Last updated on December 7th, 2016
This post was written in collaboration with Casper.com
We know one thing is true: sleep is important. Sleep deprivation can lead to serious health issues and chronic disease including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. We’ve heard the tips before — don’t watch TV before bed, try putting a fan on, meditate. But do these quick fixes actually work? And if so, why?
The sleep experts at Casper have made sleep their business. They’ve studied the science of the body in order to figure out how to not only make sure we’re not just lying in bed for eight hours thinking about the sleep we should be getting, but that we’re actually going through the restorative sleep cycle necessary for optimal health.
That’s why we’ve examined some of the most common sleep issues — from harmful blue light to improper temperatures; the more we understand why they’re issues in the first place, the better our solutions can be.
When it comes to a good night’s sleep, the first thing people normally think about is being comfortable.
Step 1 in ensuring comfort is, of course, choosing the right mattress, which can be more difficult than you might think.
A mattress is only a problem if it isn’t comfortable for you. Studies have shown, however, that investing in a better mattress leads to decreased pain, stress, and discomfort, especially in women, which has a positive snowball effect on your health.
If you experience daily physical pain (like stiffness or backaches) or if you’ve always thought you were just a toss and turner, you probably need to start shopping around for a new bed.
Everyone, depending on their weight and body, differs in terms of the level of support and firmness they need to feel comfortable. There are many types of mattresses and materials used to build them, each of which have a different effect on your body.
Some mattresses, for example, can trap heat leading to uncomfortable sleeping temperatures, which is another sleep problem. It’s important to make sure you choose a mattress designed to keep you cool and reduce pressure on your body.
What’s “right” is so subjective, but there are a few general rules of thumb to keep in mind. If you buy a regular spring mattress, for example, you need to replace it (and the box spring) every 8 years. Doing a little research can go a long way.
Educate yourself on what options are available and find out about improved design solutions that appeal to you. For information about specific materials and what else to look for if you’re considering a change (like how to choose the right size) check out this page here.
Lastly, try choosing something that comes with a trial period where you’re able to sleep on the mattress for at least a few nights. This helps ensure that the mattress really is comfortable for you.
Being a part of today’s digital age makes it difficult to avoid looking at some kind of screen.
Many of us even make the sleep-stealing mistake of winding down by queuing up our favorite Netflix show, scrolling through our phones, or reading an e-book.
The problem itself stems from the blue light. This light that emits from the various screens we surround ourselves with is “short-wavelength-enriched,” meaning it’s the opposite of natural light.
In order for us to fall asleep, our body must produce the hormone melatonin and — yep, you guessed it — blue light messes with our natural melatonin levels.
In an interview with the Scientific American, Harvard University neuroscientist Anne-Marie Chang (who made the discovery that our tech devices’ negative effects on sleep last up until the following morning), she explains that “light is the most powerful cue for shifting the phase or resetting the time of the circadian clock. […] Melatonin is present at low levels during the day, begins being released a few hours before bedtime and peaks in the middle of the night.
Past studies have shown that light suppresses melatonin, such that light in the early evening causes a circadian delay, or resets the clock to a later schedule; and light in the early morning causes a circadian advancement, or resets the clock to an earlier schedule.”
Blue light is a particular problem because research shows that, as humans, we are most sensitive to blue light, or light in the blue wavelength region of the spectrum. This sensitivity was measured by the light’s impact on acute melatonin production and is caused by wavelength-sensitive photoreceptors in the eye known as melanopsin-containing ganglion cells.
In other words, blue light significantly delays the natural release of melatonin, meaning that it will take longer to fall asleep, prevent REM sleep, feel less ready to fall asleep in general, and take longer to wake up the next morning.
If you’re serious about wanting to get more (and better quality) sleep, you need to commit to avoiding all electronics at least 30 minutes to an hour before you’re planning on hitting the hay.
If you really can’t for whatever reason, take advantage of the myriad of apps and features increasingly available — like iPhone’s Night Shift, or f.lux for your computer. These capabilities make the light that emits from your devices warmer in hue and are customizable in terms of hue strength and the time of day they activate.
Sunny and 75 degrees is thought to be the picture perfect day, but what about the perfect temperature for sleep?
First, it’s important to understand that, over the course of a normal day, your body’s temperature naturally fluctuates in accordance with your energy levels.
According to the UniSA’s Centre for Sleep Research, “About one to one and a half hours before falling asleep, the body starts to lose heat from its central core and that brings on increased feelings of tiredness in normal, healthy adults. These physiological changes happen well before going to bed and may be occurring before people realize them.” Around early afternoon is when we’re warmest and most awake, and 5am is when things are at their coolest and drowsiest.
During sleep, our bodies are meant to naturally cool down in order to regulate the circadian rhythm. In fact, studies have shown that external temperatures of 60 to 68 degrees trigger the body to release more melatonin, and we already know how important that hormone is for sleep.
However, during REM, the brain’s temperature-regulating cells actually go to sleep themselves (read: they turn off), which means that your body temperature becomes determined by the temperature of your bedroom. This is why trying to sleep in the heat is so miserable — the external temperature prevents our internal temperature from being where it needs to be for a deep sleep.
Experts recommend setting your thermostat at 65 degrees for optimal sleep. If it’s not super easy for you to control the temperature in your room, you’re going to have to get a little bit more creative.
Be cognizant of the materials and fabric of your sleepwear and adjust depending on the weather. You can also try taking a warm bath an hour or so before bed, which actually helps your body temperature drop once you get out. The reverse also works: in the morning, get your body moving and your blood pumping to raise your core temperature and help increase your energy.
Even if you live in the quietest town or are the heaviest sleeper, a certain amount of a specific kind of noise at the right time can cause you to suddenly wake up.
When it comes to sleeping soundly (pun intended), noise can be both friend and foe. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on the situation), our brain lets our ears keep on hearing when we sleep.
In fact, many times we may not even remember being disturbed by a sound the next morning because sound can affect sleep in a range of ways, including causing you to wake up, move, changefrom one sleep stage to another, or impact your heart rate and blood pressure. Any sleep that is disturbed is low quality and prevents the body from going through its full, restorative duties during the sleep cycle.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, whether or not a sound will disturb you in any of these ways depends on the following factors:
- Which sleep stage you’re in
- Time of night
- Your feelings about the sounds (irritated, scared, soothed, etc.)
If you’re in a light sleep stage — stage 1 or 2 — or if it’s the second half of the night, you’re more likely to be woken up. Also, it also depends on the decibel level. Under 30 db (a soft whisper, breathing, ticking watch, etc.) has little to no effect for most people, while anything above 55 (normal conversation and background music) and even around 40 (air conditioner) can actually negatively affect your health in the form of cardiovascular disease.
It’s interesting to note, however, that being a heavy sleeper really is a scientific thing. Certain individuals have specific brain activity that makes them more immune to noise pollution. You can also adapt to noises that are common or recurring in your environment over time.
While a lot of research is focused on the harmful effects of sound on sleep, it can also be used to cancel out the sounds that actually do disturb you. White noise, for example, can mask the common yet sudden environmental sounds that disturb sleep, especially during the lighter stages.
Consider investing in a white noise machine with a timer or queuing up a YouTube playlist of white noise tracks you enjoy for a certain amount of time that will then shut off after you’ve entered deeper, stronger stages of sleep. Make sure you don’t have any white noise too loud — below 50 is said to be best.
If you’re not sure if you’re actually being disturbed, also consider tracking your sleep with any one of the positively reviewed sleep tracker apps or devices to give you better insight into how soundly you’re sleeping throughout the night.