Optimizing Your Sleep Environment

Last week we started to discuss the importance of sleep and some of the consequences of what chronic sleep deprivation can do to our health and how it can tear down our health foundation.

When someone has trouble with their sleep, it can be a very hard problem to solve. It can be a multi-faceted problem that might be influenced by a number of factors. In general we can group the causes of sleep disturbances into lifestyle, medical, and psychological. Here are some of the common causes.

https://www.ajmc.com/view/insomnia-overview-epidemiology-pathophysiology-diagnosis-and-monitoring-and-nonpharmacologic-therapy

The problem is that any combination of these could cause a problem with sleep.

Anything under the medial and psychiatric column needs to be treated by a medical professional so if you suspect you have one of those conditions please seek help. In addition, addressing the societal influences of sleep disruptions is beyond the scope of this article.

However the lifestyle factors are something we can try to address. In addition, we know lifestyle can play a huge role in the medical and psychological conditions. So while I cannot make claims that changing your lifestyle will cure or treat a medical or psychological condition, adjusting your lifestyle generally has a huge upside with little risk, so it can’t hurt.

Outside of a medical condition that affects sleep many of the sleep related problems people can suffer from arise from ancestral mismatches in our modern lifestyles. In other words we are living in a way that negatively affects our bodies and for a variety of reasons this will have direct or downstream effects on our sleep.

Let’s start off with an obvious mismatch, our sleep environment.

When struggling with sleep, for whatever reason, the first thing I like to evaluate is the environment in which you are sleeping. Literally the conditions in which you are trying to sleep.

Most people don’t even take this into consideration but external factors both within and outside of your control can impact your sleep. Things like light, temperature, noise, mental associations, air quality, bed, etc can impact your sleep.

First things first, find a bed, sheets, and pillow YOU like. I know there are a lot of fancy beds, pillows, and sheets out there that people and companies recommend can help your sleep. In my opinion the thing that matters most is whether you think these things are comfortable or not. I don’t care how fancy the mattress is, if you don’t think it’s comfortable your sleep is going to suffer. I am sure there is something to be said for the composition of the things you are sleeping on. Chemicals, and various other things you find in your furniture, sheets, pillows can for sure be considered part of your sleep environment. However, we also need to consider the cost and access to these things. If you have means to acquire a mattress made of natural materials for example by all means take that into consideration. However, if you don’t have the means to do this, I wouldn’t sweat it (the stress of doing so will probably affect your sleep more than the chemicals!).

Next let’s talk about light. Light is a zeitgeber, meaning it’s one of several natural cues that help regulate our circadian rhythms. All this really means is that it can affect when we go to sleep and when we wake up. In the diagram below you can see light enters the eye and gets processed by the SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus, the area of the brain responsible for regulating circadian rhythms). The downstream effects of whether we see light or not influences the regulation of hormones that will make us sleepy or awake.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/296706405_Chronobiological_strategies_for_unmet_needs_in_the_treatment_of_depression

In relation to our sleep environment the main problem for many people today is that there is too much light in our sleep environment. The light bulb has only been around for 100 or so years so for the vast majority of the time humans have been around the only source of light we had was the sun and fire. Now all of a sudden we have artificial light, light we never experienced before. Not only that, but we are exposed to that light at times of the day that would have never been possible even 100 years ago! (If you are interested, I dive into this topic more in this blog post.)

If there is light in your room that you can easily remove, eliminate, or cover up, DO IT! Maybe it’s the clock on your nightstand, the power light on electronic devices in your bedroom, a night light that is always on, if it’s easy to remove in any way it’s worth doing in my opinion. Even if the light is not “bright” it can still affect your sleep.

The other problem is light from outside of your room (or house). If you live in a city for example there can be lights from buildings around you, street lights, or even signs. Obviously you have no control over lights outside of the place you live. If these lights are shining in your window I would do everything I can to black out the window. There are black out curtains you can buy that do a really good job at blocking light. However, you don’t need fancy black out curtains, any curtain or material you can come up with to block out the light that works is good enough. Another thing you can look into is an eye mask. I personally can’t sleep with an eye mask so I don’t have any recommendations for you but anything that does the job and you find comfortable should work.

Noise can also impact our sleep quality. Obviously this is highly individualized. Some people can sleep through pretty much anything, for other people any noise wakes them up. In addition some people find it easier to sleep with a little noise. For example, people prefer the hum of a fan or even use white noise machines. The thought as to why these may help is that they may mask other background noise. Whether white noise is helpful or not seems to be up for debate, a systematic review found “weak evidence” that it is beneficial for sleep[1]. As always though if you find some amount of noise to be beneficial, by all means add it to your sleep environment.

