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Rubin Naiman, Ph.D.

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Earth Day / Earth Night: How Green Is Your Sleep?

Posted: 04/22/2012 1:08 am

This week we observe the 42th anniversary of Earth Day. Once again we conjure familiar images of smoggy skylines, toxic landfills and lethal oil spills along with the mounting evidence of global warming. And we also celebrate the heightened awareness and many major environmental initiatives promoted by Earth Day.

But, what about Earth Night?

Compelling evidence suggests that indoor pollution may actually be more toxic than outdoor pollution. More specifically, it appears that the bedroom, the place most of us spend the bulk of our at home time, may be the most polluted room in the house. Nowhere does the growing toxic burden of our environment get more up close and personal than when we get into in bed with it at night.

I coined the term Deep Green Sleep™ to capture the simple essence of healthy slumber. "Deep" refers the quality and extent of our psychological descent into sleep. And "green" is about an optimal sleep environment -- one that is free of toxic pollutants. Our efforts at descending deeply into sleep may be hampered by bedroom pollutants that tether us to the waking world.

Unsustainable Sleep

Conventional bedding and mattresses are commonly constructed from dubious materials. The cotton used in our linens, pillows, mattresses and pajamas is among the most pesticide-laden crops. Synthetic petrochemical foams found in many mattresses, including the popular "memory foam" varieties, are associated with significant off-gassing of many potentially harmful chemicals. Air mattresses are also known to off-gas and, depending on climate, can promote the growth of mold. To top it off, conventional mattresses are then treated with harmful chemical fire retardants.

Most bedrooms harbor dust mites, microscopic insects that feed on human skin shed into mattresses, pillows, bed covers and carpets. Dust mite body parts and droppings can trigger reactions ranging from mild allergies to severe asthma. And if that's not bad enough, conventional bedroom walls and floors, furniture and carpeting are also a potential source of off-gassing from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in paints, varnishes and adhesives. Add the off-gassing from toiletries and cleaning products typically found in master bathrooms and we have a most disturbing picture of what I call "sleep smog."

Poor breathing means poor sleep. Even if you're not aware of it, airborne contaminants can compromise respiration during sleep. Difficulties ranging from simple nasal congestion to snoring and sleep apnea may be associated with sleep smog. And, of course, there remains a concern about the potential health hazards of long-term exposure to such poor air quality.

Air temperature may be as important as air quality to our sleep. In parallel with global warming, too many of us try to sleep in bedrooms that are not sufficiently cool. Just as the outer world cools through the night, our core body temperature must do the same if we are to sleep well. Recent research has found that average room temperatures have been on the rise in recent years. Both the planet and its people are overheating.

Although it is rarely thought of as such, excessive light at night has been shown to be toxic to sleep as well as our general health. Light suppresses melatonin, disrupting sleep, dreams and circadian rhythms. Compelling research has discovered a dose-dependent relationship between exposure to light at night and increased risk for breast cancer.

I'm sure many readers are now thinking, "enough!" I'm keenly aware of the incessant messages we get about the dangers lurking in our food and water and air -- and even in our genes and thoughts and behaviors. It's certainly not my intention to stir up additional angst about health -- and particularly about the sanctuary of our sleep. But, just as raising consciousness about environmental issues has spurred positive changes, we must do the same for our sleep environment. Let's stop losing sleep over these problems by doing all we reasonably can to clean them both up.

Six Sustainable Sleep Solutions

Creating a green, healthy and sleep-friendly bedroom is both critical and doable. Begin with an evaluation of possible sources of sleep smog in your bedroom, enlisting the help of professional house health specialists if necessary. Make a plan to gradually address any problems you discover. Consider the following solutions:

  1. Whenever possible, use bedding made from organic cotton, wool and natural latex. I recommend getting an organic mattress with a wool topper that functions as a natural fire retardant. The cost of green bedding has been dropping significantly over recent years with increasing consumer demand.
  2. To manage dust mites, encase mattresses and pillows with "allergen-impermeable" zippered covers. Wash your bedding weekly in hot water with a mild, biodegradable laundry soap. Keeping indoor humidity levels low -- between 30 and 50 percent relative humidity -- can also help control dust mites.
  3. When painting or refinishing floors or furniture, switch from conventional and "low-VOC" products to those labeled "VOC-free," "no-VOC," or "zero-VOC," which are virtually free of toxic chemicals.
  4. Ventilate and clean the air in your home and particularly in your bedroom. A wide range of air filtration products are now available to consumers. HEPA, or high-efficiency particulate air filtration, systems are ideal. Carefully review their features including noise levels, room capacity and the frequency and cost of filter replacement.

    A number of common houseplants have been shown to effectively filter indoor air. NASA research concluded that "House plants can purify and rejuvenate air within our houses ... safeguarding us all from any side effects connected with prevalent toxins." Effective air cleansing houseplants include areca, lady, dawarf date and bamboo palms, rubber plants, dracaena, English ivy, ficus aalii, Boston fern, peace lily and many others.

  5. Dim the lights in your home a couple of hours before bed and make sure your bedroom is completely dark during sleep. As an alternative, use "blue-blocker" glasses or light bulbs that diminish the negative effects or ordinary light on sleep by filtering out its blue wavelength, which suppresses melatonin.
  6. Experiment with dropping the temperature in your bedroom to 68 degrees Fahrenheit or less. This is not about feeling cold -- use all the bed covers you like. It is about creating a sufficient differential between your body temperature and the room temperature to encourage the dissipation of heat from your body. Dialing down the thermostat will not only promote better sleep, it will conserve energy.

Not surprisingly, what we do to support Earth Night will also support Earth Day.

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