How to use furnishings to pillow fight insomnia in the bedroom
Guy Meadows says break the rules to combat interiors assisted insomnia
I've just been measured up for a new pillow. Once you get used to the concept, it's no odder than being measured for a pair of shoes. Basically, you stand with your back to a machine with your arms crossed, each hand resting on the opposite shoulder (this made me feel a bit like I was getting measured for a coffin). The machine measures the distance between your shoulder and your head, and calculates the size of pillow that will fit you best.
The modestly named Simplex-Genius Pillow Measuring System was invented by a British osteopath, Kulwinder Bajwa, who noticed that a lot of his clients had misaligned spines due to using unsuitable pillows. Ideally, a pillow will keep your head in straight alignment - not propped up or tilting down - while you sleep.
The Simplex-genius system is based on a premise so obvious that you wonder why nobody had thought of it before. Different sized pillows suit different sized people. If it's the right size, you only need one (if you've always slept with two pillows, you've never had one that fits). On previous occasions, I have shopped for pillows by buying a double pack. One for each of us. But a pillow that fits one person may leave the other spending the whole night fluffing and plumping in despair. That's not going to benefit sleep in either half of the double bed.
Last year, all of Harvey Norman's stores in Ireland and Northern Ireland installed the system in their Sleep Studios (that's the part of the shop that sells beds, mattresses, pillows and the like). Harvey Norman's Sleep Studio has pillows in five different sizes. I'm a size 2. Once measured, you choose what type of pillow you prefer. The options are: fibre; memory foam; gel; and down & feather. I curled up in sleep position on one of their beds and tried their pillows, one at a time, like Goldilocks, until I found one that was just right. It was a gel pillow (€85) and it feels like you're resting your head on cool, damp, sand.
Because I loved the gel pillow so much, I assumed that I'd also love a gel mattress. First I tried the Pure Gel 23 mattress (€1,399 for a standard double). Then I tried the Pure Gel 25 (€1,539). I'm a warm sleeper and gel mattresses are great for temperature control so, on paper, this brand was perfect for me. In practice, not so much. In mattresses, as in other aspects of life, the thing you think you want and the thing you really want can be very different.
Then I tried the King Koil Mighty Original Double and didn't want to get off it. The price is a bit of a shocker, though. If I were to buy a King Koil Mighty Original for my super king-sized bed, it would set me back €2,279. That's a mighty expensive mattress.
"There are two things you should always spend your money on," says Tracy Hollian of Harvey Norman. "A good bed and a good pair of shoes. If you're not in one, you're in the other." That's coming from a woman who's in the business of selling mattresses, but I have to admit that she has a point.
I've read, and probably written, many an interiors article about the role of the bedroom as a sanctuary. Now, as I learn more about the relationship between interior design and sleep, that seems a pretty superficial approach. Ideally, the bedroom should be a sanctuary but, for people who associate it with sleepless nights, it can be a scary and threatening place. Not a sanctuary at all!
I met Dr Guy Meadows, Clinical Director of the Sleep School in the UK and an expert in insomnia, on a recent trip to Ikea in Dublin. He had come over to run clinics to help the co-workers solve their sleep issues, and to talk to the odd journalist. First, he outlined the basic rules of sleep hygiene: comfort, light, temperature, noise and air quality.
The bed should be comfortable, the room quiet and well ventilated, cool and dark. And don't check the time on your phone. "As humans, we are solar powered," he says. "That blast of light will really wake you up."
So that's the rule book. Then he throws it out. "In an attempt to help our insomniacs sleep, we are giving them a list of things to do. But all those rules are keeping them awake! Don't drink coffee! Don't drink alcohol! Eliminate light and noise! Never read in bed! Very soon, the bedroom becomes a place of stress and struggle, filled with technology that is meant to help you sleep. This is an environment where insomnia thrives."
If you find yourself desperately securing the edges of your black-out blind with gaffer tape to eliminate every scrap of light, you may have a problem that design can't fix.
"We are in the midst of an insomnia epidemic," Meadows explains. An estimated third of British adults suffer from chronic insomnia and we have to assume that the Irish aren't far behind. For many of these, the rituals that are intended to help them sleep are only making it worse.
"Insomnia is a vicious cycle. The more you try to get a good night's sleep, the harder it becomes, until you realise that it's 6am. You accept that you're awake and stop trying to fight it, and then you go heavily to sleep until the alarm wakes you at 7."
That point of acceptance is the starting point of Meadows' therapeutic process.
When it comes to insomnia, design can only help you so far. Sleep tech, which is beyond the scope of this article, can be helpful (it can also be a head wreck, so choose carefully). The right pillow and the right mattress can help too. If your sleeping partner likes to be enveloped in cosy snugness, but you prefer to stay cool at night, consider two single duvets of different weights.
Ikea's Källkrasse duvet (from €45 for a single) comes in 4 tog, 7.5 tog, and 13.5 options. An aloe vera (€8.50) or Spathiphyllum (€3 to €24) potted plant will clear the air. The Tretur block-out roller blind (€35) from Ikea can help eliminate the light.
But none of these are a solution to sleeplessness in themselves. Decorating your bedroom in a way you find relaxing is a really smart move. A cluttered untidy bedroom is the enemy of sleep. But, as with pillows, there's no one-size-fits-all solution.
See harveynorman.ie; ikea.com/ie; and thesleepschool.org