When Sleep Evades Us

Everyone seems to be fascinated by sleep, most likely because the majority of us agree that we either do not get enough of it or just can’t seem to do it. Studies have shown that up to 62% of adults regularly experience some form of sleep-related issue, with many experiencing some form of insomnia several nights a week. Whether this insomnia stems from a restless body, restless mind or some combination thereof, nearly everyone can relate to the frustration of tossing and turning for hours on end to no avail, only to wake up seemingly moments later to a blaring alarm and the bright glare of early morning light. We pry ourselves out of bed only to muddle through the day in a delirious fog, eventually returning to our beds to repeat the same process over.

For many, this lack of sleep may hinge upon certain lifestyle choices, such as exposure to tech before bed, excessive caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine consumption, and for most some combination of the above. As our worlds continue to expand and our lives become increasingly cluttered with an ever-growing list of professional and personal obligations, we have an irresistible inclination to further stretch the length of our days.

Sleep deprivation may be a shared theme in our fast-paced lives, but despite the ubiquitous nature of the problem, scientists are only just beginning to understand the far-reaching relationship between sustained sleep deprivation and diminished cognitive abilities. Science has long since established the relationship between lack of sleep and poor performance, along with diminished levels of alertness and generalised focus. However, there is still much to be understood regarding the effects of sleep deprivation on higher-level cognitive functions such as memory, perception and self-control.

What science can tell us definitively is this: sleep is vital, and we could all do with more of it. And more importantly, there are many ways of creating a home environment conducive to rest before resorting to more drastic, and potentially habit-forming pharmacological solutions.

Temperature — Anyone who has ever attempted sleep in a hot room, is aware that cooler temperatures are generally more conducive to a good night’s rest. A study commissioned by U.K. brand Eve Sleep revealed that a staggering 50% of the 2000 British adults surveyed, reported consistent troubles sleeping due to overly warm bedroom temperatures. The explanation for this goes far beyond a simple matter of comfort, finding its cause in our circadian temperature regulation functions. Our bodies naturally reach their highest temperature in the late afternoon, continuing to slowly drop until finally reaching their lowest point around five a.m. This drop in internal body temperature helps to facilitate the sleep-initiation process and is crucial not only to falling asleep, but also to the quality and duration of sleep.

Research into the science of sleep has found that the optimum temperature for sleeping lies between a cool 18–21 degrees celsius (65–70 degrees Fahrenheit), with slightly higher ideal temperatures for infants and the elderly. A cooler bedroom environment triggers the evolutionary response known as ‘nesting’, as we naturally settle into a warmer environment as our body and environmental temperatures decrease.

Beyond the effects of thermoregulation on falling and staying asleep, a recent Dutch study found a correlation between body temperature and the quality of sleep. Bedroom temperatures outside the ideal 18–21 degrees may prevent the body from entering the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, or cause premature entry into NREM stages. During REM sleep, the eyes move rapidly about and the heart rate increases to levels approaching that of waking hours. It is this stage of sleep in which we have our most vivid dreams, and while scientists still do not fully understand the full scope of REM sleep’s purposes, most agree that it is within the REM stage that new memories are formed and the brain’s chemistry is restored to balance, as the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid is increased, effectively ‘washing’ the brain clean after a day’s work, and preparing a fresh slate for the new day ahead.

Even in homes without air conditioning, simply adding a fan to your bedroom can drastically improve the temperature of your sleeping environment, with the added benefit of white noise, which has been proveneffective in helping you to stay asleep throughout the night. Another quick fix for overly warm bedrooms is as simple as avoiding synthetic or silken fabrics when selecting bedding and pyjamas, opting instead for more breathable materials such as cotton or linen.

Humidity — A less evident factor that may be impeding your sleep, is the humidity of your bedroom and home environment. As temperatures rise in the summer months, so does the amount of moisture in the air, making it more difficult for our bodies to evaporate water from the surface of the skin in the form of sweat. This, in turn, makes it more challenging for our bodies to regulate sleeping temperature and may result in fitful, or unsatisfying rest.

More than simply causing discomfort, overly humid conditions can lead to mould growth in the home, as moulds can begin to form in conditions as low as 50% humidity.

“A 2004 study commissioned by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found suggestive evidence linking exposure to damp indoor environments in general to shortness of breath, to respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children, and to potential development of asthma in susceptible individuals”.

Ideally, the humidity should fall in the 30–50% range, with most experts recommending 45% as the optimum level for restful sleep. While too much humidity can certainly be an impediment to quality rest, too little humidity poses just as much of a risk to your sleeping patterns. When humidity in the bedroom falls below 30%, as is common during the drier winter months, both your nasal passages and throat can become overly dry, resulting in irritation, increased snoring, and heightened susceptibility to cold and flu. Though it is unfortunately impossible to control the humidity of the outside environment, a simple dehumidifier for the summer months and a humidifier for winter can drastically improve both your quality of sleep and overall health.

On average, we will spend roughly a third of our lives asleep. Sleep is as crucial to our as proper nutrition and exercise, and yet many still view rest as a luxury rather than a necessity, a dispensable privilege to be neglected as needed. We neglect sleep to our own detriment, often viewing a lack of rest as a testament to the importance and busyness of our waking hours. We would not accept unhealthy conditions in our workplace environment, so why should we tolerate them in the personal sanctuary of our bedrooms? Improve your bedroom conditions, and improve your sleep. Improve your sleep, and improve your life.