You can’t get through a wellness blog, a health protocol, or even your doctor’s orders without hearing the good advice to get more sleep and better sleep. Entire books have been written on “sleep hygiene,” playlists and apps tout sleep-inducing melodies and mantras. It seems we need all the help we can get, since sleep is when the body goes through its natural detoxification routines, when little bodies grow, and the day’s learning and memory are bolstered. But it feels like upgrading our sleep with best practices and new products is yet another task on our list while we’re trying to optimize our workouts and tune up our diets and learn how to meditate and raise kids and also be eco-conscious. This is how I waded through all the decisions while balancing all these plates in the air. My aim here is to offer you information and a spectrum of options that can help you make the best personal choice. Some of these suggestions are a guide to help you make informed big purchases in the future, or to make FREE and immediate changes when you go to sleep tonight. (I also don’t have the time to extrapolate on every detail of healthy sleep, so visit the embedded links to read and learn more about some of the topics I may bring up and skim over).
If you’ve never seen The Buyerarchy of Needs before, thank Sarah Lazarovic for this genius graphic that I try to use personally to help me decide on a course of action. If we are truly hoping to make an ecological impact with our lifestyles, it’s not just about ditching all the old stuff in favor of the newest, shiniest, cleanest, most Instagrammable luxury.
Details: King sized latex and wool futon from The Futon Shop + unfinished wood platform bed frame from The Futon Shop, treated with a DIY beeswax and olive oil wood finish. We opted for a king sized latex mattress topper from Sleep on Latex for some extra squish. Blackout curtains from Etsy. Artwork thrifted. Amazing World Market Rug someone LEFT ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD!
I’m not saying any of this to scare people or guilt them about the mattress they’re currently sleeping on, but when I was in the market for a new bed there were some nasty facts I learned about that I hadn’t even heard of before.
First, what most people are shocked to hear is that their conventional mattress by law has to be able to pass a flammability test, and since most mattresses are made with flammable synthetics, they’re chemically treated with flame retardants in order to be sold legally, and they aren’t required to disclose whether the mattresses are treated or what chemicals they’re treated with. These toxic chemicals can be carcinogenic, are dangerous for human health and the environment, and are especially dangerous for kids, so much so that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued warnings about these chemicals. These chemicals are released into the air with that “new mattress smell” and continue to off-gas over days, weeks, and sometimes years. Even if the smell has dissipated, oftentimes the particles are still present in the carpets or stagnant air of your home, and they’re inhaled while sleeping and breathing the air close to the mattress. There are a few options to avoid this health hazard. Make a switch to organic bedding or a natural fiber mattress. Wool has naturally flame-retardant properties and therefore doesn’t have to be chemically treated in order to pass flammability tests (latex can fit through this loop hole as well). Another trick is shopping for sleeping surfaces that aren’t classified as a “mattress,” like a futon cushion or a mattress topper. Oftentimes these are thick enough and comfortable enough to use on their own, and they’re a fraction of the price of a mattress.
A few years ago when I was in the market for a new master bed, I made a few specific choices with regard to the metals in my bed. Preliminary data suggests (along with common sense) that coils in our mattresses are essentially acting as radio antennas while we sleep. We know that our electronics emit waves that appear to be detrimental to our health, and these electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) are stronger and more potent the closer we are to the device or the wherever the signal is emitted from. There are even amazing products from companies like BellyArmor, who make blankets and clothing to protect pregnant bellies and babies from EMF, as well as boxers to address low sperm count in men, which is linked to EMF exposure. While you sleep on an inner-spring mattress, your wi-fi, your neighbor’s wi-fi, the neighborhood cell tower, and all the other electromagnetic signals hanging in the air are amplified under you. It’s something we’ve never really had to consider until today—that we are raising the first generation of humans to have been conceived, birthed, and raised in a constant wash of wi-fi and cell signals. This is one reason I chose a spring-free bed for my husband and myself, but also more importantly for my kids. (And plug in those electronics somewhere else, too!)
