a 2014 National Institutes of Health study on the effects of overnight room temperatures.
This nighttime activity boost, known as “non-shivering thermogenesis,” helps rid the body of excess blood glucose, says Celi, a clinical endocrinologist who is now chairman of the endocrinology and metabolism division at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
Cranking up your bedroom thermostat and sporting flannel pajamas has just the opposite effect. “Prolonged exposures to warm temperature at 80 degrees resulted in an almost complete inhibition of brown [fat] tissue activity” in study participants, Celi says.
Small, persistent changes in the temperature of your environment make a difference, Celi says: “The effects are very small in terms of body weight, but can be potentially important with respect of the glucose metabolism.” It’s possible, his results suggest, that cooler sleep could have health implications for people at risk for diabetes.
Read the Old-School Way
Reading a boring book to put yourself to sleep may backfire with an e-reader, according to a small study appearing last January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Participants who read an electronic book with a light-emitting device before bed took longer to fall asleep, produced less of the sleep-hormone melatonin and were less alert the next morning than those who read a printed book.
Block Out Noise
It’s not rocket science that noise hampers sleep – or that traffic sounds can keep you awake. Dr. Mathias Basner, an associate professor of sleep and chronobiology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, took a look at the effects of living near airport, rail and road traffic – alone or combined. “It can be very disruptive,” he says.
A simple fix can ease rail or roadside noise. “If you have the option to move your bedroom to the side of the house that is not exposed to traffic, that can be very effective,” Basner says. “If your window’s facing the backyard, your noise levels may be much, much lower in rooms that are not facing the roadway.” That’s less helpful if you live near an airport, like Philadelphia International Airport, the site of the study.
Earplugs help some people more than others, Basner says. People who don’t tolerate earplugs may get too distracted from internal noise, such as the sound of their heart beating or stomach growling. “Usually [earplugs] are very good for blocking out the higher frequencies in the sound spectrum,” he says. But they’re not as effective for blocking low-frequency, rumbling noise, like the kind you get near a railway.
Basner is concerned about health effects of unwanted noise that go beyond your hearing – like the way noxious noise increases the release of stress hormones in the body. And there’s the impact on sleep.
“What I always find puzzling, in terms of sleep hygiene, is that we really spend a third of our lives in bed,” Basner says. “We are willing to spend a lot for a house or car … but not for our mattress.”
Sleep may seem passive, but it’s actually an active process, Basner says. “A lot of things are happening. Memory is consolidated. Specific hormones are created exclusively during the night. We know that if you’re not getting enough sleep on a chronic basis, there are all these negative health consequences that are linked to the sleep loss,” he says. “So getting enough and good-quality sleep is extremely important.”