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Nurturing a Healthy Sleep Environment

Mar 31, 2022 ● By Carrie Jackson

Photo by Taryn Elliott from Pexels

Few factors are more vital to overall health and wellness than sleep. It is during sleep that the body is able to reset and restore on a cellular level. A good night’s sleep helps to manage pain, decrease inflammation, strengthen the immune system and regulate body weight. While many people have a relaxing sleep routine, creating a healthy and comfortable sleep environment is equally important for a restful evening.

Quality of sleep is more important than quantity, according to Dr. Phyllis Zee, chief of sleep medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Deep, restorative sleep allows the brain to remove waste that is produced during wake. Deficiency of sleep can decrease the ability of this waste removal process, which is thought to increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias,” says Zee.

Maintaining a proper temperature in the room is one important factor that can help improve sleep quality. “Our body temperature naturally drops at night, and keeping a slightly cooler room will promote sleep. People have different preferences about what is comfortable, but high-tech beds can help customize a setting that’s right for each individual. Wearing loose-fitting clothes made from breathable fabrics helps the body regulate its own temperature without feeling constricted,” Zee explains. “Taking a warm bath or shower and wearing socks before bed may help cool the body and help to get better sleep.”

Lighting and hues have a big impact on our ability to rest. “Our brain is used to taking cues from the light throughout the day, and our circadian rhythms respond as the colors shift from more blue in the morning to reds and orange color light at dusk. In the evening and night, it is important to avoid bright light, especially blue lights, which can be stimulating,” advises Zee.

Mary Pat Wallace is the founder of The Luxury Bed Collection, which offers bespoke, handcrafted mattresses made from natural materials that allow for personalized sleep. She says that quality mattresses and bedding are required to achieve the optimal sleep we all deserve. “Your mattress and pillows physically support every inch of your body, so it’s crucial that the hours spent in bed are spent with your unique body’s proper level of support and firmness in mind. Every person’s body and routines are different, so a mattress and bedding should be unique to their needs, as well,” she explains.

Wallace cautions against traditional mattresses that are treated with harmful, flame-repellent chemicals such as formaldehyde and are constructed with synthetic materials that bring unwanted chemicals into the environment. “Organic wool, which is used in mattresses sourced by The Luxury Bed Collection is naturally flame-resistant. An all-natural mattress, allows for a more breathable, clean sleep environment. I’m partial to linen and cotton sheets. The best options are both breathable in the summer and comfortably warm in the winter, and they’re built to last for years at a time,” she says.

Lynn Broderick, co-founder of Inspire Medical Products, points to research that shows good air ventilation and circulation can improve sleep quality. “Both sleep quality and next-day performance could be improved by increasing the clean outdoor air supply rate in bedrooms. Here in Chicagoland, we’re probably not opening windows at night unless it’s summer. This closed environment has a negative impact on air quality due to the buildup of CO2 and particulate matter. In fact, indoor air is two to five times more polluted than outdoor air. If there are molds or other allergens present, congestion and other allergic reactions can disturb our sleep even further,” she explains.

Bedrooms can be especially prone to poor air quality, with the presence of mold, dust mites, pet dander and other irritants prevalent. “VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are hazardous compounds that are released by common household and personal care products from things like paraffin candles, perfumes, furniture polish, air fresheners, nail polish removers and cleaning agents. Exposure to these substances can lead to headaches, nose and throat irritation and respiratory disturbances that can greatly interrupt sleep. I recommend searching the EWG [Environmental Working Group] website for safe, toxin-free products for the bedroom to make it as clean as possible. A quality purifier can also help reduce VOCs, allergens, particulate matter and more,” says Broderick.

Color can have a big impact on our moods and energies. Nichole Lovett, founder of Harmony Haus Painting, says that while color is subjective, whatever calms the mind is best for relaxation and rest. “I don’t put much stock in the ‘rules’ of color, but in general, muted colors are soothing and relaxing. It’s difficult to fall asleep when one is anxious or energized, so avoiding strong primary or neon colors is a good idea.”

Lovett recommends using non-toxic paints everywhere, but especially in the bedroom. “There are so many chemicals, toxins and additives in everything all around us every day. You don’t want to go to sleep in a room that is off-gassing all kinds of junk, clogging up your sinuses and giving you a headache. This is especially important for babies, elderly and others with compromised immune systems,” she explains.

Essential oils can help set the tone for a calming environment. Karen Duewel, a brand partner with Young Living, says that essential oils can be both physically and emotionally calming. “Therapeutic-grade essential oils made from concentrated plant and flower extracts are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier. They are able to directly reach the amygdala, which is responsible for regulating mood and stimulating relaxation. Having the calming mix helps signal the brain that it’s time for sleep. Start the diffuser 30 minutes before bed, and when you walk into the room, it will be welcoming and soothing. You can also put a few drops on the bedding to create a spa-like environment,” Duewel explains.

With hundreds of oils to choose from, experimenting to find the right mix is important. “People will respond differently to the oils depending on their unique body chemistry. What one person may find soothing, another may see as stimulating. Finding an aroma you like will make you want to breathe more deeply, which also improves sleep. Lavender, valerian and cedarwood are popular aromas that tend to be calming for most people, and Young Living offers a number of other calming essential oil options, as well as blends designed especially for sleep. My favorite is Sleepyize, which was originally developed for children,” says Duewel.

Finally, the room setup itself is vital to creating a harmonious atmosphere. Laurie Pawli, director of the Feng Shui School of Chicago, says that intentional placement of furniture and other items can affect the overall energy in the room. “It’s especially important in a bedroom to create an energetic vibration that is balanced and calming. Having a headboard attached to the bedframe is grounding and provides stability. Nightstands on both sides of the bed bring balance. The bed should be placed so that the door is visible while sleeping, leading to a sense of safety,” she explains.

Energy needs to be able to flow throughout the bedroom. “Many people mistakenly store children’s dolls or toys under the bed, but these items radiate the energy they absorb all day and it’s hard to relax. Ideally, I recommend people keep the space under the bed clear, so energy can circulate freely around while you’re sleeping. If it must be utilized for storage, soft items like linens, blankets and pillows are preferred.”

While Pawli acknowledges that bedrooms are often used for storage or other purposes out of necessity, she said there are still ways to make the room feel peaceful. “If you do have a Peloton or treadmill in the bedroom, put a screen around it to block the energy from reaching the bed. Boxes or other storage can be covered with a quilt or blanket, making the space feel grounding and comfortable,” she says.

Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect at