The ultimate sleep sanctuary

A few simple improvements to your bedroom could provide the restorative sleep you crave

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From the November 2014 issue of the magazine.

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(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

It’s 2 a.m. and you’re wide awake. Again.

Headlights from the occasional passing car strafe your curtains, throwing moving shadows across the ceiling. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks, and as if in response, your partner’s snoring ratchets up a notch. Why, you wonder, is it so hot? Did you forget to turn the thermostat down? Finally you decide to get up and check. Might as well. Can’t sleep anyway.

About a quarter of Canadians complain of poor sleep, and more than one in nine suffer from full-blown insomnia, characterized by a month or more of sleepless nights leading to impaired daytime functioning. For true insomniacs, professional help may be required: psychologists and sleep labs employing behaviour modification techniques are often able to break poor sleep patterns. For occasional poor sleepers, however, a few simple rules—don’t drink or smoke before bedtime, shut off the computer and smartphone and relax for a couple hours before turning in, go to bed and get up at regular, prescribed hours—coupled with changes to the physical sleeping environment, should promote the type of deep sleep we all need.

As for the bedroom—if it’s not set up right, if it’s too bright, too noisy or too hot, you’re going to end up studying those ceiling cracks into the early hours. Luckily, it’s easy to transform your bedroom into the ultimate sleep sanctuary. Here’s how.

PHOTO GALLERY: Create a soothing bedroom »

First, clean it up. There’s nothing soothing about mounds of dirty laundry and empty potato chip bags. Also get rid of the TV and electronics, advises Queens University sleep researcher Judith Davidson: they keep your brain stimulated when you want it to calm down, and the light exposure disrupts your body’s production of melatonin, which in turn regulates your sleep-wake cycle. Interior designer Barbara Steele also advises you to test drive a few beds before buying. “Don’t be shy, that’s what mattress showrooms are for.” Mattresses with memory foam tops are very comfortable, she says, but the question ultimately becomes, how much do you want to pay? Prices range from $1,699 for a Simmons Beautyrest up to $60,000 for the Swedish built Hastens Vividus, which is apparently akin to sleeping on a cloud.

When it comes to pillows, the one you choose will likely come down to perceptions of comfort and support, and whether you have allergies, or prefer a wool-stuffed pillow. In terms of controlling light pollution in the bedroom, Home Depot sells cardboard blackout shades for under $10, or you can spend $300 or more on a Designer Plus Slumber Shade Blackout, with a side track system that is guaranteed to cast your bedroom into complete and total blackness—perfect for light-sensitive sleepers.

Then there’s noise pollution. Again, technology affords a range of options, everything from the humble foam earplug for blocking out sound, to white noise machines for covering it up and smartphone apps that offer soothing ambient sounds from nature. Each have their benefits and drawbacks. As with mattresses, it’s best to try a few options: some kits contain up to four different types of earplugs, so you can choose the design that best fits your ear; some smartphone apps allow you to choose from dozens of nature sounds, everything from crickets to ocean waves.

For light sleepers or noisy environments, combining earplugs with white noise machines may be the way to go. The SnoreMasker Pro Delux In-Ear White Noise Machine, essentially a set of earplugs that generate their own white noise, costs $400.

Temperature is another thing that has to be controlled in the bedroom. “Our body temperature naturally dips at night, so we’re usually comfortable with lower ambient temperatures while we’re sleeping,” says Davidson, the sleep researcher. Products like the Nest Learning Thermostat ($249) essentially program themselves by learning to recognize the patterns and adjust the temperature according to your schedule.

Finally, what does your bedroom smell like? Believe it or not, when it comes to sleep, it matters. “Smell gets into your brain much more directly when you’re asleep than any other sense,” says sleep researcher Joseph De Koninck. “It’s a self defence mechanism that allows you to wake up if you smell smoke or something.”

At least one study that compared sleepers inundated with rotten egg smells versus sleepers surrounded by roses, found that the rose sleepers had more pleasant dreams and were less prone to waking up during the night. Just $60 a dozen, and it works.

There you have it: black out your windows, plug in your white noise machine, turn down the heat, and get ready for the best sleep of your life. Oh, and don’t forget to replace that half-eaten egg salad sandwich with a fresh vase of flowers. That’s better; sweet dreams.

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