Sleep sanctuary. The two words conjure up luxury hotel linens, plush pillows, and ultra-soft, pillow-top, king-size beds. But is that really all there is to getting a better night’s sleep?
The answer to this question is important to me. I come from a family of insomniacs—and I’m not joking. I’ve battled insomnia for almost two decades. So has my brother and mother, as did my father before he passed away. And we’re not talking about occasional sleeplessness, or tossing and turning due to anxiety—I’m talking about days, weeks and months of little to no sleep. Now, I have two sons and I want to make sure they get the best possible chance for good sleep. I want to create a sleep sanctuary for them. But is it possible without spending a fortune?
Apparently, one in nine Canadians suffer from full-blown insomnia, characterized by a month or more of sleepless nights leading to impaired daytime functioning. But you don’t have to be an insomniac to suffer from sleeplessness. One quarter of Canadians—or roughly 7.5 million people—complain of poor sleep.
“Sleep isn’t a luxury, it’s vital, just like breathing, drinking, or eating,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Lipsitz, director of Sleep Disorders Centre in Toronto. While true insomniacs will need professional help, occasional poor sleepers can initiate immediate changes to the quality and quantity of sleep just by implementing a few tweaks and changes to their sleep habits.
First: Develop a routine
Ask a farmer or athlete and they’ll tell you straight: The body is a machine. And like any machine it requires regular maintenance. In the case of your body this maintenance translates into a daily routine that includes routine wake times, meal times, exercise, and sleep times.
“We have an internal clock that regulates a variety of biological processes,” says Lipsitz. To get optimal performance, you need to respect that internal clock. If you constantly find yourself sleeping in on the weekend, that’s a good indication you are sleep deprived and that your internal clock isn’t set properly, says Lipsitz. To eliminate tiredness—and daytime impairment—you’ll need to readjust your wake up and bed times, so that they are the same seven days a week.
Second: Develop a ritual
But the pressures of everyday life can often infringe upon your daily routine, often causing those tossing and turning sleepless nights. To keep to your schedule—and help you unwind at night—you’ll need to develop a bedtime ritual.
For some this includes a warm bath, a hot cup of caffeine-free tea (hint: all black and green teas have caffeine), meditating, or reading a book. The aim is to develop a set of activities and rituals that become sleep-cues. The cues work by helping your mind let-go and relax, so that even after a hectic day you can wind down and go to sleep. And it works. No matter what you include in your sleep ritual, keep in mind the following rules of thumb:
–> No caffeine after lunch or before bed
–> Exercise during the day, but stop all exercise 60 minutes before bedtime (“It just raises your adrenalin levels,” says Lipsitz, “and this hinders the internal sleep clock.”)
–> Limit your nicotine and alcohol intake before bed
–> Shut off your TV, computer, tablet or smartphone at least 60 minutes before bedtime
Third: The Environment
This is where most people start when they have sleep problems. They believe that if you create a hotel or spa-like environment—perfect scents, bed, pillow and linens—you’ll sleep better. There’s truth to this, says Lipsitz. “Really the environment is about personal preference. It’s about creating an environment that is restful and relaxing.”
So, how do you create that perfect sleep sanctuary? MoneySense published a great piece on this in November. (Go here for the article). But I’d like to add a few tidbits that will help you develop a sleep sanctuary on a budget.
Let’s start with the most obvious: The bed.
If you buy into the ads you’ll spend $3,000 or more for a good night’s sleep. Thankfully, that’s just not the case. You won’t necessarily get a better night’s sleep on a more expensive mattress, explains Ed Perratore, senior editor and mattress tester at Consumers Reports. He should know. The Consumer Reports lab tests mattresses by pushing a 308-lb roller over the bedding 30,000 times. If the mattress maintains it’s original shape, height, firmness and body support, then it should last approximately eight years based on our normal wear and tear on a bed. The CR lab also tests beds based on the type of sleeper you are and whether or not you share the bed with a partner.
Based on their results, the general rule of thumb is that adjustable air beds work best for back-sleepers and coil beds are better for side-sleepers. If you’re a couple, consider a memory foam bed, or a bed with a foam topper, as this material is best at reducing noise and vibration transfers.
Expect to pay between $725 and $1,225. But the old adage, “Try before you buy,” is definitely applicable here, says Perratore. For CR Best Buy choices for mattresses, click here.
Drapes, blinds and eye masks: $10+
Not everyone is bothered by light. My husband can pass out with the blinds up, the ceiling light on, and the house buzzing with activity. He doesn’t have sleep issues (aside from father fatigue).
