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Sleep Better Tonight: 6 Changes to Make to Your Dorm Room

Give these tips a try to make your room a more restful place, and to help you sleep more soundly. You can thank us in the morning.

You’re wiped out after a long day, and your eyes are closed even before you crash-land on the bed—but for some reason, you can’t fall asleep. Could stress, caffeine, or a late-night spicy taco be to blame? Maybe, but you also might want to consider the state of your bedroom. Yes, the place where you sleep might be keeping you awake.

Before reading about how to make your dorm room more sleep-friendly, take a moment to acknowledge the power of a solid eight-hour snooze. Sleep is no longer considered a luxury, and skating by on a few hours is no longer something to brag about. Studies show that students—all people, actually—who are sleep deprived have lower grades and a higher risk for mood disorders. Plus they don’t look that great, either.

Here are some relatively simple, science-backed ways to improve your sleeping area that can ease the way when you hit the hay. Expect your waking hours to reap the benefits, too.

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1. Dust, wash, repeat

dust under the bedSorry to gross you out, but your skin flakes are all over the place, especially on your sheets, pillowcases, and rug. Humans shed one to three pounds of skin a year. Dust mites feast on skin flakes. Then the mites excrete lots of poo that many people are allergic to.

Voilà! Stuffy nose, watery eyes, sneezing, worsening asthma. To keep these critters at bay, use a damp cloth to wipe down surfaces—desks, floors (including under your bed and your closet), bookshelves—on a regular basis. Dust busting will help, too.

Bedding, which can harbor not only dust mites but also bacteria, sweat, and fungus, should be washed at least once every two weeks in hot water, and more often if you’ve been sick.

There’s also that intangible ahhhh factor from the feeling of crisp, clean, nice-smelling sheets. More than three-quarters of people polled by the National Sleep Foundation said they looked forward to going to bed when their sheets have a fresh scent; roughly the same number said they get a more comfortable night’s sleep on sheets that are freshly laundered.

2. Declutter your room

A messy bedroom can lead to a poor night’s sleep and increased anxiety, according to a study from St. Lawrence University. You know those nights when you flop into bed, too tired to put away that pile of laundry or to straighten up your desk? Then you feel like you’re tossing and turning for hours? You’re not dreaming that up. Researchers have found that people who have more clutter filling the open space in their bedrooms take longer to fall asleep than those with neat and tidy rooms—leading to increased fatigue and making it less likely that they’ll clean up the mess the following day.

The clutter study, presented at Sleep 2015, the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, also made the point that disturbed sleep and next-day sleepiness can increase stress and depression and slow down thinking.

According to sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD, “When you walk into a room, what your eye sees can actually determine whether or not you’re going to have an easy time falling asleep.” In fact, the very first thing Breus advises patients with sleep complaints: Clean up your bedroom.

Of course it’s easy to accumulate clutter, especially if your dorm room is small. One second you have it looking perfect; the next you can hardly see the floor. If you think of clutter as visual noise, you’ll get a sense of how it can interfere with restfulness.

So take a few minutes to hang up your clothes, empty the trash, or straighten up your desk and bookshelves. Your brain will thank you when it’s refreshed and recharged.

3. Dim the lights

dimmable bedside lampDarkness is essential for a good night’s sleep, according to leading sleep scientists. Melatonin, your body’s sleep hormone, is released by the pineal gland as your environment darkens. Since bright overhead lights don’t set the tone for settling down for the night, shut off your phone and laptop and turn off any overhead lights during the hour preceding bedtime.

Get yourself a table lamp with a three-way dimmer. As evening approaches, use the lamp on its lowest setting and kill the overhead. As decorator Lyn Peterson says, rather poetically, “A lamp is a must. Like a lantern in the window, that soft, intimate light creates a space within a space and offers a gentle way to feel relaxed and wind down.”

Power napping tips

4. Make sure your mattress and pillows are up to their job

You wouldn’t attempt downhill skiing or rock climbing without the right gear. Yet, despite the fact that we spend about a third of our life sleeping (or trying to sleep), we often try to do it without the right equipment—meaning our mattresses and pillows.

In a 2011 poll, the National Sleep Foundation found that 92 percent of people say a comfortable mattress is important to a good night’s sleep. And it’s no secret that the beds that colleges provide often come with cheap, uncomfy bedding. If you aren’t able to splurge on a new mattress, there are plenty of mattress pads, for an extra layer of softness, available at a wide variety of price points, styles, and feels.

When it comes to good sleep, your pillow is almost as important as your mattress, according to sleep doctor Michael Breus. There’s no one-size-fits-all. The best pillow for you is one that feels comfortable to rest your head on and that supports your head, neck, and shoulders. That said, here are a few guidelines:

First, take the pillowcase off your pillow. Is it stained? Is it torn? Does it smell? These are all signs of a pillow that needs replacing. Pillows collect the same mildew, mold, fungus, and dust mites (plus their poop) that your other bedding does. Over time, as much as half the weight of a pillow may be attributed to these unwelcome guests! This situation can trigger allergies and interfere with breathing during sleep.

If your pillow passes the sight and smell test, then do the fold test.
Fold your pillow in half. If it doesn’t then spring back to its original shape, that’s a sign of a dead pillow. (With natural-fill pillows, you can do this test over your arm. Does your pillow drape and hang down over your extended arm? If so, it has exhausted its time in your world.)

Your sleeping style is also a factor.

Side sleepers may need a firmer pillow and a pillow on the thicker side. Look for one that’s as thick as the distance between your ear and outside shoulder, and lofty enough to fill the gap between your neck and the mattress.

Stomach sleepers may need a soft pillow—or no pillow at all—underneath the head to make it easier on the back. A pillow under your stomach and pelvis may also help prevent back pain.

Back sleepers should look for a pillow that has just enough loft to hold the head in alignment with the spine. You shouldn’t have to crane your head forward or allow it to drop back. A medium-firm density is best for this sleep position.

5. Cool it

a fan for cooler sleeping
Cozy is good … but if it’s getting hot in here, you could have trouble falling asleep. Generally speaking, a warmer body is a more awake body, while a cooler body is a sleepier one. For most people, the sweet spot is somewhere around 65° F (a range of 60–67° F is often cited by experts).

In fact, an inability to “thermo-regulate”—basically, when the body isn’t great at releasing heat—is associated with insomnia. Your brain loves the cold, which is why it feels so nice to put your head down on a cool pillow. So crack a window and let some fresh air in when you turn down the lights, especially if your heater seems to be working overtime.

Just keep in mind that while cool is good, freezing is not. If you’re shivering, you won’t sleep deeply.

6. And … make your bed!

Surprised? A neatly made bed can have a positive impact on how well you sleep. A National Sleep Foundation survey found that 7 out of 10 people said they made their bed every day. Those diligent bed-makers were 19 percent more likely to get a good night’s sleep on most days.

Now, don’t you feel a little sleepy?

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