Whether you need it to be completely quiet or like a little amount of noise doesn’t matter as much as you find the right amount of noise for you in your sleep environment. In most cases today there is too much noise and most of the time the noise is out of your control because it is coming from outside your room. If you find you are being disturbed by noise while sleeping you can try something like a white noise machine to drown out the noise or try ear plugs to help block it. Again what you choose is personal preference.

Temperature is probably one of the biggest parts of our sleep environment that many people don’t pay enough attention to.

Just a few weeks ago I was at an Airbnb and it happened to be incredibly hot outside. Unfortunately the A/C was not so good so the bedroom I was sleeping in was a bit too warm for my liking. Man did my sleep suffer as a result.

The temperature of your room can make or break your sleep. Our body temperature should decrease in the hours before sleep and then further decrease while we are asleep. Then as we approach waking our body temperature begins to increase and return to its baseline. If our body temperature is too warm this disrupts the onset of sleep and the various stages of sleep [2].

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1087079207000950

So what’s the optimal temperature for sleep? 66-70 degrees fahrenheit or 19-21 degrees celsius[3].

With today’s modern technology it’s not a problem for most of us to control the temperature of our room so that it falls within this optimal temperature range. However there are some things you can do that can help control your body’s temperature if you are having trouble.

One of the easiest things you can do to help with the process of lowering your body temperature is to make your hands and/or feet warm in the time leading up to bed[4]. This might seem counterintuitive since it’s the drop in body temperature that helps with sleep onset. What happens when you warm the extremities of your body is that it causes vasodilation which directs blood to your extremities and cools you down, dropping your core body temperature.

Putting this in practice you could wear socks or gloves before going to bed. Another option would be to take a warm shower.

The next suggestion is starting to get a little fringe but the theory and anecdote around it seems to suggest that it can be helpful. There are products that you can now buy that use water to cool your mattress. Essentially they are covers you put over your mattress that have little tubes in it. Then there is a unit that sits beside your bed that pushes that water through these tubs and keeps the temperature of that water at whatever you set it at. In theory this can help assist keeping your sleep environment at the optimal temperature.

I personally have an Oller from Chilisleep and I love it. It keeps the bed cooler during the summer and a bit warmer during the winter. The other company that offers one of these pads is Eight Sleep. The downside of these devices are they are not cheap, so it can be quite the financial investment. Given that I would suggest you optimize all other aspects of your sleep environment before thinking about a device like this.

The final suggestion is completely anecdotal and I don’t have much to back this up other than personal experience and experience working with clients and that is to make sure you use the bedroom for what it is intended for, sleep! Our brains learn to make associations with various things over time.

This brain association theory was proven by a very famous experiment done by Ivan Pavlov. In this experiment Pavlov would ring a bell, then feed some dogs. After doing this repeatedly, the pairing of food and bell eventually established the dog’s conditioned response of salivating to the sound of the bell. After repeatedly doing this pairing, Pavlov removed the food and when ringing this bell the dog would salivate even without food present.

The brain can make these associations with all kinds of things. In the context of our sleep environment, if you are working in bed, watching movies in bed, reading in bed, or doing anything else in bed besides sleeping, your brain can learn to make an association with the bed and that activity and will prepare itself to respond accordingly. If you get in bed and watch the news every night and stress yourself out, what do you think is going to happen when you try to get in bed and not watch the news? Your brain is going to say, “I’ve been in this situation before, let me prepare for what’s going to happen.” All of sudden your body is acting like you are stressed out even though you are lying in bed trying to go to sleep.

This is why I suggest you use the bedroom only for sleep, to make sure you don’t develop bad associations that are going to take time to break once you stop doing them. It is also why if you tend to wake up at night and have a hard time falling back asleep I suggest you get up and get out of your bedroom until you are tired enough to go back to bed, we want to reinforce that the bedroom is only for sleeping.

If you address the ancestral mismatches in your sleep environment you are well on your way to improving your sleep. However there are plenty of other ancestral mismatches that occur outside our sleep environment that also impact our sleep. In the next post we will address the mismatches that are happening outside the bedroom. To be the first to know about when this post is available be sure to sign up for my newsletter using the form below and I will email you and let you know as soon as it is available.

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  1. (n.d.). Noise as a sleep aid: A systematic review – ScienceDirect.com. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1087079220301283?via%3Dihub
  2. (2012, May 31). Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm – PMC. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3427038/
  3. (2019, April 24). The Temperature Dependence of Sleep – PMC – NCBI. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6491889/
  4. (n.d.). Attenuated thermoregulatory response to mild thermal challenge in …. Retrieved August 4, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17040004/

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