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Sleep and Your 5 Senses: Sight, Hearing, Smell, Touch, Taste

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Want better quality sleep? Find out how you can tap into your sense of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste for better shut-eye.

Our five senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste—each play a unique role in how well we sleep. They're the foundation for healthy sleep habits. Sometimes less is more, sometimes you just need to implement a few sleeping tips to sleep more soundly.

Here's what you need to know about sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste in relation to sleep and how you can tap into the power of your senses for better sleep hygiene.

How Your Sense of Sight Impacts Sleep

Your eyes and sense of sight play a crucial role in both the quality and quantity of the sleep you get. Light, colors and images in the crucial hours before bedtime can mean the difference between visions of sugar plums and counting the cracks in your bedroom ceiling.

To get a solid night of shut-eye, follow these sleeping tips.

Banish the Blues

Personal technology seems to dominate our world today. But blue light—the very specific wavelength of light that keeps our phones, laptops and tablets aglow—is particularly harmful to sleep.

“The thing about light is that it suppresses the release of a natural hormone in your body known as melatonin. And you need that melatonin to sleep," explains Raj Dasgupta, MD, spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Foundation. “Blue light is in regular sunlight, but it's in higher concentrations when we talk about iPhones and iPads and Kindles."

Before heading to bed, give your eyes a break from blue light. Harvard Health Publications recommends spending the two or three hours before bedtime away from screens. If you sleep with a nightlight, use a dim, red light.

“Red light has the least power to shift circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin," Harvard Health notes.

Watch where you're watching. Beyond blue light, there's a behavioral aspect to consider when it comes to taking your laptop to bed or flicking on the tube before dozing off.

"The bed is only meant for one thing: sleeping," explains Dasgupta. Doing anything besides sleeping in bed can cause your brain to establish associations that ultimately work against being restful.

Rather than mounting a flat screen on your bedroom wall or letting your laptop charge from your nightstand, surround yourself with visual cues to relax. This could mean calming artwork, a color palette you find soothing or a flower arrangement that brings you feelings of peace.

Embrace Your Mind's Eye

While most sight-related sleep advice is focused on what you shouldn't be looking at, there is a proactive way to use your sense of sight that aids relaxation and encourages sleep.

“Guided imagery is a wonderful technique to help bring on sleep," says Robert S. Rosenberg, MD, a physician who specializes in sleep and author of "The Doctor's Guide to Sleep Solutions for Stress & Anxiety."

Give it a try by tapping into your memory bank of positive images that you find especially relaxing. Rosenberg suggests imagining a river or beach, but you can use any real or hypothetical images that you find comforting.

If you draw a blank or struggle to maintain focus, try using auditory cues from one of the many instructional downloads or apps that that are available online.

The takeaway: 
When it comes to sleep and your sense of sight, less is more. We close our eyes for a reason; eliminate anything that encourages them to stay open. Give your eyes less to do and you'll be more likely to enjoy an evening of sweet dreams.

How Your Sense of Hearing Impacts Sleep

When we think of hearing and sleep, we often consider the noisemakers: wailing sirens, crying babies, upstairs neighbors who sound like they're jumping around in platform heels. Hearing is so closely tied to disturbing our slumber that many of us can't function without a morning alarm.

With a little strategy, our sense of hearing can work in our favor. Here's how you can tap into hearing for better sleep.

Listen to Soothing Tunes

systematic review and meta-analysis evaluating the effects of music on the sleep quality of older adults found that listening to sedating music was more beneficial at improving sleep than listening to rhythm-based music. But it helps to make it a nightly habit.

Those who listened to sedative music for before bed for at least a four-week duration had the biggest benefit.

Reevaluate Silence

While silence is often thought to be optimal for sleep, preferences regarding environmental noise can vary based on personal experiences and the conditions our ears have come to associate with rest.

“Oftentimes people have difficulty sleeping away from home," explains Mark J. Muehlbach, PhD, clinical director at Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis, Missouri. “If you live in an urban area, you are more likely to be exposed to light and noise during sleep ... If you live in a rural area, you may be more accustomed to sleeping in a dark and quiet environment."

If you prefer silence but live in a noisier neighborhood, or with a snoring bed partner, earplugs can help. Many are designed exclusively for sleep and come in a variety of materials, including foam, wax and silicone. This list of earplugs for sleeping might help you sort through some options.

Think Pink or White Noise

If a quiet room makes you toss and turn, try adding pink or white noise. These noises combine sound of different frequencies, producing a consistent hum or whir that can be soothing.

Your ideal hue is a matter of preference. White noise is comparable to the sound of television static, which may be too harsh or tinny for some ears.

Like white noise, pink noise includes all frequencies. But pink noise, such as the sound of steady rain, emphasizes the lower frequencies, creating a deeper sound that may be more comforting.