Me, on the other hand, not so much. I’ll wake up if the alarm clock LCD display is pointing towards my face, or if the little blue light on the cellphone is blinking, or if the sun starts streaming through one of our en-suite bathroom windows and the door isn’t closed to block out the light. In other words, I’m light sensitive.
To help me get a better night’s sleep, my husband and I added both a black-out roller blind and black-out curtains—window dressings that are specifically designed to keep light out.
Cheaper black out blinds start at $40 a panel ($80 for two) and go up. Cheap roller blinds can be found at Home Depot, Lowe’s or Ikea and can be cut to fit your windows. Bring your measurements and don’t forget to take into consideration the width of the mounting hardware.
If you don’t mind blocking light from the window semi-permanently consider a stick-on shade. These window clings stick to your windows and prevent any light seepage—which translate to total blackout conditions. While they’re not permanent (wet them down and you can peel them off) they aren’t retractable, which means you don’t have the option of drawing the blind back or rolling the blind up to let some light in. Still, if you’re really light sensitive, they are an excellent, cost effective total black-out options. You’ll pay about $150 for a shade that covers a 36 inch (H) x 48 inch (W) window. (Go to www.blackoutblinds.ca for more info.)
Of course, the absolute cheapest way to eliminate light is to buy a good eye mask. For about $10, I bought a 3D eyemask—which is contoured so it doesn’t put pressure on your eyelids or nose. I use it at home and when we travel and get an excellent night sleep every time.
Eliminate Noise: $30+
Anyone with a baby or who works shift-work will tell you that noise is the nemesis of good daytime sleep. With the world on at full-speed during daylight hours, it’s virtually impossible to get a silent room. But there are options. For my two sons we purchased a simple $30 noise machine from Target (also found at Toys R Us). It runs on an a/c adapter, offers a variety of noise options (including lullaby, waves and rain sounds), and even has a timer. You can also buy battery operated versions, but be careful as the quality of the construction for cheaper ($10 to $40) models can mean breakdowns when you least expect it. Of course, there are more expensive sound machines on the market, but we’ve been happy with our $10 per year investment.
Unfortunately, a noise machine may not help you if you live in a loud apartment, a poorly built condo, an old rowhouse, or a poorly insulated home. That’s because living in close proximity with your neighbours will mean more noise transfer during the day (and sometimes at night). If that’s the case, you may want to consider sound-proofing your home. This isn’t a cheap option, but it will be a more permanent solution. Current options include ripping out walls and installing Roxul—a thermal wool insulation that reduces heat and noise transfer, opting for Green Glue—a tacky substance that offers virtually 100% soundproofing, or building a sound-proof room. (I’ll be blogging about sound-proofing shortly, so stay tuned).
Alarm clocks: $200+
Not everyone has a problem with waking up to the alarm clock beeps, or the radio, but if you’re like me and always feel shocked out of sleep when you wake up to noise, consider a “sunrise” alarm clock. (I bought the SunRise alarm clock by BioBrite but there are a variety of others on the market). It works by gradually increasing light in order simulate dawn in your bedroom. So, if I set my alarm for 7 a.m., the “sunrise” alarm clock with start to turn its light on at 6:30 a.m. and then gradually increase the level of light until 7 a.m., when the beep of the alarm clock kicks in. In the 10 years since I bought this type of alarm clock, I’ve only been shocked out of sleep a handful of times. The rest of the time I gradually and peacefully wake up. For a review on these types of alarm clocks read this Reader’s Digest article.
Programmable thermostat: $70+
Your core body temperature dips naturally at night, so the general belief is that people sleep better in a room that’s a bit cooler. “Really it’s about comfort levels,” says Lipsitz. That said, you can easily achieve night time optimal temperature by installing a programmable thermostat.
Basic programmable thermostats (available at any home hardware store, starting at $70) let you set the times when your furnace will kick-in or shut-off, based on your chosen temperatures.
More advanced programmable thermostats include the Nest ($250), which monitors your use and adjusts according to your established patterns, or HoneyWell’s WiFi thermostat ($325), which lets you control your thermostat through voice-controls, or through WiFi enabled devices, such as smartphones, tablets or computers.
Sleep Apps: $1.99
For those interested in monitoring their sleep, consider a sleep app. For as little as $2 you can have the app track your circadian rhythms and the amount of REM sleep you get.
As a sleep professional, Lipsitz believes we should all do whatever it takes to get deep, restorative sleep. “It’s all about reinforcing your sleep rituals and routines,” says Lipsitz. So, if an app can help you develop consistency, use it. If a different bed can minimize the number of times you’re woken up by a restless partner, then get it. The real key is to develop a routine, ritual and environment that helps you sleep, regardless of whether or not it looks like an HGTV model home.