Ah, delicious sleep – it evaded Macbeth, who called it “the balm of hurt minds … Chief nourisher in life’s feast”.
Today it evades millions of people, even without the well-deserved guilty conscience that prevented Macbeth from nodding off.
This affects every aspect of our waking hours, yet we accept the lack of peaceful, healing sleep as an inevitable spin-off of demanding jobs and personal stress.
But improving the quality and duration of your sleep may be as simple as making a few changes to your bedroom and bedtime habits.
Answer the following questions to see if you’re giving yourself the best chance of success in the sleep stakes.
A wake-up call from the experts
“Sleep is no mean art,” wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
It’s an art that a huge number of us haven’t mastered, according to Professor David Hillman, president of the Sleep Health Foundation.
The Foundation’s 2010 survey found that 35 per cent of Australians complain of insufficient sleep. And Hillman has no doubt that a soon-to-be released follow-up survey will confirm that this number is climbing.
So how do we master the art of sound sleep?
“Everyone has their own set of rules,” says Hillman, “but thinking of the bedroom as a sanctuary, removing distractions and prioritising comfort are key issues.”
See how your bedroom and bedtime behaviour measure up.
Have you minimised outside noise?
Unwelcome sounds are great sleep destroyers. We live in a noisy world, especially city dwellers in high-density housing areas, so reducing night-time sounds is no easy task.
Hillman suggests that quietening your sleeping space doesn’t necessarily mean spending big on double glazing and sound-muffling drapes.
As simple as it sounds, a good set of earplugs could be the most direct way of cutting out noise. Interior noise from the rest of the household can be as disturbing as that from outside.
Is light keeping you awake?
Again, says Hillman, this is a matter of personal choice. Some prefer a pitch-black bedroom, others find a low night-light comforting, as well as being convenient for bathroom trips, checking on children or investigating things that go bump in the night.
Light affects our wakefulness, however, so do turn off bright overhead lights. “Lighting with high blue frequency content is more alerting – go for more warm-coloured lighting,” advises Hillman.
Sunlight controls our body clocks. If your sleep routine doesn’t coordinate with the sun’s, dawn may come with an unwelcome rush. Ensure window coverings are adequate to block it out until you’re ready for the day.
Without resorting to crouching under the covers with a torch, if you like to read while your partner sleeps, two different bedside lighting arrangements are a considerate solution. A dimmable or adjustable angle lamp on the bookworm’s side will cut down partner disturbance.
Tablet-style books aren’t ideal – backlit screen reading isn’t recommended as a before-sleep activity. Consider a clip-on book reading light, or buy your partner a fabulous eye mask instead.
Is the room temperature just right?
A constant, comfortable room temperature and adequate ventilation are sleep enhancers.
Experts recommend a cooler temperature for good sleep – around 18 to 21 degrees Celsius – but this is something you’ll arrive at through trial and error, guided by your own body thermostat.
Are you a creature of habit?
Trying to squeeze yourself into an ‘early to bed, early to rise’ pattern is of little benefit if you’re a night owl. “We’re all wired differently,” says Hillman. “10 per cent are larks, 20 per cent are owls, the rest of us are somewhere in between.” Whatever your avian orientation, he recommends developing a consistent routine for going to bed and waking, to build a strong sleep/wake cycle.
Do you leave the outside world outside?
Shutting off from the minutiae of the day and to-do lists is difficult. Get into the habit of setting aside time for a formal wind-down, advises Hillman. Use it to review the day and plan tomorrow, then leave those thoughts at the bedroom door. It will help you to feel calm and in control when you prepare to sleep. And remember the words of Charlotte Bronte: “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.”
Are you physically relaxed when you hit the sack?
Physical tension is as much to blame for poor sleep as mental tension, and we often carry this tension with us to bed. Vigorous exercise close to bedtime should be avoided, but consciously releasing uptight muscles with a short bedtime routine can aid relaxation and sleep. Try shoulder rolling, stretching and deep yoga belly-breathing focused on letting go. Accompany it with some calming music.
Does your bedding put you to sleep?
Dump that lumpy mattress and pillows that need punching into shape and buy the best mattress and pillows you can afford. It’s an investment in your comfort and wellbeing that you’ll never regret, even if you have to sacrifice some of your bedroom decorating dollars.
Equally, spend up on quality sheets that feel good on your skin and allow it to breath. Marketing guru Leah Stussy’s comment that “life is too short to sleep on low thread-count sheets” should be taken with a grain of salt. High thread-count isn’t the best or only indicator of quality. Look for percale or organic 100 per cent Egyptian cotton with around a 200 thread count, or splurge on real linen. Cotton flannelette is a good choice for colder weather.
Do your bedroom colours soothe you?
There are no rigid rules for bedroom palettes, although advice tends to favour softer colours. The only proviso is that they make you happy and relaxed to be around. Much depends on the size and light quality of the bedroom – as it is used at night, check out how colours react to your night lighting – greys, for example, that look lovely in daylight may turn gloomy and cold at night.
Do you sleep with a pet?
Hillman sees this as an issue open to debate. “There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer,” he says. “It’s about personal choice. For many people – the elderly, people who live alone, or lonely or anxious people, for example – the comfort factor derived from the presence of a pet is beneficial to sleep.” If, however, a pet wakes you several times a night and you have difficulty falling asleep again, you may need to rethink the arrangement.
Do you go to bed with your technology?
Bedtime is a good time for a technology detox, advises Hillman. Say goodnight to your computer an hour before you retire. Watching telly in bed may be more stimulating than relaxing, so do your viewing outside bedtime hours. Keep all other devices like phones out of the bedroom – it’s not an office or an entertainment area.
Do you clock off?
Banish the clock from the bedroom, or at least turn its tyrannical face to the wall if you need it for an alarm. When sleep is hard to come by, you will have an emotional reaction to it, no matter what the time is. Mentally adding up how long you’ve been awake and how long until you have to get up is an insidious sleep thief.
Does caffeine or alcohol keep you awake?
As one clever cookie said, “Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation.” Caffeine stays in the bloodstream for several hours, so afternoon and evening caffeine hits are out if you want a good sleep. Let at least four hours elapse between coffee and bedtime, and make that bedtime drink caffeine-free. Alcohol may knock you out initially, but the effect is often poor-quality sleep.
Do you eat too close to bedtime?
A heavy meal within two hours of retiring is another don’t. If you tuck in in a big way at night – a common Australian custom – don’t jump into bed before a reasonable digestion period. Besides the scientific reasons that an active metabolism affects sleep, indigestion could cause wakefulness. Changing dietary habits so that you are eating more at breakfast and lunch, and having a lighter meal at night, may aid in a more restful sleep.
So it’s goodnight …
Some last words from Hillman and the Sleep Health experts: “Sleep is not something we can control. We can only create the right conditions for sleep – both in our minds and in our environment.”
By Janet Dunn
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