Senses of Living® Décor

June 2005
© 2005 by Bret S. Beall


I had originally intended to write about sleep deprivation for this month’s Sensational Living® column, but as I started writing, I realized a good portion of sleep enhancement is about our physical environment, and therefore, about décor (and related factors).

Sleep deprivation is affecting the majority of Americans and others around the world. The average American gets 7 hours of sleep each night, when 8 hours are truly preferred for maximum benefit; this creates an ongoing sleep deficit. There just don’t seem to be enough hours in each day, so we tend to “borrow” hours from our “sleep account.” This is not wise! I first want to outline the four major categories of problems that arise due to sleep deprivation, and then offer some solutions.

1. Attentiveness. It’s a no-brainer that sleep deprivation leads to poor attentiveness. However, some studies in the last few years have show that getting less than six hours of sleep can affect coordination, reaction time and judgment, particularly among drivers. In fact, the sleep deprivation was found to be as serious as drunkenness with regard to their effects on drivers (and other operators of heavy machinery).

2. Productivity. As sleep deprivation increases, productivity decreases. It’s a simple inverse relationship. Quantifying this relationship is difficult, because of the many variables at work, but in general, when we get enough sleep, we are more attentive and focused, and can produce more positive results, whether we are talking about work or play. Creativity also suffers proportionally with loss of sleep. Long-term memory can be negatively impacted by sleep deprivation.

3. Health. The laundry list of health problems attributed to, or associated with, sleep deprivation increases all of the time. Blurry vision, depression, breathing problems, even heart disease can all manifest from loss of sleep; if sleep deprivation is due to working evening/night shifts, there is some evidence that the production of melatonin will decrease, which can lead to increased estrogen levels in women, which in turn can increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer! Additionally, our bodies become more stressed overall when we don’t get enough sleep, which reduces the effectiveness of our immune systems, leaving us open to all sorts of opportunistic infections (that was the inspiration for this column, by the way! I was sleep-deprived, and ended up catching a cold, something I rarely have!).

4. Weight gain. Of course, weight is related to health, but I wanted to particularly call your attention to a recent study. This study has shown that there is a direct correlation between the amount of sleep one gets and the amount of the hormone leptin that one produces, which controls hunger. Less sleep means less leptin, therefore more hunger and potentially more weight gain. Conversely, with more sleep, there is more leptin, and therefore less hunger and less weight gain (or more weight loss).

So, now that we know what can happen if we don’t get enough sleep, what can we do about this? Well, the “fixes” come in three general categories:

1. Emotional cures. Stress, worry, fear and anxiety are all factors that diminish sleep. If these are caused by your work environment, you can either change your job, or learn to work more efficiently, or negotiate with your supervisor, or learn a variety of relaxation techniques. On the other hand, many of these emotional problems are related to core psychological problems, and I urge you to engage in some intense introspection to determine if you might need some outside professional help. DO NOT BE ASHAMED! You can only get better!

2. Physical cures. A number of substances will interfere with sleeping. Caffeine is obvious (though some of you, like me, may lack sensitivity to caffeine, making it less of an issue). Counter-intuitively, alcohol can negatively impact REM sleeping, so even though you are not awake, you are not getting the “proper” rest that alcohol-free sleep provides. Nicotine is one of those substances that acts as both a stimulant and a depressant, so that dual function makes it a prime candidate for avoidance (again, people’s sensitivity to nicotine varies greatly, so don’t think of this suggestion as dogmatic). Finally, food can be problematic for sleep; try to avoid heavy, high-calorie meals before going to sleep (preferably, no closer than three hours prior to hitting the sack). It has also been suggested that a light snack with protein and carbohydrates may be an acceptable option for those hit with hunger in the late evening; something like yogurt will provide the materials for tryptophan to be converted to seratonin, which assists the sleep cycle. Oh, and don’t exercise late in the day; you’ll have adrenalin pumping through your body which is NOT part of the recipe for a good night’s sleep. A warm bath, meditation and a regular schedule (go to bed the same time each night, and get up the same time each day, even on weekends) will all contribute to better sleep. Medication (ie, sleeping pills) will not.

