Sleep in the clouds

Rethink your sleep space

  • 7 min to read

Do you toss and turn at night? Do you often wake up feeling groggy and not quite ready to start your day. It could be your sleep environment—everything from the noise, or lack thereof, to décor, room temperature and the quality of your mattress—could be disrupting your precious sleep time. For many of us, though, we don’t think much about adjusting our sleep habits or the space around us to get a better night’s sleep, but we should. Paying attention to how much, and the quality of, shut-eye we get, is just as vital to our health as our fitness and eating habits.

A lack of sleep can lead to more than just an afternoon slump and under-eye circles. Research shows that not enough sleep wreaks havoc on your mental health, impairing your judgment and causing depression. It increases weight gain and can even shorten your life.

“There’s a lot of self-monitoring technology keeping us fit but nothing contributes to our health better than a good night’s sleep,” says Justin Sonfield, general merchandise manger at The Company Store, which has been making bed linens for 105 years.

If you can’t get enough sleep, at least make you’re getting quality sleep. Whether it’s incorporating the soothing sound of music, painting your walls the right color or setting your thermostat around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, make sure your bedroom environment is primed for helping you improve your chances of getting a solid night’s sleep.

Mattress matters

A mattress is like the foundation of a house—if it isn’t solid, everything else is on shaky ground. Whether you like a mattress firm or soft, it’s important to go for quality because you’re going to spend about 3,000 hours a year on it, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

There are a number of mattress types to choose from, including memory foam. These mattresses use polyurethane foam that contours closely to the sleeper’s shape. This is usually a good choice for people with chronic fatigue or muscle pain.

Air beds have an adjustable mechanical air chamber that lets sleepers set their preferred level of firmness. This could be your best option if your partner likes a firm mattress, but you like to sink into it.

Innerspring mattresses are the most common types of mattresses used. These can be firm or soft, depending on the thickness of the wire used in the coils and the cushioning used.

When testing out the right mattress for you, sleep on it a bit. Well, not literally sleep. But to get a good feel for it, you should plan to lie down for 10 to 15 minutes on any mattress you’re considering.

Once you find the perfect mattress match, take care of it, and it will last.

You can stretch your mattress’s lifespan by rotating it 90 degrees every three months. But, if your mattress is seven years old or older, it might be time to replace it. You’ll know for sure if you wake up stiff or see indentations in the mattress. Also, keep it clean. Skin particles and dust settle into our mattresses so clean it twice a year, says Rachel Radke, co-owner of Naturally Clean in Pittsburgh, Pa. Sprinkle it with baking soda, let it sit 15-20 minutes, then vacuum it with the hand attachment of your vacuum cleaner.

Know your linens

Don’t lose sleep over buying sheets. The rules are simple: When buying bedding, look at the thread count, and look at the type of fabric. A thread count is the number of horizontal and vertical threads per square inch. A sheet with a 180-thread count has 90 threads in each direction. For some, the higher the thread count, the softer the sheet and the longer the sheets will last. Some manufacturers even double-, triple- and sometimes quadruple-ply thinner threads so they can claim a higher thread count. However, more isn’t necessarily better, it’s just more expensive. In fact, in one “Consumer Reports” sheet test, the top-scoring sheet had a thread count of only 280. According to “Consumer Reports,” it’s not about the thread count, it’s about the fabric.

“A good set of sheets makes all the difference,” Sonfield says. “High-quality cotton with the right thread count equals durability. Egyptian and Supima cottons will get you the best results per square inch.”

Most hotels use cotton percale sheets, which have a “very crisp feel,” Sonfield says. “Percale sleeps cooler due to the weave. Sateen sheets feel more silky and are warmer.”

Many consumers are also choosing bedding made of certified organic or natural materials such as linen, bamboo rayon or cotton. These are not only eco-friendly, but also free of pesticides or dyes—something to consider since different chemicals can also get into your skin.

“Your clothes and sheets are against your skin all day and night and any chemical residues from their manufacture or the detergent used to clean them is going to get into your skin,” Radke says. So consider going the natural route if you’re concerned about skin allergies or other reactions to chemicals and detergents.

Pillow talk

Choosing the wrong pillow can be a pain in the neck. The position you sleep in and the pillow’s fill will help you decide where you rest your head.

Do you sleep sprawled out on your back? Or do you curl up on your side? Your sleep position is a factor in how firm your pillow should be. Back sleepers, or those who shift from back to side, need a medium firm pillow. Stomach sleepers need something soft. If you only sleep on your side, look for a pillow that’s firm.

