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How Healthy Is Your Bedroom?

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By Aviva Patz

We spend roughly a third of our lives in our bedrooms. So it's not surprising that the state of your boudoir can affect not just the quality of your sleep and your sex life (duh), but also your stress levels, your allergy symptoms, even your exposure to toxins.

Like a lot of us, I suffer from allergies, I don't sleep as well as I'd like, and I'm definitely always looking for ways to improve my health. So I invited five healthy-living pros -- an allergist, a sleep doc, a green-lifestyle specialist, a stress expert and a sex coach -- into my house to assess the state of my bedroom. Read on for the surprising health and happiness hazards the experts uncovered, and their tips for turning my bedroom (and yours!) into a truly restorative retreat.

First Visit: The Allergist
Make mold history. My house was built in the 1880s and has suffered water damage over the years. One leak in particular is ongoing -- no one can seem to fix it! And sure enough, there are telltale signs of mold on the walls, says Dr. David Fost, an allergist and immunologist in Verona, New Jersey. It seems I'm living in the ideal breeding ground for all types of mold, from Aspergillus -- the most common cause of respiratory disease -- to Cladosporium, a fungus often involved in skin and nail infections.

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"They can aggravate typical allergy symptoms like stuffiness, wheezing and skin and eye irritation," Fost says. The remedy: We'll need to plug up the leak for good (if that's possible), clean the area with a bleach solution and keep the humidity low (between 40 and 60 percent) by using a dehumidifier and/or an air conditioner (which also removes moisture from the air).

Say sayonara to dust mites. Next on the hit list is dust mites, which excrete a protein in their feces that can trigger sneezing and a runny nose. You can't see them, but Fost knows they're there -- mainly because I haven't taken any precautions to keep them out. "In humid areas like the Northeast, where we are, a mattress will double its weight in 10 years from dust mites," Fost says. So I'm basically sleeping in bug poop. Nice. The fix is to use hypoallergenic encasements on my mattress and pillows. I also need to wash my sheets weekly in hot water, lower the thermostat (to 68 degrees in winter), and again, keep humidity levels low. It will also help, he says, to use a HEPA-filter vacuum and to clean with microfiber cloths that trap dust instead of launching it into the air. The good news: Fost does approve of the area rug I have on the floor instead of allergen-trapping wall-to-wall carpeting. Phew.

A Sleep Pro Weighs In
Let there be (less) light. The first thing the sleep expert notes is that my near-transparent shades don't block out the moonlight -- let alone streetlights at night. "Melatonin, a hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle, is secreted at night in response to darkness," explains Samuel L. Krachman, D.O., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. "Light interferes with its production, making it harder to fall into a deep, restful sleep." In fact, two new studies suggest that exposure to light at night could affect not only your snooze quality but also your blood pressure, glucose levels, ability to regulate body temperature -- even cancer risk. He suggests adding blackout curtains, or any opaque shade, to darken the room.

Stop the log-sawing. My main sleep complaint, though, is my husband's snoring. Can Krachman help with that? His suggested fix: a sleep positioner -- a belt with soft foam attachments that will keep my husband from sleeping on his back, which tends to bring on the snoring. For my part, I can wear earplugs and/or run a white-noise machine to dampen the sound.

The Green Expert's Take
Detox your pillow. Horrified. That's the only word to describe the reaction of environmental-lifestyle expert Danny Seo when he spies my memory-foam pillow. He tells me that the petroleum-based synthetic foam my pillow is made of can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause headaches, nausea, eye and throat irritation and may even contribute to asthma. A better bet would be a natural latex pillow made from rubber trees, he says. But if I'm wedded to the feel of the memory foam (which I am!), I should at least cover it with a 100 percent cotton pillow protector, which would reduce my toxic load.

Go low-tech. Seo is pleased that there's no TV in the room. But he urges me to move the cordless phone base station, laptop and electric alarm clock off my night table because of the radio frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) they emit. While the jury is out on the health impact of EMFs (some studies link them to a slightly higher risk of cancer; others have found no direct connection), why risk keeping these EMF sources next to my head all night long?

What The Stress Expert Says
Rethink clutter. Stress and trauma expert Barbara Rubel agrees that laptops and cell phones don't belong in the bedroom -- but for another reason: They're potential stress-causers. So are the piles of material I need to read for work. My personal stress bugaboos are my husband's dresser-mess -- a jumble of change and receipts -- and the clothes he leaves on the floor. Rubel's first tip is to come up with an organizing solution that works for both of us. But she has a plan B: "If you can't change the system, reframe your thinking. What is positive about seeing your husband's jeans on the floor? It means he's here and he's healthy!" This idea hits home; my husband narrowly escaped the terrorist attacks on 9/11, so I do feel lucky to have him here -- jeans on the floor and all.

Finally, A Word From The Sexpert
Nix mood-killers. My snuggly flannel comforter is deemed a liability by sex coach Amy Levine. "Cozy is not sexy," she says. Also not sexy: family photos. I can see how the '70s-era picture of me, my sister and my dad on my nightstand is not exactly libido-boosting. Another major no-no is lack of privacy -- we have no locks on our door to keep out the kids!

Up the romance factor. Levine recommends adding items to my room that make me feel sexually confident and empowered. Though the specifics are different for everyone, she says, some suggestions include an inviting chair to use as an alternate lovemaking spot, fresh flowers and sensual touching objects (think silk and feathers). We do have night table drawers for stashing "pleasure props." Now if we could just lock the door, resist the siren song of the cozy comforter and actually use those props!

Other Tips And Tricks For A Healthy Boudoir
  • Lose those pillows: Sneeze-proof your bed with hypoallergenic casings on your pillows and mattress. And get rid of throw pillows, which can be a breeding ground for dust mites.
  • Kick off your shoes: Better yet, leave those kicks out of the bedroom altogether. They track in toxins from the outside world.
  • Less is more: Candles cast a sexy glow, but some can also emit irritating VOCs. Stick to just one or two that are 100 percent soy.
  • Time to unplug: Electronic devices can stress you out, interfere with sleep, and sabotage your sex life. "Unless you're a doctor on call, you don't need a BlackBerry by the bed," says Krachman.

So, Did The Tips Help?
My first priority after the experts left was to move the electronics off my nightstand. I also cleared away the nostalgic photos and piles of magazines. Since buying new curtains isn't our most urgent home-improvement need, I'm exploring what a darker room would feel like by donning a soft sleep mask instead. I actually think it helps me fall asleep faster. (Unfortunately, my husband has resisted trying the anti-snoring sleep positioner.) My new pillow and mattress encasements are making the bed a bit crinkly, but I'm hoping they'll have me breathing easier. Finally, we've decided to have that pesky leak repaired for good. It'll be a big hassle (we'll have to rip out and replace the whole wall) and a major investment, but if it helps keep us healthy, it'll be worth it.

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