Calming the senses for sleep

Bedroom design, choice of bed and other furnishings, lighting and sound-proofing are all central to creating a restful environment, as Joshi Herrmann reports

It seems obvious to most of us that, if we are going to change one thing in the bedroom to improve the quality of our sleep, it should be something to do with the bed.

Those suffering from major sleeping issues are likely to be following a range of tips, medicines and therapies, but according to Bert Jacobsen, professor of health and human performance at Oklahoma State University: “Most people are sleep deprived to some degree.”

And for that majority, who don’t require help, but would like to maximise their sleep, the whole bedroom is ripe for dozens of improvements.

“The environment is the easiest thing to fix,” says Professor Jacobsen, who emphasises the importance of considering all the senses when chasing improved sleep. “You need the room to be dark and to be cool.”

Temperature is straightforward, he says. On the whole, the sleepers he has observed in his research don’t sleep as well if they are not covered by a blanket or sheet, so keeping the room cool is vital, and operable windows and vents are important.

Light, however, requires more thought. Professor Jacobsen says he is often surprised that people don’t eliminate the obvious things disturbing the darkness, such as lights from electronic devices.

“A lot of clock radios emit a light, which reduces the melatonin excretion and therefore makes it more difficult to sleep,” he says. “Blue light is the worst. No light is good, but blue really triggers a reduction in melatonin.”

Hotel designer Inge Moore, whose project at The Alpina Gstaad swept the boards at the European Hotel Design Awards in November, recommends that people who do like having a light on during or just before they sleep find a way to soften it.

“You want a soft, warm light, not a cold, blue light. With halogens and LEDs being the way the world is moving, it is good to look at filters and LED tubes that soften the light,” she says. As for keeping extraneous light out, she advises getting curtains with blackout linings, perhaps leaving a crack for morning sunshine to break through.

Conrad Smith, managing director of ReardonSmith Architects, who has worked on the restoration of The Savoy and rebuilding of the Four Seasons Park Lane, among other high-profile hotel projects, recommends being very precise about the acoustics and sound transference in a room.

A lot of clock radios emit a light, which reduces the melatonin excretion and therefore makes it more difficult to sleep

For those with the luxury of revamping their bedroom or building it from scratch, he says two of the most important things he does when designing a hotel room to be optimal for sleep are detailed positioning of sockets and outlets to ensure none are back to back with adjacent walls to avoid noise being transferred directly through, and pipe work being insulated to avoid sound transference between bathrooms.

“In certain cases, we have to design specialist acoustic floating floors and ceilings to alleviate structural-borne sound transference, and this is compounded by the current desire for wood or stone floors within rooms,” says Mr Smith, who was one of the judges for the Sleep Hotel category at the annual hotel design and development event Sleep.

“Within a room, soft and therefore sound-absorbing finishes and furniture are key. Traditional rooms with carpets, curtains and upholstered furniture are infinitely more straightforward to deal with acoustically than polished concrete floors, blinds and hard seating.”

Simple changes are using thick rugs to absorb sound, and favouring softer armchairs and furnishings in the bedroom.

Ms Moore recommends using insulation panels behind paintings and mirrors to dampen sound or, if you cannot eliminate sounds from the street or loud neighbours, trying a white noise machine, which costs from around £64, to drown out disturbing noises. The machines produce a soothing sound of rushing air which drowns out disturbing noises that may prevent sleep.

“Your brain gets startled by impromptu, sudden noises and can wake you up, so a continuous sound is the key if you have to have noise,” she says. “Your brain will become accustomed to a regular noise, rather than reacting to changes, which deprives you of mental sleep.”

“The power of smell [in determining how we sleep] is underestimated,” according to Kathy Phillips of natural beauty brand This Works, who says the often-neglected sense “links people to all sorts of unconscious feeling”. Her company’s pillow sprays are based on lavender essential oil, which she says performed well in tests against medication in a 1995 Lancet study into sleep problems.

“Ambient lavender oil introduced into the ward with an odour diffuser proved as successful as drugs in helping patients to sleep and resulted in a less restless sleep,” says Ms Phillips.

Professor Jacobsen likens the minor sleep deprivation that most of us experience to being a bit tipsy, “affecting your reaction speed, your mental reactions and everything else”.

Sleep is precious so it is worth investing in some DIY or technology to create the most conducive environment for rest.