Style often trumps substance when it comes to outfitting the bedroom. Dazzled by images in furniture catalogs, we crave the four-poster bed -- along with the requisite matching curtains, coverlets, shams, bed skirts, and throws. The resulting look is a visual treat each time we walk in the door.
But is it a bedroom we can sleep in? As we dwell on our hand-tufted wool rugs and faux-suede duvets, we may be missing the point. Bedroom furnishings can influence a good night's sleep, from window treatments that block out streetlights to bed covers that soothe the skin. Considering that 60 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders (and that we average slightly less than seven hours on weeknights -- not the recommended eight), designing the bedroom to suit sleep is more crucial than ever. A holistic approach creates an environment that comforts all the senses while eliminating elements that distract. The visual appeal proves just as satisfying, but the accoutrements cater to our deep-seated physical, emotional, and spiritual needs as we downshift into slumber.
Invite the Darkness
Overhauling the bedroom starts with an acknowledgment that your body needs to sleep in near-total darkness for optimum health. Darkness prompts the pineal gland to produce melatonin, a hormone that increases both sleepiness and length and quality of sleep. Too much light can compromise melatonin production, interfering with slumber. Some studies have suggested that low melatonin levels may be linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, although the more common result of a too-bright room will be a poor night's sleep. Use an eye mask or install light-blocking shades over your windows to prevent street lamps -- even a full moon -- from disrupting your sleep. Products to try: Gaiam's silk sleep mask (gaiam.com); North Solar Screen's blackout shades (northsolarscreen.com).
Quiet the Noise
If outside noise challenges your ability to sleep, try a white-noise machine, which offers the same tranquilizing drone of a humming fan but without the wind. Alternatively, a sound machine can bring the rustling of leaves, the back-and-forth of the ocean's waves, and other calming sounds of nature into the bedroom. In cases of noisy neighbors or snoring bedmates, you may find moldable foam earplugs useful. Available at any drugstore, they block out noise without causing irritation. Products to try: SleepMate and Sound Screen (marpac.com); Gaiam's Om Sound Machine (gaiam.com).
Comfort the Body
A truly sleep-friendly environment accommodates the senses of touch and smell. Organic, breathable cotton bed coverings in calming colors make better choices than scratchy sheets sporting busy patterns, while a natural buckwheat- or millet-filled pillow conforms to the shoulders and neck without irritating the skin. Sachets and room sprays filled with lavender, jasmine, chamomile, and other soothing herbs help calm the central nervous system, allowing the body to shut down. Research in England and at Wesleyan University in Connecticut suggests that the aroma of lavender, in particular, helps improve sleep. Products to try: Bucky's Duo Bed Pillow with a combination of millet and buckwheat (bucky.com).
Repair the Air
Start with the temperature, which educational organizations including the Better Sleep Council advise keeping between 60 and 65 degrees. Resist the temptation to crank up the heat at night, and consider installing a ceiling fan to create a light, cooling breeze. Then take steps to amend the drying effects of indoor heating with a germ-free humidifier that helps prevent parched skin. Likewise, counter the ill-health effects of dust, fumes, soot, and other indoor irritants with an air purifier that filters the air. Further accent your sleeping space with a variety of plants, which take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen in the course of photosynthesis. According to NASA research, they also filter pollutants such as carbon monoxide and benzene. Consider plants such as bamboo palm, English ivy, and pot mum for this purpose. Products to try: Brookstone's germfree humidifiers that use ultraviolet light to kill bacteria (brookstone.com).
Satisfy the Spirit
Complete your sleep oasis with a mind/spirit component. Discourage thoughts from continuing to churn at night by eliminating any sources of distraction, keeping work and stimulating entertainment (like TV) out of the bedroom. Rather than a thriller novel, grace the bedside with divinity: A small statue of the Buddha, Ganesha, Jesus, a revered saint, or other sacred figure can serve as a grounding, comforting presence, especially when paired with a natural element -- a smooth stone, an acorn, a bowl of white sand. Alternatively, consider creating a bedside altar that honors the people you love, complete with small framed photographs and personal artifacts that reflect their spirit. With body, mind, and spirit thus cradled and protected, you can enter into sleep peaceful and complete.
More Good-Sleep Tips
Tuck away digital clocks and other electronics illuminated by LED lights where they won't compromise the darkness.
There's considerable debate over the threat caused by electromagnetic fields, but why take chances? Keep devices like telephone chargers and air purifiers at a distance from where you sleep. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, EMF exposure decreases significantly as you move away from the electronic source.
Watch when you eat
Give yourself at least three hours before bed to digest a large meal so your digestive process doesn't keep you up at night. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, too, since both can disrupt sleep.
The traditional sleep aids -- valerian, passionflower, lemon balm, and chamomile -- can help guide you to sleep. Follow manufacturer's instructions for proper dosage information.
Feng shui your space
Use the Chinese system of design to balance yin/yang bedroom elements. Avoid mirrors (believed to hurt the heart); choose calming artwork; face the foot of the bed away from the door (so qi, or energy, doesn't flow out); and keep the room clean to avoid stagnating qi, which is believed to lead to illness.