From Gilgamesh via “The Princess and the Pea” to Al Pacino in Insomnia, our relationship with sleep has long been a source of mystery and – when elusive – of torment.
While we lack the historical records to prove that sleep deprivation really is on the rise, there is a perception that technology, long working hours and a host of other 21st-century evils are conspiring to make insomnia the affliction of the industrious overachiever. And increased awareness can heighten our anxiety about sleep and make it harder to achieve.
This self-perpetuating angst is fuelling a growing industry for specialists, clinics and courses, as well as marketing opportunities for hotels, airlines and even app developers. But the most tangible components of successful slumber have long been the beds, mattresses and other comforts with which we fill our “sleep environments”, to use their latest, clinical designation. After all, we may not be able to determine when – or whether – sleep comes, but we can control the props we use in our nightly attempts.
Dan Wade, managing director of UK-based bedroom furniture retailer Feather & Black, says his customers’ buying habits reflect their concerns about sleep: “We ran a sleep survey where we found 48 per cent of people valued having the perfect mattress above other things, such as a beautiful bed or nice throws. As awareness about the importance of sleep increases, so does the demand for high-quality mattresses and beds.”
Apart from the bed, what else should we have in our bedrooms? Not much, according to the experts. Mr Wade recommends little more than soft layers and muted colours, while Nancy Rothstein, who works with companies, universities, hotels and athletes under the name “The Sleep Ambassador”, also advocates decluttering – and banning electronic devices. “Your sleep sanctuary is not your auxiliary office or your entertainment centre,” she insists.
According to Ms Rothstein, a variation on sleepwalking has come into existence, whereby some people text in their sleep. If that is not enough for you to banish your smartphone, the physical effects might convince you.
Derk-Jan Dijk, professor of sleep and physiology at the University of Surrey, emphasises the importance of avoiding sources of shortwave light, such as touchscreen devices and flatscreen televisions, late at night. The “blue” light they emit suppresses the secretion of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy.
Other lighting can also be problematic, he says: “If you have been exposed to high levels of light in the evening – it can be ordinary room light – it has an effect on your sleep latency in a way that is comparable to caffeine.” During the night, something as tiny as a device’s standby light “can be very disruptive”, he warns, and intrusive street lighting should be minimised with dark curtains.
Other factors can depend on an individual’s habits and sensitivity to disturbances. For instance, Prof Dijk recommends a bedroom temperature of 18C-20C but adds that there may be differences between men and women. And once you have replaced your phone’s alarm app with a non-ticking, non-illuminated clock, think twice before checking it during the night: “2am” may reassure some but panic others. Similarly, a notebook and pencil by the bed might help people who find jotting down night-time thoughts prevents wide-awake worrying.
Away from home, many hotels offer a choice of pillows. Ms Rothstein helped to devise sleep-friendly snacks for a Park Hyatt hotel and even a “sound sleep” channel for guests tempted to watch TV in bed.
Ms Rothstein suggests: “You can learn a sleep strategy – breathing techniques, body relaxation – that you can take anywhere. You have to prepare your sleeping quarters, whether you are in a hotel or at home, but you have to prepare yourself first.”
Mattresses: an A to ZZZ guide
As anyone who has spent a day kicking off their shoes in mattress showrooms knows, the choice can be exhausting. It might also be quite complicated and an interesting test of a relationship if one product has to suit two people. Dan Wade, managing director of retailer Feather & Black, offers these tips:
● A mattress should be 10cm longer than your height and wide enough to contain your elbows when you lie on your back with your arms alongside your body
● Whether spring or foam, it should effectively cradle you, giving support to your lower back and keeping your spine in its natural position and enhance rather than fight your natural posture
● If you share your bed and your partner needs different comfort requirements, choose a mattress that allows you to have different tensions
● For sprung mattresses, the higher the spring number the better the support
● Couples should be able to move around without touching each other. If you find yourselves scrunched up with no room, you will not be getting the right support