You can purchase a stand-alone noise machines or experiment with free apps or online streaming to get a sense of what works best for you. You can find dozens of downloadable apps by searching "sleep sounds." Spotify and YouTube have a variety of playlists that provide hours of both white and pink noise.

Sleep to a Beat

Some studies suggest that listening to “binaural beat" recordings at bedtime can aid relaxation and improve sleep quality. At first listen, these recordings may sound like nothing more than a stripped-down deep house track (a quick YouTube search will yield dozens), but there's a scientific explanation for why they work for some people.

According to Martin Fagin, cognitive psychology professor at The New School for Social Research and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “Binaural beats are used to help induce various psychological states that are correlated with specific brainwave states."

Fagin explains that by providing two different frequencies to each ear, the brain compensates by hearing a difference in the frequencies, or an “illusory auditory stimulus" that the brain tries to synchronize with.

It's similar to how your stride may naturally sync with a song on your headphones as you walk down the street. In this case, your brain is doing the syncing and the result isn't a peppier step but a mental or emotional state that your brain associates with sleep.

The takeaway: If getting a solid night of sleep sounds good to you, perhaps one of these ideas will resonate. Experiment with silence and pink noise, and sync your brain with potentially sleep-inducing beats. Listen to your body — you may be surprised by what you hear.

How Your Sense of Smell Impacts Sleep

It's rare that someone says their neighbor's garlicky pot roast kept them up all night, or that they can't relax without a sprig of rosemary on their nightstand. Still, the nose and its olfactory receptors can impact sleep.

Here are two ways to incorporate the power of smell into your healthy sleep habits:

Try Aromatherapy

Therapeutic qualities of some smells have less to do with their universal power over the human brain and more to do with our own socialization.

For example, take the smell of your average coffee brew.

“Our brains learn to associate certain odors with wakefulness," explains Dr. Rosenberg. "In addition to coffee, the smell of peppermint and lemon seem to be alerting."

Smells thought to be relaxing – vanilla, rose and cucumber, for example – may owe their soothing reputation to the activities with which they are associated: massages and candlelit baths.

And then there's lavender. It's the scent with the greatest effect on improving sleep problems, such as insomnia, according to a 2021 meta-analysis of 34 studies on the use of aromatherapy for sleep. Lavender, the scent most often used in aromatherapy studies, reportedly makes your body feel heavy and provides a sense of stability.

To incorporate scent into your sleep, try misting your pillows and sheets with Sleep Number® essential oils.

Add Houseplants in Your Bedroom

Potted plants can do more than beautify the bedroom.

“Plants are a perfect partner with humans," explains Dr. Dasgupta. “We breathe oxygen – we need it for every cell in our body to make food. And we breathe out carbon dioxide, and you don't want that building up."

Plants, he points out, do the opposite; they require carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. In addition to filtering pollutants, plants naturally give off a little humidity, which can help prevent the nose and throat from becoming uncomfortably dry during the night.

A word of caution. Adding plants to the bedroom can backfire if they irritate the upper respiratory tract.

“You always have to be careful what you pick," says Dr. Dasgupta.

“Unfortunately people with asthma have their asthma flare up at night," he says, and certain smells can cause swelling in the nasal passage. “And what do you do when that gets swollen? You start breathing through your mouth, you're going to be snoring," which can lead to poor sleep for everyone.

The takeaway: If you're cleaning up your sleep hygiene, or rethinking your bedtime ritual, consider your nose. Your sense of smell may not be the most obviously sleep-related sense, but when appropriately harnessed, it can help you get to sleep and stay there.

How Your Sense of Touch Impacts Sleep

Your sense of touch can make it nearly impossible to focus on anything besides discomfort when you're too cold, too hot, itchy or in pain.

Sleep is no exception. If your sensory receptors detect anything they don't like, forget about banking a good night's rest.

Here's how to get a handle on your tactile comfort:

Select Soft Goods

When it comes to mattresses and bedding, there's no standard prescription for comfort.

“What is comfortable for one person may be uncomfortable for another," says Dr. Muehlbach.

If you're shopping for a new mattress, he recommends testing a range of models by lying on them in a variety of sleeping positions. At a Sleep Number® store, exclusive IndividualFit® 3D imaging technology lets you see and feel the pressure points melt away as you find your ideal level of comfort and support — your Sleep Number® setting —which can go far in helping you find the right mattress for you.

Finding the right sheets may take some experimenting, too. Those who chill easily may sleep soundly wrapped in fabrics like fleece or rayon. However, hot sleepers — those who kick off the covers around 3 a.m. — should stay away from synthetic fabrics, as well as satin and silk, which are soft but can trap body heat.

“Materials that are breathable can prevent too much heat from building up during sleep," says Muehlbach. Natural fiber blends may be your best bets (try breathable Lyocell Ultra sheets or temperature balancing True Temp™ sheets from Sleep Number®).