3. Environmental cures. This is the gist of this column, so I’ll break the suggestions into specific categories:

  1. Décor: KISS! Keep it simple, silly! “Busy-ness” in décor can be distracting, so avoid clutter and avoid filling a room with too much furniture. Allow your mind to calm itself when you retire for the night.
  2. Beds/mattresses: there are some new mattresses on the market that actually conform to your body’s contours, and are said to greatly enhance sleep. There are other mattresses that create side-by-side zones to minimize the effect that you and your partner might have on each other during sleep. If you want to make these investments, be my guest; special mattresses and box springs can resolve your problems, and allow you to sleep well, as long as you can afford them. My personal solution is to use a futon! I’ve been told that this is an archaic solution … well, I’ve been using a futon for 20 years, and sleeping like a baby, and the Japanese have been using futons for hundreds of years, and have created a magnificent history. My futon is on a pedestal, so I have easy in and out access, and the firmness (which can be variable, depending on the kind of futon you buy) helps my back. My main caveat would be to buy only all-natural futons made of layers of cotton batting; avoid any futons with foam core or other artificial ingredients.
  3. Pillows and Linens: As with bedding, pillows ideally should be made of natural materials to avoid allergies and outgassing. They can be made of all kinds of materials (cotton, wool, buckwheat, and feathers), and come in all levels of firmness; personally, I tend to prefer a firm, flat pillow, but you can pick the one you like best. With regard to linens, natural is again the best way to go. I like to use multiple layers to better control the temperature at which I sleep; I like cool external, ambient temps, and having just enough layers of linens to keep in my body temperature. As I written before, I also love freshly-laundered sheets; I always sleep better with newly-washed linens!
  4. Aroma: You will see LOTS of claims for specific effects from specific aromas. Sadly, there simply isn’t much evidence for these claims. One exception that is relevant here is lavender. Lavender has been shown clinically to have a relaxing effect. Lavender potpourri or sachets will allow a relaxing aroma to waft through the room; I even have a small lavender pillow that I can tuck near my head and breathe in that relaxing bouquet.
  5. Sounds: Some apartments and homes are just noisy. My own home transmits sounds from my neighbors all too well. Eventually one becomes desensitized to these external sounds, but a jarring sound (like my upstairs neighbor walking across the wooden floor in high heels at midnight) can interfere with sleep (another jarring sound is the telephone; consider turning off the phone, if that works with your lifestyle). To offset such distraction, you can create ambient sound to fill your sleeping area. Sometimes I use a sound machine to generate “white noise,” which is like static, or I have it reproduce sounds of rain or running water, which are particularly relaxing and soothing to me. You can also play tapes or cds of calming music. There are also so-called “healing” recordings on the market; I can attest that they are pleasant enough, and don’t interfere with sleeping, but they didn’t actually enhance my sleep process.
  6. Color and Light: Believe it or not, there really isn’t a lot of evidence that particular colors contribute to relaxing us! Even though we are taught that reds, oranges and yellows will invigorate us, while greens, blues and purples will relax us, this is based more on assumptions and old wives’ tales rather than any real physiological research. On the other hand, light levels are important, so make sure your bedroom/sleeping area is as dark as possible at night, and that external sources of light are blocked (window treatments). Internal sources of light, like lamps, should be bright enough to allow easy reading before going to bed, which can be very relaxing; watching television, though, can actually invigorate you, so I strongly discourage keeping a TV in the bedroom.
  7. Temperature: For good sleep, cooler is better than warmer; just make sure that you have enough layers of linens and bedding (see above) to avoid becoming chilled.

Clearly, I’ve outlined a number of options for enhancing sleep that involve making intentional investments on your part. That said, the best take-home message I can offer is this: Try to do less, so you can sleep more. You will be surprised how, when you get a good night’s sleep, you make better use of the time that you have. Sure, go ahead and follow the other tidbits of advice, but seriously, if you just make up your mind to go to bed 30 minutes, or an hour, or two hours earlier each night, your life will be so much better! Let me know what you try by calling me at 773.508.9208 or email me. I really do care how well you sleep!