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Control Your Senses to Maximize Deep Sleep

06/17/2013 11:52 am ET | Updated Aug 17, 2013

Deep sleep is not just another term for sleeping well; it's a scientifically measurable state that's required for survival. Though all too often, our fast-paced modern life interferes with obtaining deep sleep. It's easy to get it back with the following tips:

Visual Your brain is very sensitive to light. Based on light wavelength exposure, the brain's pineal gland will decrease or increase melatonin production. That's what sets your circadian rhythm and influences all normal bodily cycles throughout the day and night. It's very important to expose your eyes to bright white-blue light as soon as you awaken. Imagine a clear blue sky on a sunny day -- that's the color you want.

  • Open your curtains and blinds first thing in the morning.
  • Use a light box next to your mirror as you put on makeup or shave.
  • If you take a shower in the morning, you can change the lights over the shower to fluorescent or white LED lights.
  • Avoid bright white and blue lights for at least three hours leading up to bedtime. Even a short exposure to bright blue lights will suppress your natural melatonin production. Avoid the TV, computer, or fluorescent lights.
  • I acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to eliminate computer use. On your computer, install a free program called f.lux and set your brightness to Tungsten or even Candle. It will automatically dim when the sun sets and revert to normal when the sun rises.
  • Don't use a smart phone or tablet screen in bed, since staring at a small bright screen a few inches away is still too much blue light.
  • If you use a bedside light to read, journal, or jot down your to-do list, use an old-fashioned incandescent bulb, not a bright LED book light. Lights in the warm orange-red spectrum do not disturb deep sleep as much.

Auditory Everybody has different requirements for sounds at bedtime. Some people need complete silence, some leave the fan on for white noise, while others need city traffic sounds to get a good night's rest. Often, bed partners will have different preferences for nighttime sounds.

  • If you have a bed partner who wants silence and you don't, wear headphones to listen to your sounds.
  • If you need complete silence, ear plugs can help. But try not to wear them if your ears are wet. As a family physician, I've seen swimmer's ear from ear plugs. I've also seen foam that ripped off of old ear plugs stuck in ear canals.
  • Listening to the same hypnosis or meditation track every night can actually train you to fall asleep to it, like a Pavlovian response. Then when you travel, falling asleep can be that much easier.
  • Soundtracks with binaural beats can help you stay in deep sleep longer. A recent study found that listening to these rhythmic tones during deep sleep both lengthened deep sleep and improved memory recall.
  • SleepPhones are soft, comfortable headphones for use in bed. They are made of a cozy headband with built in speakers. The SleepPhones website also offers free music downloads with binaural beats to extend deep sleep.

Olfactory The sense of smell is extremely influential in our mood, but its effects are often subconscious. "Dirty " smells like stinky socks by your bed, the dusty picture frames and knick knacks, or the banana peel in the trash can subconsciously remind you all night of disorganization and clutter.

  • Try to keep the bed area clear of unpleasant scents.
  • Use lavender essential oil to deepen your sleep. Studies show consistent results for improving relaxation, longer deep sleep, and better cognition in the morning.
  • Other possibly effective scents include vanilla, chamomile, and sandalwood.
  • Essential oils alone are a skin and eye irritant and actually flammable, so buy a product with lavender essential oil mixed in, like a high-quality lotion or soap. You can even leave a bar of soap on your night stand just for the smell.
  • Lavender scented candles or room fresheners normally do not use essential oils. They use synthetic chemicals to mimic the smell, which may not produce the same effects shown in the studies.

Gustatory and Tactile Eating a small snack at bedtime is fine if you are used to it. If eating is not part of your routine, you don't need to start. Some people say milk, turkey, and other foods with high tryptophan (a melatonin pre-cursor) levels can help you sleep, but it's the comforting associations that help you sleep rather than the biochemical effects. Others recommend chamomile tea, but I recommend against drinking too much liquid at bedtime. Getting up to go to the bathroom can disrupt your sleep.

  • Warm baths lengthen deep sleep in one study.
  • Cool vs. warm temperatures in the bed seem to be completely subjective in most studies. While it's true that your body temperature drops during deep sleep, a drop in environmental temperature has not been shown to extend deep sleep. A comfortable temperature is the most important so you are not struggling with the covers all night long.
  • If you have a sleeping partner who prefers a different temperature, use different covers, heating pads, or cool water pillows to keep everyone happy.
  • Pets often disturb deep sleep. If you are not sleeping well, try keeping your pet out of your bed.

Deep stage four sleep is a unique state of brain function that is critical to how refreshing and effective your sleep is. There are many things that can interrupt and lighten your sleep, but now you know how to control your environment to maximize your deep sleep. Pleasant dreams.

References

1. Acute exposure to evening blue-enriched light impacts on human sleep. J Sleep Res. 2013 Mar 20. doi: 10.1111/jsr.12050. Chellappa SL, et al.

3. Auditory Closed-Loop Stimulation of the Sleep Slow Oscillation Enhances Memory. Neuron 78, 1-9, May 8, 2013. Hong-Viet V. Ngo, Thomas Martinetz, Jan Born, and Matthias Mölle

4. Boosting slow oscillations during sleep potentiates memory. Nature 444, 610-613 November 30, 2006. Lisa Marshall, Halla Helgadóttir, Matthias Mölle & Jan Born

5. Effects of lavender aroma on sleep quality in healthy Japanese students. Percept Mot Skills. 2012 Feb;114(1):111-22. Hirokawa K, et al.

6. An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women. Chronobiol Int. 2005;22(5):889-904. Goel N, et al.

7. Effects of lavender aromatherapy on insomnia and depression in women college students. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi. 2006 Feb;36(1):136-43. Lee IS, et al.

10. Night-time sleep EEG changes following body heating in a warm bath. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol. 1985 Feb;60(2):154-7, Horne JA, et al.

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