A spotted cat lying very relaxed on a pure white bed
Creating a Sleep Sanctuary for Our Nightly Retreat

Trying to fall asleep just seems to make it more elusive. Sleep is more like something we surrender to. And we can create more (or less) favorable conditions for that surrender to happen.

Research is piling up about the importance of quality sleep. For instance, our immune cells work to physically clean up our brain during sleep, and channels open up for cerebrospinal fluid to circulate and rinse away waste products. Wow! Sleep is like a car wash for the brain.

But it seems that our society doesn’t properly value or prioritize this essential nightly cleanup. Long after nightfall, we stay active with stimulating and even disturbing activities like social media scrolling, work emails, or other violent content, all on screens that stream simulated daylight into our eyes. Instead of peaceful crickets, we’re bombarded with artificial noise. And we tend to work with our minds, not our bodies, so we’re overstuffed with thoughts, worries, plans and ideas without the counterbalance of exhausted muscles.

That’s the bad news, but the empowering good news is that there is plenty we can do to counteract all this and create favorable conditions for sleep in the duration and quality we need. I wrote recently about strategies for managing our overactive minds at night. Of course we need to check our caffeine intake and maintain other sleep-friendly habits like daily exercise, time outdoors, and closing our “eating window” two hours before bed. And we should all be alert to the dangers of sleep apnea, which is widespread, even among those without obvious risk factors. (Ask others if you snore; try a sleep tracker which can hint at problems; and get yourself checked in a lab if you have any concerns!)

But today I want to talk about optimizing the place where we (at least attempt to) put the day away and surrender to dreams, healing and regeneration.

What might an ideal bedroom look like for you? What I think of a loft in a log cabin, with the sounds of crickets and hooting owls, and a deep vault of stars overhead if I step outside into the cool night air (to use the outhouse). Right, that’s not where I live at all. But are there ways that my actual bedroom in a 1954 suburban house can be more like that? I say yes.

It seems to me that a good sleeping space needs to be dark, quiet, cool, calming for the mind, and soothing to the senses. It’s a sanctuary, separate from the never-ending concerns of daytime, and it helps restore us even when we don’t fall asleep or return to sleep as quickly as we’d like.

Darkness: Eyelids aren’t enough

Light has effects like a drug, impacting our hormones and other biological processes. Since humans began lighting up the night some 100 years ago, we’ve disrupted our own patterns and those of other living things.

Also weird but true: light affects us when it hits our skin, not only our eyes, so even a thick eye mask is not enough.

My bedroom has wooden blinds plus blackout curtains, to block out streetlights and neighbors’ security lights. Just a tiny bit of light comes through my door from the small night light in the bathroom down the hall (a red one might be even better). When I’m in bed, I can’t see my hand in front of my face, but I can safely find the door (using the bathroom once or twice a night is normal at midlife and beyond). A small (red?) flashlight could be helpful too.

Interesting evidence shows that even a little bit of light can interfere with our healing rest. I have eyelids, says my mom when I offer to get her some blackout curtains. But this study on healthy young people showed that just a little bit of light (not even enough to affect their melatonin production) raised their resting heart rates and blood sugar levels.

If you feel like increasing light would be helpful in the morning, there are sunrise alarm clock lamps that gradually brighten at dawn. And I know nothing about these motorized remote controlled blackout shades, but they definitely look intriguing!

When my husband and I lived on the Mexican border, our bedroom was a bit of a nightmare (for me), featuring a computer and monitor screens for security cameras, among many other glowing devices. I set up a standing room divider screen and went around with black tape covering up the annoying little signal lights on the smoke detector, TV, air conditioner remote, security radio, alarm system, etc., etc.

To read in bed without bothering my husband, I used a small headlamp with a red bulb. A dimmed Kindle Paperwhite or similar night-friendly e-reader would also work well. Later I switched to audiobooks with earbuds and a sleep timer setting: yes, lumpy ears but no issue with light.

