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5 Important Sleep Factors Most People Don't Think About

03/09/2015 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015
Thanasis Zovoilis via Getty Images

This week is National Sleep Awareness Week, which begins with the announcement of the National Sleep Foundation's Sleep in America poll results and ends with the clock change to Daylight Saving Time (where all Americans get the wonderful experience of losing one hour of sleep).

And while that single hour of lost sleep probably isn't a big deal, you should you be concerned if your sleep is suffering significantly more than that. As Paleo author and health advocate Robb Wolf puts it, sleep can be just as important as air, food and water -- since long term sleep deprivation, just like deprivation of these other crucial components of life -- can significantly impact quality of life.

For example, in one study, sleep researchers constructed a cruel contraption that would wake up rats as soon as they fell asleep. Using this contraption, it took an average of three weeks to kill a rat by sleep deprivation. Other studies have shown demonstrable brain damage in sleep-deprived rats, primarily due to a severe lack of neurogenesis (regrowth or rebuilding of new brain neurons) from rampant levels of sleep deprivation induced cortisol.

While sleep deprivation is a well-known form of torture for rats, researchers could not for ethical reasons reproduce these studies in humans. But by looking at sleep disorders, we can get a pretty clear idea of what happens when you don't sleep enough.

For example, death occurs within a few months in humans who have fatal familial insomnia, a mutation which causes the affected person to suffer from a progressively worsening insomnia that ends in death within a few months. Morvan's syndrome is another example of how lack of sleep causes death, and in this case, an autoimmune disease destroys the brain's potassium channels -- which leads to severe insomnia and death.

Because of it's ability to cause high blood pressure and heart disease, each year sleep disorders add $16 billion to national health-care costs. And that does not include accidents and lost productivity at work, which in America alone costs us $150 billion each year in higher stress and reduced workplace productivity.

Think of the disasters at Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. The gas leak at Bhopal. The Zeebrugge disaster. The Exxon Valdez oil spill. Go do your research. You'll find that these and many other major industrial disasters have been directly linked to sleep deprivation.

And while lack of sleep can cause some of the serious problems you've just learned about, getting adequate sleep can cause just the opposite scenario: enhancing physical and mental performance. For example, according to a recent study conducted by Stanford University on their basketball team, sleep had the following effects on performance:

-- 13 percent increase in reaction time
-- 12 percent increase in free throws
-- 4 percent increase in speed
-- 11 percent better mood during games

In addition the article The Impact of Circadian Phenotype and Time since Awakening on Diurnal Performance in Athletes demonstrates significant improvements in athletes' physical and mental performance when sleep cycles and circadian rhythms are optimized.

So whether you're concerned about that one hour of sleep you lose when the clock springs forward, or whether you simply want to enhance your sleep, fall asleep faster, or improve your physical and mental performance by sleeping better or longer, you're about to discover five important sleep factors most people don't think about, but probably should.

1. Light
You're no doubt familiar with the idea that sleeping in a dark room can help you to sleep better, and multiple studies have demonstrated the reality of "iPad insomnia" , which is based on the concept that exposure to the blue light from screens at night throws the body's biological clock and circadian rhythm out of whack, causing sleep to suffer. Even exposure to the normal lights in your bedroom can cause a suppression of the crucial sleep hormone melatonin.

But what many don't realize is that even if you've installed black-out curtains in your bedroom and you're sleeping with a giant sleep mask, the photoreceptors in your skin are also sensitive to light. This means that your sleep can be deleteriously affected by a light flashing from a WiFi router, phone, computer, digital clock or other device in your bedroom, even if you can't see that light. So make your room completely dark, and unplug as much as possible.

2. Temperature
There's definitely something to the concept of the cold side of the pillow feeling oh-so-good when you're falling asleep at night, and also the concept of a hot sweat from a stuffy sheet or thick blanket waking you up at night. For example, one study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found wearing a cooling cap helped cure insomnia snooze almost as well as people without sleep problems, and a Princeton University study showed evidence that yawning helps your brain get rid of heat before bedtime.

Research from the Center for Chronobiology in Switzerland has demonstrated a that a drop in your core temperature triggers your body's go-to-sleep mechanisms, and as a bonus, new research from the National Institutes of Health shows that sleeping in a cool room could also help you burn more calories while you sleep and increase your levels of metabolically active brown fat. While temperature and sleep studies tend to use a variety of sleeping temperatures, the range varies from 66 to 72 degrees as a good temperature to start with. If your room is much warmer than that, and you're having difficulty sleeping, you may want to turn down the thermostat.

3. Mattress
While I'll admit it has a rather sensationalist title, an article I wrote entitled "Is Your Mattress Slowly Killing You?" raised the idea that when it comes to the potentially cancer-causing electricity conducting coil-springs, polybrominated diphenyl ether, boric acid, formaldehyde, and unsupportive sleep surfaces, your mattress has a significant impact on both your sleep quality and your health.

Ensuring that you have a good bedding system (the fancy scientific term for "mattress") and the proper amount of firmness in your mattress has been shown to increase sleep quality and reduced back discomfort. A variety of mattress brands now exist that adhere to the concepts of proper biomechanical support, organic compounds and reduced chemical use, including Organopedic, Naturepedic, SavvyRest and Essentia.

4) Liquids
For some reason, one of the biggest sleep complaints I hear from healthy-savvy folks is their urge to get up and use the bathroom at midnight, 3am, 5am or any other wee hour of the morning (pun intended) -- an urge that is followed by an inability to get back to sleep after getting up and using the bathroom. Some of this inability to fall back asleep could be caused by the brief light exposure from flipping on the light in the hallway or bathroom, some by the surge in cortisol and norepinephrine that occurs as you stand from a lying position, and some by the thoughts that begin to race through your head about the next day's activities and work obligations during the brief moments that you're purging your bladder.

No matter what the cause of the nighttime urge to urinate, the fix is simple: when it comes to basic sleep hygiene practices, don't feel the pressure to follow common health recommendations to drink a giant glass of water before you go to bed at night. Instead, give your bladder time to empty before bed, which generally takes two to three hours. And of course, it should go without saying that diuretics such as caffeine and alcohol should definitely be moderated prior to sleep.

5) Morning Light
This last one is certainly something most people don't think about when they're struggling to fall asleep at night, but is extremely important: morning light exposure. Exposure to moderate levels of bright blue light in the morning from sunlight (or even the blue light boxes commonly prescribed for seasonal affective disorder) can vastly improve sleep quality and decrease symptoms of insomnia later that evening.

So if you struggle to sleep at night, one of the best things you can do is go out of your way to get just a few minutes or morning sunshine. Go on a short walk. Do a few minutes of yoga in your backyard. Roll down the car windows and get a few rays of sunshine on your drive to work. There are a multitude of ways to get light in your eyes in the morning, and by doing so, you can ensure a balanced circadian rhythm the rest of the day.

Do you have questions, comments or feedback about any of these sleep factors that tend to fly under the radar? Then leave your thoughts below, as long as it's before 10pm!