A good night’s sleep can be hard to come by. We all know how beneficial a proper rest can be, but most of us are also aware of how frustrating it can be when we’re unable to get the downtime we require. Various factors can influence the quality of our sleep – and many of these are sadly not within our control. But understanding how our relationship with sleep is affected by those that are is a step towards improving the level of rest we experience. For something so vital to our health, happiness and existence, many of us are sleep deprived and do not even realise it.
With the development of smartphones, we are lucky enough to live in a time where access to education, various forms of media and limitless news is quite literally at our fingertips. However, with this can come a struggle to disconnect – especially when the very device that provides us with each of these things also serves as our alarm clock.
However, the recency of this technology means it’s a drop in the ocean when weighed against the millions of years of evolution that have shaped us to this point. The rising and the setting of the sun defined our sleeping patterns long before alarm clocks existed. Without us being conscious of it, the weather and its daily patterns of changing light and temperature shape when we naturally feel tired or more active. Though there are limitations to how much we can affect the environment around us, the importance of these patterns cannot be overlooked in the quest to get a full, healthy night’s slumber.
Midnight is far from the middle of the night for most of us. This doesn’t mean that we need to wake up with the sunrise every morning, but appreciating when your body is naturally at its most in need of rest is essential to achieving a better standard of sleep. We each have an internal, biological clock that affects, among other things, how naturally alert we feel at different points in the day – a circadian rhythm. The primary way in which our brains regulate this day-to-day is through the light in our surroundings.
Exposure to natural light is vital to our physical and mental wellbeing, but it can also play a specific role in how easily we fall asleep at night and wake up again in the morning. Bright light at the start of the day is likely to encourage wakefulness; pulling the curtains open or using an alarm clock that simulates the sunrise can be beneficial in beginning the day without feelings of grogginess or stress – especially during the winter months. Similarly, dimming the lights on the way to winding down to sleep will help our body and brain to relax. The blue light typically released by electronic screens, on the other hand, will do the opposite – stimulating our brain and making it more difficult to switch off quickly. Our brains release a hormone called melatonin at night that helps to regulate the timing of our sleep cycle by essentially telling our bodies that it is dark. Supplementary melatonin is used by many as a sleep aid – while there’s some haziness as to how directly this actually helps us to drift off in the first place, the simple truth is that if you settle down expecting to have a better night’s sleep, you likely will.
Temperature also has an important connection with our body’s circadian rhythm. Similar to the repeating patterns of light that we get used to with the day and night cycles of the Earth, we also become used to how temperature typically rises and falls over the day. Our body temperature drops shortly before the onset of sleep, as we begin to relax and feel drowsy. A warm bath before bed can help to enhance this sensation, as our body then cools right down again afterward. Think of how you feel during a freezing cold shower in the morning for an idea of how temperature can affect your sense of alertness! The exact temperatures that will assist in drifting off will differ person to person (along with various other factors such as clothing and bedding) but you should generally aim to have a bedroom with a cooler air temperature between 16-21°C in order to encourage your body to catch some z’s. Not sure how warm your bedroom is? Find out with a straightforward home thermometer.
Alongside temperature, the relative humidity of your bedroom can also make a big difference to general comfort and in-turn the quality of your sleep. Warm, moist air can feel sticky and heavy, undoing much of the relaxation you may otherwise feel. Without being completely comfortable it can be hard to unwind - or even to stay asleep once you finally have managed to. The feelings of frustration here only serve to make the problem worse, so ensuring that humidity isn’t a factor can be crucial to avoiding a restless night. Achieving a relative humidity level of between 30-50% in your bedroom should lead to a better environment for overall sleep quality. Air conditioning units and dehumidifiers can help you to achieve this, while you can track the humidity level using a hygrometer. Alternatively, a desktop weather station will be able to monitor the temperature and humidity all in one for you.
Many of us seem to experience increased sensations of arthritis and other joint-pain during periods of falling barometric pressure. Though no concrete relationship between the two has been confirmed so far, sufferers of such conditions will likely be aware of how these can feel more troublesome at various times of the year depending on what the weather is doing. A prominent theory suggests that the tiny tissues that surround our joints expand ever so slightly during periods of low pressure, which can in-turn put additional strain on the joint itself. A throbbing pain such as this is likely to cause discomfort when trying to drift off to sleep, but anticipating it by monitoring pressure patterns with a barometer can help to remedy the issue before it becomes too disruptive.
Hospitals and veterinary practices anecdotally report having more emergencies during the full moon, but the true effect of the moon on humans and animals is little understood. That said, light is being shed on the impact the moon has on our ability to get a good night's rest. Researchers in Brazil and Switzerland have examined the impact of the lunar cycle on sleep, and have found during the full moon that participants:
The sound of the night time weather can also play a significant part – and there’s a fine line determining the role it plays depending on the severity of the conditions outside. Drifting off while the wind howls or rain patters down outside can inspire feelings of cosiness and security – many of us use artificial rain sounds for this very purpose. But most of us have also likely woken up to a flash of lightning and roar of thunder during a ferocious storm that reminds us just how powerful nature can be. Sadly, there isn’t a lot that can be done to prevent thunderstorms during certain periods of the year. But if these have had a habit of interrupting your rest in the past, by improving the overall quality of your sleep you’ll hopefully be able to snooze right through them next time!
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