Before the electric lightbulb, people generally went to bed after dark and rose with the sun. If they stayed up after sundown, it was by the light of the fire, candle, or oil lamp—a low, warm light that eased their transition to sleep. But with the advent of electricity, light in our homes no longer matches what’s best for our bodies.
Most Americans now sleep an hour and a half less each night than they did a century ago, at great cost to health and safety, writes William Dement, M.D., Ph.D., of the Stanford University Sleep Research Center in The Promise of Sleep (Delacorte Press, 1999).
For the sake of productivity, people now treat sleep as a disposable commodity; fewer than 35 percent of American adults regularly get the seven to eight hours per night that researchers consider necessary. The irony is that burning the midnight oil actually lowers productivity by causing memory lapse, increased error rates, slower reflexes, lack of motivation, and short tempers. Driver fatigue contributes to more than half the vehicle collisions in this country, and sleep deprivation played a role in the Exxon Valdez grounding, the 1986 space shuttle explosion, and the nuclear incidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, Dement points out.
Chronic sleep loss also affects our health because it contributes to lowered immune function, elevated stress hormone levels, slowed metabolism, and increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, certain malignancies, and diabetes. Shift workers, whose sleep cycles are continually disrupted, live an average of ten years less than others. Is all this enough to convince us there’s something to the notion of living in harmony with nature?
When we sleep, our brains consolidate the day’s experiences into memory while our bodies re-energize our muscles and organs and regenerate cells. Researchers have identified several phases of brain-wave activity needed to experience the full benefits of slumber, yet it’s increasingly common for people to miss out on some of these stages.
A sleep oasis
Our surroundings play a crucial role in sleep quality. We need to create havens that help us relax and sleep well. Even if you spend enough hours in bed, a poor environment can contribute to sleep deprivation. In other words, where you lay your head is basic to health, happiness, and success.
Unfortunately, the bedroom is often the last place in the home that we spiff up. Guests rarely see it, and we’re unconscious most of the time when we’re there, so why should it matter? Additionally, the bedroom is often a catch-all, serving as a TV room, office, personal library, storage area, dressing room, laundry-staging area, sickroom, and sexual retreat. Of these, only the last is conducive to sleep. The others offer stimulating distractions that can keep our minds and bodies alert when we need to be letting go of the day’s cares.
Researchers say we should pay attention to four primary factors in the sleeping environment:
• Light: If you can see your hand after the lights are turned out, your bedroom is too light. Streetlights, nightlights, hall lights, clocks, phone dials, baby monitors, and electric blanket controls can produce enough light to disrupt the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate the sleep cycle, causing a state similar to jet lag. Most of these can be moved or covered, but if streetlights invade your bedroom, you may need to install light-blocking drapes. Equally important is your light exposure before bedtime. Being surrounded by electric light in the evening—even checking e-mail before bed—provides enough light to reset your biological clock and make falling asleep difficult.
• Noise: Sudden loud noises can awaken you, and even passing traffic can cause fragmented sleep. Sleeping as far as possible from the street and noisy equipment or appliances is a good start. While some researchers suggest masking other sounds with a “white noise” generator or a fan, you might prefer something more natural, such as a recirculating fountain—with a quiet motor!
• Temperature: Heating the bedroom in cold weather isn’t just a waste of energy, it makes sleep difficult. Air temperature of 65 degrees year-round has been found ideal for sleep. Keep your body warm with a comforter or blankets that retain your body heat, but not so warm as to induce sweat.
• The bed: Your bed should be comfortable, relaxing, and good for your back, and it shouldn’t expose you to toxic fumes, dust mites, or mold. Because they’re close to your nostrils for eight hours a night, such things can wreak havoc with your nights and, consequently, your days.
Other factors can support your sleep haven. Soothing colors may relax your body and mind, putting you in the right mood for sleep; many people find lavender, blue, or light green appropriate. Minimizing electromagnetic fields near the bed is a good idea, too. Finally, consider removing clutter, visual distractions, stimulating colors, bright lights, and television from the bedroom because their effects can stay with you even after the lights are out. Above all, pay attention to what works for you.
On the morning side of the equation, awakening gradually with the sun is the healthiest way to go. In fact, one researcher points out that if you need an alarm clock, it’s probably a sign you’re not getting enough sleep. And think about what surrounds you when you first awaken. Feeling sensuous textures and seeing pleasant colors and objects in the morning light help start your day on a good note. Let yourself linger in bed for a while to ease the transition.
The soul of sleep
Amidst the technicalities, don’t forget the magical side of slumber. Sleep is our daily portal to the mysteries of dreaming. It’s the realm in which we must relinquish our striving, logical minds and surrender our tense, hardworking bodies to an archetypal journey. In our fast-paced culture, we haven’t just lost sleep, we’ve paved over its power to renew our imagination and our bodies.
Creating a haven for sleeping and dreaming honors the mysteries of life. It restores our oneness with our source. It unites us with dreamers throughout time and space in the land of the moon and stars. It brings us home to the deepest levels of our soul. What better place from which to be reborn each day?
Carol Venolia is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988), and former publisher of Building with Nature Newsletter.