Touch and Sleep – How To Take Control Of Your Comfort
Updated: Jul 31, 2018
If we think about it, touch or sensation is a really big deal when it comes to influencing our quality of sleep. It's not a question of 'if' this sense affects our sleep, but 'how much' – so no sleep experiments with complex EEG/MRI machines are necessary. This is a topic largely about our personal preferences. When we are in discomfort, it can really feel as though we are experiencing a real-life Princess and the Pea situation – minus the joy of a royal heritage.
When we're young we are blessed with the ability to sleep almost anywhere, in any position. However as the years roll by, it's not unusual to become increasingly finicky about our physical sleep environment, be it because of health issues or simply holding too much muscle tension. Touch is perhaps the most holistic of our senses, and one which is most difficult to molly coddle particularly if we are sensitive types.
With so many sensory receptors throughout our bodies, looking after the details that govern our comfort is imperative. In this post I dive straight into the main touch sense issues which influence sleep quality and what we can do about them.
This post focusses on the 8 most controllable aspects of getting a restorative night's sleep:
1. How our own body can work against us: muscle tension & toilet trips
Our daily lives can cause us a good deal of stress, both mentally and physically. The body's natural response to this is for our muscles to tense up – a means of protecting us from injury and pain. However, repeated muscle tension from, say, the constant psychological stress of deadlines to the physical stress of having an awkward computer set-up, can cause longer-lasting aches and pains and even reoccurring headaches and migraines. These all disrupt our sleep.
Unknowingly, it can turn into a vicious cycle. Habitual stress means we get so used to having muscle tension, we no longer even notice it.
Our bodies are full of fantastic feedback loops – if we are physically tense, it can in turn make us feel more stressed.
Scientists have even proven there are surprising and powerful links between posture and mood.
It's time break the cycle and the easiest place to start is dealing with those tense muscles. How you choose to do that is a matter of personal preference, but effective options include stretching before bed to loosen tight muscles, self-massage, a little sauna time or a warm bubble bath.
What happens if you can fall asleep easily, but end up needing the toilet in the middle of the night? There are obvious practical steps one can take to minimise the likelihood of night-time toilet trips: Avoid drinking within the last hour before sleep and to make sure to go to the toilet as part of your bedtime routine. As we age, however, bathroom trips can become inevitable and it can be extremely difficult to drift off after the interruption.
The good news is that this is largely a psychological issue created by our modern lifestyle and the pervasive misnomer that an 8 hour unbroken sleep cycle is natural. There was a time when people slept in two separate periods – first sleep and second sleep separated by a some awake time consisting of either reading, chatting or all kinds of night-time entertainment!
If you need the toilet during the night, don't let the worry of not getting unbroken sleep prevent you from drifting straight back off – just consider it your preparation for second sleep.
2. Temperature: Try to keep your cool and your bedroom between 15.5C – 19.5C (60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit).
It's scientifically proven that cooler temperatures enable us to fall asleep more quickly, as well as put us into a deeper, more restorative sleep. Cooler temperatures mean more Melatonin is released into your body. Temperatures above or below this range results in your body using energy to regulate – potentially leaving you tossing and turning all night. Whether you live in either a hot, cool or variable climate, hitting the hay at optimal temperature almost always requires some forward planning – be it the use of an electric blanket, an air conditioner, or simply throwing open the windows for a hour or so before bed.
3. Mattress support: It's a personal thing.
The age old myth that harder mattresses are better for your back are not true – especially if you're a female who prefers sleeping on their side. Typically women have large hips and narrow waists, meaning an overly firm mattress can 'kink' the spine and put stress on the lower back. It's also a dated myth, based on the concept that mattress materials compressed over time creating a hollow.
According to Swedish mattress specialist, Duxiana, when people say 'firm', they mean 'supported.'There is actually no one size fits all. Find out what your preferred sleeping position is and buy a mattress with the correct firmness to support you in that position. There are handy diagrams on the Duxiana site to show just what postural positions to look for when choosing a mattress. Make sure to test out a variety of types before buying.
4. Is your pillow causing you a pain in the neck?
Did you know that having a pillow is not actually essential, it's just something we have become accustomed to. According to Nick Littlehales, sleep coach to the world’s best athletes, it's merely there to provide a little padding and support our head in our chosen sleep position – it shouldn't be overly plump.