So, how do you know which pillow has the right level of firmness for you?

The most common types of pillows are natural fill, synthetic fill and foam, according to National Sleep Foundation. Natural fill pillows use down, feathers or a combination of the two. The amount of filling a pillow has will affect its durability and fluffiness. Natural fill pillows shift to fit the shape of the sleeper’s head and neck.

Have allergies? Consider down pillows. Sonfield says down is hypoallergenic, which is “important to those with allergies, because the pillow is so close to their air intake.”

Synthetic fill pillows contain polyester fibers or rayon. They’re more affordable and hypoallergenic, but don’t last as long as natural fill pillows.

Foam pillows, like foam mattresses, give the most support because they conform to your head and neck.

Like a mattress, a pillow lasts only so long before it loses its effectiveness due to compression of the fill. Sonfield recommends getting a new pillow every 18 months to two-and-a-half years. If you’re a sweaty sleeper, you should change it out more often, or use a pillow protector and get a longer life out of it, Sonfield says.

Clean air quotient

Pet dander, pollen, dust mites and plant spores are common indoor pollutants that can make us sniffle and wheeze. Keeping the bedroom off limits to pets would help. But if you can’t bear to lock Fido out, then consider getting an air purifier. Look for one with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. These remove at least 99.97% of all particles as small as 0.3 microns—a unit of measurement of dust—according to the Medical University of South Carolina.

If you don’t need something as strong as an air purifier, try adding plants to your room. They’ll beautify your space while absorbing harmful gases through their leaves and roots.

Another thing: Skip the furniture spray. “It’s just unnecessary and they release a ton of volatile organic compounds into the air,” Radke says. “What people associate with cleanliness are really chemicals.”

Turn off the lights

Melatonin is a natural hormone made by the body’s pineal gland. It’s a key component of our natural sleep/wake rhythm, which is influenced by daylight and darkness. When the sun goes down, our melatonin levels in the blood rise, causing you to feel less alert. Exposure to bright sunlight—or even artificial indoor lighting—can prevent the release of enough melatonin, making it more difficult to fall asleep.

“As we get closer to sleep, melatonin peaks. It’s used to regulate our biological clock,” says Gregory Carnevale, a doctor at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y. “Shift work can disrupt our sleep cycle, as can electronics.”

Electronic devices can also have an effect on our sleep cycle because they emit large amounts of blue light—something that negatively affects our melatonin levels more than any other wavelength. Many sleep experts and scientists recommend turning off electronic readers, computers and televisions an hour before going to sleep to facilitate raising melatonin levels.

If you’ve taken that step but still find it hard to fall asleep, ambient light—any natural light coming through the windows or filtering in from other areas of the house—could be the culprit. Try installing blackout curtains or wearing a sleep mask.

Cool down

You’ve heard the phrase, “Keep your cool.” That’s exactly what the National Sleep Foundations wants you to do while sleeping. According to the foundation, the ideal room temperature is anywhere between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Our body temperature drops to initiate sleep, and the temperatures within the recommended range help facilitate the process. Anything much warmer or cooler could make us restless and affect our REM sleep—the stage of sleep during which we dream.

If 60 to 67 degrees is too cool for you, keep the room cool and warm your feet with a hot water bottle or by wearing socks. This will help dilate your blood vessels faster and push your internal thermostat to a more ideal setting.

Noise control

If you’re a light sleeper, you know that almost any noise can jolt you from your slumber. This is because the sleeping brain continues to register sound, Carnevale says. Noise from traffic, children, and electronics with buzzers and alerts can all disrupt our sleep, changing our heart rate and other biometrics.

It sounds counterintuitive but try using white noise, which is a combination of all noise frequencies, to help mask outside noises. Nature sounds such as rolling ocean waves or a soft rain can be calming and help you drift off to sleep. Or try classical music. These all lower our blood pressure and induce feelings of relaxation, making it easier to fall asleep.

Smell to relax

If there’s an odor in the bedroom, make sure it’s pleasant. Essential oils, scented candles and sprays help the body relax. So consider burning a candle before bed or investing in scented pillows or bedding.

Lavendar, vanilla, valerian and jasmine are well known for their relaxation properties and are great for creating a soothing environment, according to the National Sleep Foundation. But don’t limit yourself to just these—any scent that you love can help you fall asleep. “Your olfactory system is directly linked to the emotional center in your brain, so when you sniff something that brings back a good memory or makes you feel excited and full of anticipation, your body releases feel-good relaxing chemicals that can set the stage for great sleep,” the foundation says.