Sleep expert shares top tips on how to set up bedroom to get the best night's sleep
Sleep hygiene is a behavioural and environmental practice developed in the late 1970s as a method to help people with mild to moderate insomnia.
Things such as ensuring the room you’re sleeping in is dark and drinking camomile tea before bed are just some of the steps you can take to improve sleep hygiene.
But a number of other, less obvious factors could be causing you to struggle to get to sleep at night.
Claire Barnes, Technical Advisor at Bio-Kult, shared the things you could be doing wrong that affect your sleep.
1. Mattress materials
Clearly, a good mattress should be comfortable and supportive to enable a sound night sleep, however there could be an even more important health consideration with our mattresses which many don’t think about.
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Claire said: “That is ‘what is the mattress made of?’ It is understood that mattresses release minute amounts of gaseous chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These VOCs originate mainly from polyurethane used in mattresses, but also from other chemicals used in flame retardants and plastics.
“A study in mice which tested the VOCs from four different mattresses found that some had the potential to cause breathing issues in the mice. The worst culprit among the mattresses was a polyurethane foam pad covered with vinyl, however the organic cotton padding actually improved breathing rates. A more recent study published in 2019, suggested that the emission of VOCs from polyurethane mattresses was even higher whilst we’re asleep due to elevated body heat. The authors of this study suggest that the best way to protect against VOCs is to maintain good ventilation inside your home, by opening windows and using fans. Whilst a brand-new organic cotton mattress may not be in reach for all of us, potentially using an organic cotton mattress topper and letting some fresh air in could help support our respiratory health whilst we’re sleeping.”
2. The microbes living in your gut
Growing evidence suggests that the microbes living within our digestive tract can actually have an influence on the quality of our sleep.
Claire said: “A recent study found that those with a diverse gut microbiome had better sleep efficiency and total sleep time and were less likely to experience sleep disturbances. In addition, studies have also shown that taking live bacteria supplements can improve sleep quality. I would recommend a live bacteria supplement with lots of different strains, such as Bio-Kult Migréa (RRP £20.98, available to buy from www.bio-kult.co.uk) which contains 14 different strains, plus magnesium and vitamin B6, both of which can help support our body to produce melatonin (our sleep hormone).”
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3. Vigorous exercise in the evening
Much evidence supports the notion that exercise improves sleep quality, however it appears that moderate physical activity could be more effective at improving sleep than vigorous activity.
Claire said: “One study found that mind-body exercise, such as yoga and Tai Chi significantly improved mood, mental health and sleep in comparison to aerobic exercise. Another study found that those who already struggled with insomnia fared better when exercising in the morning opposed to the evening. As exercising stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), and sleep relies on stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), to improve sleep quality those undertaking exercise should also include parasympathetic activity, such as yoga, meditation, Tai Chi or breathing exercises to reduce the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system before heading off to bed.”
4. Too much time indoors
Unfortunately our modern lifestyles can easily disrupt our natural sleep-wake cycles.
Claire said: “If we spend the majority of our day indoors without exposure to good, strong daylight and then spend our evenings in well-lit rooms staring at bright blue-light emitting screens, we’ll clearly be upsetting our natural circadian rhythm. This can leave us feeling sleepy during the day and reduce our production of melatonin in the night, meaning we struggle to fall asleep.
“Aiming to get outside in the fresh air as much as possible during the day, especially in the mornings and turning off blue-light emitting screens at least two hours before going to bed, or at least using the night-time mode and wearing blue-light blocking glasses, as well as allowing only dim-lighting in the evenings could all help to improve sleep quality.”
5. Too little tryptophan in the diet
To produce melatonin, our body requires tryptophan, which is an amino acid obtained from certain proteins in the diet.
Claire said: “Foods such as poultry, bananas, oats, seeds and nuts are all good sources of tryptophan. Although not conclusive, some studies have shown improvements to sleep when consuming tryptophan foods, especially when the individual already experiences some sleep disturbances. Whilst we should avoid eating a large meal before bedtime, a small bowl of porridge containing bananas, seeds and nuts or a banana and oat smoothie could potentially help to increase the amount of tryptophan available for conversion into melatonin.”
6. Lack of routine
Keeping to a regular routine during the day where possible may help us regulate our sleep hormones more effectively.
Claire said: “This includes waking up within the same 90 minute window each day. Our sleep hormones rely on a finely balanced circadian rhythm, which is an internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle and is dictated largely by our exposure to daylight. The more our wake-up times fluctuate, the more our hormones will need to adjust, to catch up with us. For example, the stress hormone cortisol naturally increases in the morning to help wake us up, but if we have too much circulating in our blood later in the day, it may be harder for the sleep hormone melatonin to have an effect. Having a routine keeps us calm, and may prevent spikes in stress hormones and promote well-being.
“Eating meals at similar times each day also ensures that we are stabilising appetite hormones, such as ghrelin and leptin, which can also impact our sleep. So try sticking to a regular eating pattern of three main meals, rather than grazing throughout the day. It will allow our bodies a chance to control blood-sugar and keep energy levels balanced.”
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