Problems often begin when we force our heads in certain directions using oversize pillows.
For example, when you lie on your back with your head on a very full pillow, you are effectively pushing your chin towards you chest, over-extending the vertebrae and muscles at the base of your skull and down the back of your neck.
The golden rule to finding a dreamy pillow is to think of your head as an extension of your spine. Imagine a line reaching down through the crown of your head and following your spine and do your best to keep it all in alignment, whether you lie on your back or on your side. Choosing the right size and material is up to you and what you find is most comfortable.
5. The weighty issue of duvet choice.
If you are the anxious type, there is evidence to suggest more weighty covers help calm the nervous system and aid a more restful sleep by mimicking the effects of being hugged or held. Weighted does not necessarily mean hotter as you can get thinner blankets with pockets of heavy pellets sown into them.
For those who suffer from allergies or asthma, synthetic filled duvets are considered the best option. Easier to clean and quicker to dry, these are perfect for those who need to keep their environment spotless.
For pure comfort, down or feather-down duvets have much better thermal properties which makes them supremely snuggley in winter. They also boast natural moisture-wicking properties which means you’re unlikely to feel as sweaty as you would under a synthetic duvet.
With so many options, the key is to note down the ideal qualities you want from a duvet such as weight, tog and feel of the filling, as well as consider getting a set for different seasons.
6. Is there a 'best' position to sleep in?
It seems everyone has an opinion on what the best position for sleeping is. According to an article in the Independent newspaper, 'experts' believe that sleeping on your back is the ideal position. However, sleep expert Nick Littlehales believes sleeping on your right side in the foetal position is far superior. Both are backed up by seemingly sound scientific reasons.
My advice: Ignore the numerous articles by 'experts' about what your sleeping position says about your personality, the pressure it puts on certain organs, or the fact it may give you wrinkles – and put getting and maintaining quality sleep at the heart of your sleep strategy.
Having experienced many nights of poor sleep trying to train myself to sleep in certain 'recommended' positions, I concluded that by far the best position is the one I personally find most comfortable.
Waking up every 5 minutes to check I was in the 'correct' position was an unnecessary psychological burden which actually induced worse sleep.
I concluded the effects of insomnia, near and long-term, are far more severe then any ailments caused by sleeping in the 'wrong' position.
Sleeping in the 'correct' or 'best' sleeping position becomes a mute point with the right support from a well chosen mattress and pillow combination. If you do suffer from conditions such as sleep apnoea or back pain then further research into adjusting how you sleep may be necessary. For the rest of us it's just a matter of personal preference.
7. Bed clothes: Wear clothes you find comfortable to bed.
It's funny how even bed-clothes can be subject to the pressures of fashion and the desire to look sexy at all hours of the day and night. Women: Wearing a tight-fitting itchy, lacy, or scanty negligee will only make you look decidedly unsexy if you're exhausted from poor quality sleep as a result. If you are not in a Hollywood movie or reality TV show, choose something that doesn't pinch, chafe, ride-up, bosh or feel itchy. My favourite: flannel cotton PJ's a size larger then my usual for winter, and a cotton T-shirt and shorts combo for summer.
8. Sheet material: Bed down in sumptuous bedding.
One of the best sleep-time purchases I made was to invest in Egyptian cotton bedding. It is supremely comfortable when compared to anything else I have slept on. Egyptian cotton feels softer, is finer, and lasts longer than other cotton types - so is well worth spending the extra bit of money on. According to the insomnia website they help improve sleep due to the fabric being more porous. Air can pass through the sheet more easily - avoiding a feeling of stuffyness during the night. I find the psychological aspect of sliding into such opulent bedding automatically sets me up to sleep wonderfully. Choose a higher, thicker thread count for winter and lighter, lower count for summer to sleep royally in any season.
How touch affects sleep really is an all encompassing topic. There are, of course, several less controllable aspects of getting some refreshing kip, ranging from sharing a bed with a fidgety partner and pet, or suffering from health issues. Sleep often mirrors your general health, rather than your age. The better your health, the better you sleep, and vice versa. The mountains of information out there is daunting, but when it comes to something as personal as sleep, never be afraid to do what you personally find works for you.
Do you have any tips you feel improve the quality of your sleep? Have your say in the comments section below: