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Insomnia: How to Create a Sleep-Friendly Bedroom

Follow these tips to get you sleeping like a baby
Follow these tips to get you sleeping like a baby

You'll find plenty of ideas to cure insomnia online, but the setup of your bedroom is often overlooked. Turns out, this simple thing can make a surprising difference. A few tweaks can make a substantial improvement in your sleep quality.

Blackout!

Have you ever noticed the way a frightened wild animal calms down completely when it's put in a bag? Or how a screeching parrot shuts up the moment you put a cover over its cage? Animals instinctively quieten and fall asleep when there's no light. Humans have exactly the same instinct, and we can use that to help us sleep more soundly.

Light, even when our eyes are closed, keeps the brain awake. The darker it is, the more your brain will want to sleep. So your very first step in prepping your bedroom is to create as complete a blackout as you can manage. Holland blinds are often translucent, and slat blinds leak light, so you may need to invest in some heavy curtains. Get rid of, or cover, any devices that have bright displays (e.g. clock radios).

I can hear some of you saying, "But I can drop off on the couch during the day, in broad daylight!" Yes, I know - but that's because you're dog-tired. To persuade your brain to fall asleep at the end of the day, when you may still have some energy left, you need to be in the dark. Likewise, if your brain detects light at 4am, it's going to wake you up because the day has begun - if you don't want that to happen, you need a blackout blind!

If all else fails, buy an eye mask.

Slat blinds can leak light, preventing sound sleep
Slat blinds can leak light, preventing sound sleep

Noise

Living in busy cities, it's hard to avoid noise, and keeping the windows closed is not always a healthy idea. If it bothers you, consider investing in a gadget that produces "white noise". You'll find several models on Amazon but I recommend the Ecotones Sound'n'Sleep, because it has a good range of sounds, can be set to switch off automatically, and doesn't have a bright LED display. I'm always surprised why some makers produce these gadgets with a blazing LED display that's going to spoil your blackout and affect your sleep!

White noise is a steady stream of gentle sound that masks annoying noises from outside. It doesn't work for everyone - I like it, but it doesn't work for my husband.

It will probably suit you if (like me) you love falling asleep with the ocean lapping gently on the shore outside your window. If, like my husband, you hate the very idea of hearing the shush-shush-shush of the waves all night, it's probably not for you!

Temperature

This may be the biggest surprise of all for some people. We have a tradition of wanting to be "warm and cosy" while we sleep - but if you're insomniac, that's the last thing you need! Believe it or not, the ideal temperature for the body to sleep is only 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). If it's hotter than that, your body can't sink into the deep sleep it needs to fully repair, and you'll wake up tired.

If you have a heavy quilt on your bed, or several blankets, then it's time to review. When you're in bed, your own body heat gets trapped and builds up, so you shouldn't need a lot of covers unless you're in a very cold climate. When you first climb between the sheets, it should feel a bit too cool - if it feels cosy straight away, then your body heat will soon make it too hot for deep sleep.

This tip goes so completely against our ideas about sleeping, it took me a while to get my head around. But I did find that the braver I got and the more blankets I shed, the better my sleep became!

There is such a thing as too much bedding. Better to be too cool than too hot!
There is such a thing as too much bedding. Better to be too cool than too hot!

Electronic Devices

It seems that more and more people are having trouble sleeping these days - and our love of devices is the reason.

We've known for some time that using a computer before bedtime can prevent sleep. The screens of all electronic devices - computers, tablets, e-readers, cellphones - emit a blue light. At first it was thought the problem was simply that blue light stimulated the brain. That is a factor, but now we know it's more complicated than that, and more serious.

The blue light affects our body's level of melatonin. Melatonin is a sleep-inducing hormone the body starts producing just before bedtime. If you don't have enough melatonin in your system when you go to bed, you can't sleep.

It gets worse! If you regularly use a computer or cell late at night, it can scramble your body's rhythms. The brain starts to think it's normal not to sleep till 2am, so it won't even try to produce melatonin until later (remember, without melatonin you can't sleep). Result - your "body clock" shifts: your body now permanently thinks 2am is the right time for bed, and you'll have trouble getting to sleep any earlier.

The Sleep Foundation's advice is to stop using ALL electronic devices - PC, laptop, tablet, e-reader or cellphone - at least one hour before bedtime.

It has become normal for people to keep their phone or tablet on their bedside table. Now you know it's the worst thing you could possibly do! Avoid temptation by leaving them in another room.

If you'd like to read more about it, you can read a Q&A with two neuroscientists in the Scientific American.

By the way, if you feel your body clock may already have shifted, the way to shift it back is to get lots of sunlight on your body early in the morning. So set your alarm earlier for a few days, dress lightly and go for an early morning walk.

The blue light from laptops stimulates the brain
The blue light from laptops stimulates the brain

Feng Shui for Insomnia

This section may sound a bit "left field" to some people - but when you are having trouble sleeping, believe me, anything is worth trying! The great thing about Feng Shui is that it doesn't have to cost anything, and it certainly won't cause any harm, so why not try it?

Feng Shui is a Chinese system for managing "chi" or life energy. When you’re awake, you want lots of positive, well-balanced life energy to keep you feeling invigorated. When you're ready to go to bed, you need to calm the life energy to achieve a blissful, deep sleep.

A lot of Feng Shui is based on common sense. For instance, Feng Shui recommends that your living areas should be on the sunnier side of the house whereas your bedrooms should be on the darker side. That’s pretty obvious – the sunny side of the house is hotter, and sleep is always deeper when you’re cool. And you don't want sunshine waking you up when you do manage to nod off!.

Declutter

Another common sense recommendation is that your bedroom should be free of distractions. This especially applies to anything connected to work. Televisions and computers are a huge source of chi (think of all the activity that happens on the screen, not to mention its electrical energy). The best plan is to remove them from the room. If you can't, then cover the screens completely so there are no reflections, and if they're connected to power, switch them off at the wall.

In fact, Feng Shui considers that clutter of any kind disturbs your peace. “A cluttered room makes a cluttered mind”. When you’re ready to go to bed, make sure the room is tidy and all the cupboards are closed.

Having selected the right location for your bedroom and removed the distractions, it's time to work on ensuring the flow of "chi" in the room is smooth. If there are reflective surfaces that it can bounce around on, the life force will be disturbed - and so will your sleep.

The first thing I read about Feng Shui was that you should never have mirrors on opposite walls. I had a mirrored wardrobe on one wall, and a decorative mirror on the opposite wall. At that stage I was very sceptical about Feng Shui, but as I was having trouble sleeping, I thought it was worth a try. I removed the decorative mirror. Imagine my surprise when I slept much more soundly that night!

Ideally, if you have a mirrored wardrobe, you should install a net or voile curtain which you can draw over it at night.

Think about the location of your bed in the room. Assuming there are no mirrors to bend and disrupt the flow, chi generally flows from the door to the window of the room. If your bed is positioned between the two, the life force will flow straight across your body - which would be a good thing if you wanted to feel awake and lively, but no good if you want to sleep!

If you can't position your bed to avoid that flow, you can place something to block the chi and make it go around. Perhaps a room divider or screen would work – or get one of those tropical mosquito nets to hang around your bed. Some Feng Shui practitioners feel that a rug between the bed and the door is enough (though that is obviously more symbolic than practical).

In fact, that's one reason why Feng Shui disapproves of en suite bathrooms - because it means you have two doors in your bedroom, making the flow more complex so it's difficult to avoid having chi flowing across the bed. Always keep your ensuite door closed at night. By the way, also keep the seat down, gentlemen - Feng Shui believes that if you don't, your wealth will drain down the toilet!

More Essential Tips for Insomniacs

I hope you find these tips helpful. However, fixing your bedroom is only part of the story. There are other measures which are absolutely key for insomniacs - if you're not following them, it'll be a waste of time following any of the tips in this article. So please, do make sure you've got these things covered:

  1. Stop eating two hours before bedtime. Your brain can't sleep if your body is still trying to digest your meal.
  2. A hot drink before bedtime is fine, but NO hot chocolate or chocolate biscuits. Chocolate contains two stimulants, caffeine and theobromide, and the hot drink is usually very high in sugar which is also stimulating.
  3. Consider cutting down or cutting out alcohol in the evening. Alcohol will help you get to sleep, but your brain will wake you up when it wears off - which is usually about 3 o'clock in the morning!

It's also worth getting a medical checkup to see if there's a physical reason you're not sleeping. For instance if you have GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease), that is known to disturb sleep.

One final tip, which is more of a psychological exercise than anything else. It doesn't sound that important, but virtually every sleep expert will give you this advice: your bed is for sleeping and having sex, nothing else. Reading a book (not an e-reader) in bed is OK for some people but not everyone. Never eat, work or watch TV while in bed - unless you're too sick to get up.

Breakfast in bed is fine as a very occasional treat. Otherwise, NO eating in bed!
Breakfast in bed is fine as a very occasional treat. Otherwise, NO eating in bed!

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