A number of readers of this blog have recently asked about the factors that influence how we fall asleep and how well we sleep. I have attempted to address these questions by discussing a few common reasons for having difficulty getting to sleep at night.
There is nothing more tempting in the depths of winter than to turn up the heating and then put on a few layers before jumping into bed. In the summer, should we open the window?
A sleeping environment that is too warm can have an adverse effect on your sleep. In a widely accepted study, Kräuchi et al (2000) showed that a difference between core body temperature and skin temperature (due to vasodilation resulting in heat loss) is conducive to the onset of sleep. In other words, your body can more easily control this “setting” to send you off to the Land of Nod if your bedroom is cool.
Think about it – your leg doesn’t end up on top of the covers in the summer by chance! This happens so as to adjust what is known as the proximo-distal temperature difference.
However, there is no one optimum temperature for sleep; we all have different preferences (and cold or hot feet, you know who you are).
What can you do if you have trouble falling asleep, or if you sleep badly? If your partner doesn’t mind too much, you can try setting the temperature a few degrees lower (or higher if you are too cold) for a few nights, to test the effect.
Ambient temperature isn’t the only factor that affects your sleep. Your mattress, sheets and duvets also play a major role (winter/summer side of your mattress, for example). An uncomfortable mattress can leave you tossing and turning; sheets and bedclothes also affect how easily you fall asleep and stay asleep.
On average, a mattress lasts 10 to 15 years, and it has been scientifically proven that good-quality new bedding can improve sleep quality and daytime activity. The Actimat sleep observation clinical study, conducted at the initiative of the APL (French bedding manufacturers’ association) in conjunction with Prof. Damien Léger, director of the sleep and wakefulness centre at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Paris, has shown the positive effect of new bedding on sleep quality.
It is also important to start to prepare your body for sleep before you even step into the bedroom – routine plays a role in this. Avoid bright ceiling lights and favour dimmer lamps in your living room when relaxing during the evening.
It can also be frustrating to be awakened in the morning, not by your children but by sunlight. Even if the weather is splendid, you almost certainly do not need to be awake at 6 a.m. on a Sunday.
Whenever possible, sleep in total darkness. This will step up the secretion of melatonin, the “sleep hormone”.
Lastly, when travelling, you often have little control over the light levels in your room. You can hardly tell your friends that you don’t want to sleep in their guest bedroom because it doesn’t have the right shutters or curtains. An easy alternative is to buy an eye mask to wear at night. They may not look very glamorous, but the soft material is surprisingly comfortable to wear.
Even though there is often nothing you can do about it, there is no doubt that noise can affect how easily you fall asleep and stay asleep. Muffling all the bumps and thuds around you should improve things. Earplugs can be a simple solution.
Do you rely on a radio alarm clock to wake you up in the morning? You might be suffering during the night as a result of the light from the red digits.
Instead, opt for another solution, placing the alarm clock such that you can’t see the time, as there is nothing worse than lying there watching the clock because you woke up too early or can’t get back to sleep.
Sleeping tablets should be a last resort; first try to make changes to your habits. If you do experience problems, do not hesitate to consult a doctor specialising in sleep disorders, who can answer your questions and offer short- and long-term solutions and advice.
The right questions to be asking are: How long did it take you to get to sleep? How do you feel that you slept? And above all, how did you feel during the day?
The quality of your sleep is best measured by the quality of your waking hours!
Please feel free to continue asking questions on this blog. We will do our best to provide a detailed reply.