The same rule applies to sleepwear. Reserve your favorite fleece sweatpants for the couch and change into lightweight cotton pajamas before bed.

Co-sleep With Caution

The touch of a loved one can make us feel content and secure. But eight hours of another person's limbs, breath and body heat may lead to sensory overload.

What often starts as a cozy cuddle session with your partner, pet or kid can morph into a semi-conscious battle for bed space and blankets that leaves you feeling tired and resentful the next morning.

“A bed partner, child or pet sleeping in your bed may be a comfort to you. However, whenever they make a change in position, it is likely to disrupt your sleep," says Dr. Muehlbach.

If you're drowsy throughout the day, try sleeping sans Fido and Fluffy. If your partner is to blame, consider a Sleep Number® smart bed. It adjusts on each side to your ideal firmness and support — your Sleep Number® setting — so you toss and turn less and sleep more comfortably together.

Get on a Roll

Think about how you feel after an hour-long, full-body massage. You're calm and relaxed. Perhaps you dozed a little on the massage table. This probably has as much to do with massage therapy's effects on your nervous system as the calming atmosphere of a candlelit spa.

Among non-pharmacological sleep interventions for women at risk of postpartum depression, a systematic review and meta-analysis found massage and exercise had the biggest impact on maternal sleep quality.

Nightly massages may not fit into your lifestyle or budget, but self-massage with the help of a foam roller can provide some of the same benefits. Check out these foam roller exercises from the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

The takeaway: If sleep eludes you, you may be out of touch (pun intended) with this crucial sense. Before waging another nocturnal battle between your sensory receptors and all that is tactile, check your bedding and bedfellows. Then roll yourself into tranquility — it may help you roll out of bed feeling more refreshed.

How Your Sense of Taste Impacts Sleep

Last but not least, what you eat and drink throughout the day can impact the quality and quantity of our sleep. The reverse is also true. How well you sleep impacts the quality and quantity of what you eat.

When it comes to the sense of taste, the flavors we crave can also be indicators of other health issues and whether or not we're banking enough quality Zzzs.

If your junk food cravings seem out of control, you may be sleep-deprived. In an ethnically diverse study of 500 women, researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center found that those who reported not sleeping well tended to overeat and consume a low-quality diet.

Pick the Right Light Snack

Many doctors and sleep experts say that a light snack an hour or so before bed is generally okay. However, if your taste buds are demanding cupcakes and ice cream in the wee hours of the night, that could indicate a bigger issue.

“If you're wanting to taste something sugary before you go to bed, that's a really bad sign because that means your blood sugar levels are very upset, either rising or falling quickly. And when they fall, you crave more sugar," explains Mark Burhenne, DDS, author of "The 8-Hour Sleep Paradox" and the blog Ask the Dentist.

Try to break the habit: Indulging will only encourage the sleep-sabotaging cycle.

“You're not going to sleep well because your blood sugar levels will continue to do the same thing in the middle of the night," says Burhenne.

He recommends reigning in sugar cravings by reducing the amount of refined carbohydrates in your diet and incorporating more natural foods with high fat content.

While Burhenne recommends eating light protein before sleep to help curb those sugar cravings — foods like turkey rolls or walnuts. Sleep Number® experts say protein takes more effort to digest and may not be the best option if the issue is sleep and hunger as opposed to sugar cravings. Don't go to bed hungry. Have a light snack if needed.

In that case, oatmeal cookies, a bowl of cereal or toast are good options.

Save Caffeine and Cocktails for Daylight

Cabernet and cappuccinos may appeal to your taste buds at all hours, but it's best to allow a substantial caffeine and alcohol-free window before bed.

Less obvious caffeinated culprits like soda, chocolate and even some coffee-flavored ice creams can impact sleep. Sensitivity to caffeine varies, but an analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found repeated studies suggest tasting your last caffeinated treat at least six hours before bedtime if you want to keep it from disrupting your sleep.

Depending on the rate of your metabolism, that glass of wine with dinner may also keep you up. The findings of one 2015 study conducted among college-age students linked pre-sleep drinking with brain activity associated with disturbed sleep.

Your last drink, depending on how quickly you metabolize alcohol, should be four to six hours before bed, says Burhenne.

“If you feel tipsy or you feel the effects of alcohol and you're trying to go to sleep, that's going to be a bad night's sleep," he says.

Instead of a hot buttered rum, try these warm non-alcoholic nightcaps before bed.

The takeaway: 
Our sense of taste and what we eat and drink needs to be an integrated part of sleep hygiene. Just like when we dim the lights and lower the thermostat before climbing into bed, we need to tell our taste buds goodnight too.

Like diet and exercise, quality sleep is essential for optimal wellbeing and performance. Because everyone's sleep needs are different, Sleep Number® smart beds sense your movements and automatically adjust firmness, comfort and support to keep you both sleeping comfortably. Find your Sleep Number® setting for your best possible night's sleep.


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