A Scientists’ Guide to Better Sleep

Clean sheets, the ideal temperature, and other expert tips

Credit: Burak Karademir/Getty Images

YYou already know that getting enough sleep each night is important for your health. Time spent sleeping is only part of the equation, though. Yes, getting a full night’s rest is great, but only if it’s actually restful. Those seven to nine hours aren’t as restorative if they aren’t uninterrupted, in line with your body’s natural rhythms, and balanced with the right amount of REM.

Better quality sleep isn’t something you can just will into being, says Dr. Vikas Jain, a sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine. “One point I try to drive home to people is: Don’t put a ton of effort into your sleep,” he says. “Because the harder you try, the harder it will become. You have to remember that sleep is something we want to come naturally. If you’re trying to force it, it’s going to become much more difficult.”

Below, eight sleep experts share their advice for the best ways to set up your bedroom to ensure you get a good night’s rest. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Think of your bed as an investment

Ideally, the bedroom has the best mattress you can afford. We’re on that surface for what should be a third of our lives, so investing in a mattress is critical. Take the time to shop around for your mattress and choose a company that makes research and development its focus. In addition, you really want to invest in a nice set of sheets so that you’re instantly soothed and relaxed. You also want a pillow that’s supportive of your head, neck, and spinal column.
— Rebecca Robbins, postdoctoral fellow in the department of population health at NYU Langone Health

Wash your sheets often

When I’m talking with somebody about their sleep environment, one of the things I really advocate for is washing bedsheets. If you’re not doing it weekly, do it at least every two weeks. In a National Sleep Foundation survey, one of the top things people said they liked in their bedrooms was the smell of fresh, clean sheets.
— Dr. Rachel Salas, sleep medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins University

Ban all screens

There are special receptors in the retina that are specifically there to help us differentiate between night and day, and those receptors are especially sensitive to certain wavelengths of white light, blue light, and green light. Researchers have been studying this problem over the past decade, and a number of papers have been published showing that artificial light in the room—whether it’s from a phone, a TV, or a computer screen—becomes part of this alerting signal. So it’s important to keep your bedroom dark.
— Michael Twery, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health

A nice thing about eliminating the TV altogether is that not only does it have the potential to impact your sleep, but then you have less temptation. If you watch TV in your living room, then you’re going to have more of a set time with which you say, “Okay, I better get to bed.”
— Dr. Vikas Jain, sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine

Add background noise

Loud background sound can help reduce noise that interferes with sleep. We recommend using white noise, as opposed to a sound that fluctuates—a white noise machine or a loud fan provides a constant sound that the mind can habituate to.
— Lisa Medalie, behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago

Keep a flashlight handy

I like to tell my patients to sleep with a flashlight near them so if they have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, they’re not turning on all the lights. The flashlight points downward, so it’s not activating them.
— Dr. Rachel Salas, sleep medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins University

Cool down

When your body temperature drops, this is one of the cues to your internal clock that it’s time to sleep. Keeping your bedroom too warm can throw off this balance, so consider keeping it between 60 and 67 degrees for optimal sleep. There are also cooling pads that can be placed on mattresses for more precise regulation of temperature during sleep.
— Dr. Vikas Jain, sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine

Sleep in a dark, cold place. Sometimes, people try to save money on air conditioning, and they’ll adjust the temperature before going to bed so it becomes warmer. But a lot of times, that can negatively impact your sleep. If you don’t want the AC on, you can always adjust your temperature by getting a fan. Even in the winter, I’ll use a fan—not necessarily because I’m hot, but because it serves two purposes: One, I live in the city, so it acts as a white noise machine, and two, it’s for the temperature.
— Dr. Rachel Salas, sleep medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins University

Think of light as a tool

Natural light is kind of a stimulator of our wake cycle, so getting natural light within about 30 to 60 minutes of waking up in the morning can be a good cue for wakefulness. People who have a typical sleep schedule should open their windows or curtains in the morning and let the natural light come in.
— Dr. Katherine Green, medical director for the University of Colorado Sleep Center

For those who have trouble waking up in the morning, we like to see a light box in the bedroom. Exposure to light at the same time every day tells your brain it’s time to be awake by signaling the stopping of melatonin production. If you can find a light box with an alarm feature, it’s a great way to wake up.
— Lisa Medalie, behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago

Have a bedtime scent

The most helpful thing people can do is set up a routine that gives their body some environmental cues that it’s time for bed, and aromatherapy can absolutely be useful here. For a lot of people, scents like lavender, valerian root, and chamomile can be a cue. If you do it at the same time every day, that starts your bedtime routine and gives you a 20-minute period where you can wind down and get yourself ready for sleep.
— Dr. Katherine Green, medical director for the University of Colorado Sleep Center

Clean up

If you have a messy room, then cleaning it is just another thing you could be thinking about in bed. It’ll just spark things you have to do, like if you have laundry on the floor, for example, it’ll spark thoughts about one more thing you have to do.
— Dr. Rachel Salas, sleep medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins University

Eliminate distraction

The bed is allowed to have two types of activities: sleep and sex. That’s it. People should limit even eating in bed. And going on the computer in bed is one of the worst things you can do. But, for some people, if they just read a book—not the Kindle or an electronic device, but a book, with a little bit of dim light—that’s okay.
— Dr. Vsevolod Polotsky, director of the Polotsky Research Lab for sleep and breathing at Johns Hopkins University

Stick to a sleep uniform

Some people sleep in the nude; some people have pajamas on—whatever the case may be, something consistent is ideal. The brain really likes being keyed in to that bedtime routine. So if you have a good bedtime routine and environment, you’re going to have better quality sleep.
— Dr. Rachel Salas, sleep medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins University

Create a space you’re happy to spend time in

Room colors should generally be soothing and create a relaxed atmosphere in the bedroom. It should be a comfortable, cozy den, with colors, furniture, bedding, and soft lighting that make the space special for you. You have to love your bedroom.
— Dr. Alex Dimitriu, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine

Chicago-based freelance writer specializing in mental health. Words in The Cut, VICE, SUCCESS Magazine, the Chicago Tribune and more. www.jamiegfriedlander.com

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