TV in the bedroom? Maybe, if we watch calm, uplifting programs and then shift to a paper book or audio an hour before we want to fall asleep, to avoid the blue light which interferes with our natural melatonin production. (The same goes for our phones of course!) And it’s important to think about what we are “feeding” our minds before trying to sleep. Disturbing news, movies or social media posts put us in fight-or-flight mode rather than easing us into rest, and they can even color our dreams as our brains struggle to make sense of their content.

Quiet

In Brussels, my husband lived in an apartment near a hospital, with nighttime traffic noise and frequent sirens. He was amazed at how much better he slept in our house in Virginia, which is still not a perfect haven (we can hear the nearby highway and Metro train as well as noisy air conditioning compressors in summer).

Total silence is rare in nature, and some sounds can be soothing (we sometimes pretend our nearby highway is a waterfall). Calm voices tend to be reassuring, likely because gentle conversation tells us that others are awake and not detecting any dangers. Sleep stories, guided meditations, or calm audiobooks can produce this effect for us while also blocking out other sounds. I choose interesting but non-exciting content like Salt: A World History, played at 0.7 or 0.8 speed, with the sleep timer feature set for 30 minutes. I use bulky earbuds, but my husband simply sets his phone on his nightstand playing the audio.

We all know that phone notifications are a sleep-killer; if we’re concerned about people needing to reach us in an emergency, we can create an override for calls or messages from “favorites” while silencing those dastardly scammers as well as friends who live in different time zones or keep different schedules.

Other ideas for blocking nighttime noise:

  • A machine that produces white noise or nature sounds
  • An fan, or an air cleaner machine (extra bonus of air filtration)
  • A humidifier or dehumidifier (as appropriate)
  • Thick curtains
  • Earplugs

What if the disturbing sounds are coming from the people or animals we live with? It’s fair to ask for quiet time to protect our sleep. With pets and young kids, we can at least establish good routines and fairly divide up care duties. If one partner tends to burst in and bustle around after the other falls asleep, we can get into pajamas and set things up in advance, and also acknowledge and release worry or annoyance if we’re the one being disturbed. Snoring is not normal, and after getting checked for sleep apnea, we can address it in a wide range of ways, including my favorite silicone nose openers. And sometimes separate bedrooms are even more romantic because we’re both well-rested (my husband and I think so).

Cool and cozy

Our bodies expect nighttime to be cooler than daytime. 61 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit is often mentioned as an optimal range for sleeping. Of course, partners may disagree about this. The BedJet is an innovative solution (with a very creative commercial) recommended by a workshop participant with me (thank you Chel!). Of course having comfortable layers at hand is important too, because we can get hotter or colder during the night, especially if we’re going through hormonal changes. In Germany I learned to love fluffy down-filled comforters, sticking out a hand or a foot when my body gets too hot.

A warm shower or bath before bed accentuates our natural drop in temperature and can help ease us into sleep. I also love Warmies microwaveable stuffed animals, a cuter version of my grandmother’s hot water bottle (and not just for kids, say I!).

Warm feet are especially soothing at night. I wear bison wool socks (nonslip socks are even more practical).

Calming for the mind

A fine restaurant, a soaring cathedral or a lovely garden can inspire a sense of mental and emotional serenity and well-being. Our bedroom environment can also promote tranquility for our mind, helping us surrender to deep rest.

It’s clear what does NOT help with that:

  • Random clutter
  • A blaring TV with upsetting news stories
  • Piles of work papers or other reminders of pending tasks

More helpful:

  • Open, uncluttered surfaces (even shutting the closet door helps, or storing clutter in nice boxes).
  • An inviting and uplifting book (or non-blue-light Kindle) by the bed.
  • A paper journal where we can make notes if our minds insist on coming up with something important during our rest period.
  • Relaxing activities in the bedroom, like prayer, meditation, stretching, self-massage or partner massage, and of course satisfying sexual activity. On the flip side, if we’re experiencing anxiety about insomnia or something else, sleep counselors suggest getting out of bed and pursuing a quiet activity in another room, so we don’t associate our bed with worry and stress.
  • Decor that symbolizes tranquility, love or the sacred for us: maybe nature scenes, natural objects, plants, pictures or objects from loved ones (like my grandmother’s embroidery in my case).
  • Here’s an interesting thought (I think): what might be in the scene of a really good dream? We can use that idea to choose the things we see just before we drift off.

Of course, we may have a partner with completely different ideas about what is soothing, or what is acceptable. Besides negotiating, is it possible to carve out separate sleeping spaces, maybe even twin beds and a partition? Separate beds definitely help my husband and myself, since I tend to roll over several times during the night in a rather earthquake-like manner. When traveling with others, I’ve been known to create my own meditative sleep space in a walk-in closet, on a balcony or in a tent (the others at a ladies’ weekend in a big house all said they wished they’d brought one too).

Soothing to the senses

The wellness room at Epiphany Pilates in Fairfax VA

A good spa or massage room appeals to all of our senses, with serene colors, music, scents, textures, hands-on touch and even a relaxing cup of tea. It may not be possible to repaint or redecorate (or hire a massage therapist), but we can shift in a more sensory-friendly direction even with a few plants, artwork, and nice containers for clutter from a thrift store.

Note that color does have a psychological impact beyond our preferences. Red seems not to be such a good idea.

I mentioned sound above in the context of blocking noise, and of course it can make a huge difference in shifting us from irritation to calm.

Because our sense of smell has a deep connection with our emotions, a pleasant scent at bedtime can set up a powerful sleep-promoting association. I like to mix a few drops of an essential oil with neutral jojoba oil as a nighttime lotion, and I tuck a sachet filled with natural lavender under my pillow (thank you Nina!). Other scents I find sensual and soothing include ylang ylang, bergamot, sandalwood, cedar, pine, vetiver and eucalyptus.

We’ve all had the experience of an itch or irritation keeping us awake. We can promote the opposite with soothing lotions, sheets, blankets, pajamas and cozy sleep socks. I love organic cotton pajamas, and I think it’s worth splurging on Thomas Lee sheets.

Another aspect of touch is our mattress, pillow and body positioning. Check out this video by my colleague Leslie DeGrande on positioning for good sleep. Keeping our spine in a comfortable, neutral position not only helps us sleep but promotes good posture and helps prevent back and joint issues. I sleep with a long body pillow and an expensive but great pillow from V&R Naturals (no, I’m not an affiliate with any of these companies).

It’s a good idea to close our eating window at least two hours before sleeping to let our digestion rest. But there are still many great ways to associate a good taste with bedtime. How about a toothpaste we use only in the evening (this can also help us avoid late snacking). Herbal teas like chamomile or a sleepytime mixture without sweetening don’t break our overnight fast.

What about electromagnetic fields in our sleep sanctuary? Some researchers and many individuals are concerned about their impact on sleep and general health. The research isn’t clear yet, but we can consider some options that might help lower our risks:

  • If our home is close to high-voltage power lines, we can sleep on the other side of the house if possible.
  • With power strips, we can easily turn off appliances and electronics at night (this saves electricity too).
  • Hopefully our internet router is not in the bedroom, and we can consider plugging it into an outlet timer.
  • If we aren’t on alert for anything, we can keep our phone in airplane mode or set it in a different room at night (also helps us avoid counterproductive middle-of-the-night message-checking).
  • We can dedicate an older phone on airplane mode or even an old-fashioned MP3 player for audiobooks and music at night.

That’s what I’ve learned about creating a sleep sanctuary to support my own nighttime healing retreat, where my brain goes through its carwash, dreams work their mystery, memories consolidate, my immune system cleans house, and growth hormone is released to repair and rejuvenate my body. I hope it has helped you with some ideas as well; please let me know in a message or in the comments! Thanks very much for reading this, and I hope you’ll share it with others who might find it useful! See you again soon!

And if you could use positive, empowering support to move you forward with your sleep or other areas of well-being, from someone who has been through inactivity, obesity, menopause, depression and insomnia and come out the other side, I’d love to offer you a free coaching session to dream up your vision of where you’d like to be and identify the three most impactful next steps to get there. That’s with absolutely no obligation to continue with my powerful coaching at an non-boutique price 🙂 Make a Zoom appointment with me here, I’m looking forward to talking with you!

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