Lastly I’ll just say that you have a lot of options before shelling out for a brand new mattress—strategize. I’ve known people who decided to recycle their old mattress and used camp mats on the floor until they bought a new one (and even liked the extra SPACE they had so much that when they decided to buy beds, they each bought their own roll-out mattress that they can put away in the morning and then use their room so much more!). I’ve known people who have made their own wool mattress from salvaged materials, or cleaned up and rescued an older mattress from a loved one. Use that Buyerarchy of Needs!
Details: The bunkbed itself is thrifted and refurbished with Behr Premium Plus greenguard low VOC paint. The top bunk bedding is a latex mattress topper from The Futon Shop, and an organic cotton mattress cover from Sleep on Latex. The bottom bunk is a full Eco Pure certified organic latex and wool futon courtesy of The Futon Shop.
There are two things in particular I want to focus on with pillows: materials, and mechanics. First, this is the part of your bedding that you’re literally inhaling for 8 hours a day. I really don’t want to be inhaling chemical fumes and plastic particles from the polyester, polyurethane, and other synthetics in the majority of pillows on the market. Think about your pillows like your second-hand smoke bedfellows: the air you’re breathing while you sleep is only as clean as your pillows.
Katy Bowman—renowned biomechanist and personal inspiration in my own furniture-free movement-rich lifestyle—discusses in this perspective-shifting blog post that pillows are essentially an orthotic for our necks, and not in a good way. “Since we’ve been using pillows for so long, we become as mobile as the pillow allows, setting a pattern where it is required for support in the future.” The same way we may need to transition off heeled shoes into more minimal footwear, she suggests doing the same thing with our pillows.
One reason I was so down with Savvy Rest’s Kapok pillows is they’re adjustable! So not only are they made with incredible organic materials, they’re also part of my transition off pillows. The Kapok pillows aren’t flimsy and sewn completely shut like most pillows (which most people just throw away when they get so disgusting you can’t use them anymore), they’re made with a durable, organic, cotton fleece covering and zippered on the side. As you’d like to adjust your pillow, you can take as much of the organic kapok filling out as necessary (it comes with a LOT), and if you’re not going to use it to fill a different pillow (or make a new one), the filling is completely compostable. These pillows are an investment—but think about it literally being the last pillow you’ll ever have to buy. You’ll be washing the durable outer covering for many years without having to ditch your pillows entirely every time they need a cleaning up.
If you’re not in the market for brand new pillows, scroll back up to the Buyerarchy of Needs and think about creating your own version of a reusable, sustainable pillow to prevent waste and sleep smarter in the future. Take a pillowcase from an old set of sheets, sew a zipper into the open end. You can purchase the raw materials online for pretty much any organic filling you might like, or you give an intense wash to your old flimsy pillows to clean the filling, and then cut them open and re-use the filling inside. If they're a couple years old, the materials inside are done off-gassing, and just throwing them away is going to put those materials and fibers into the ground—let’s just use up that material and give it some extra life, yeah? Let’s remember that making healthy changes is about having a net positive effect on our health and the environment—we don’t just get to dump all our toxic crap in the ocean, buy all the new organic luxuries for ourselves, and then call it a day.
There are plenty of small businesses putting out amazing organic, sustainable, and ethical bedding. Even the big box stores like Target offer organic options (this is *voting with our dollars* at work!). When you’re already dropping a significant amount of money on a new mattress it can be hard to tack on the extra cash for new bedding—I get it. Instead of me giving you a list of luxury brands, let me just lay out some considerations and a spectrum of quality, and you can decide for yourself.
First, let’s lay out the spectrum. At the very bottom is going to be brand new sheets made with entirely synthetic materials and dyes. When you walk into Bed Bath & Beyond and you can SMELL new sheets, it’s because they’re made of plastics and coated in fabric protectors, starches, and fragrances. If you can avoid it, stay away from this category of polyester and any of the “poly—“ materials. These are made from crude oil and petroleum, off-gas chemicals while you sleep, harm the environment, and each time you wash them you’re washing plastic particles down the drain and into the ecosystem. A step up from that will be blends or what some companies call “New Rayons.” Rayon is technically a ‘natural’ fiber in that it’s made from wood pulp. Oftentimes bamboo sheets are rayon and bamboo is the just source of the wood pulp to make the rayon, but “bamboo” gives off better nature-y organic healthy vibes for marketing. When rayon is produced and bleached, it creates toxic chemical compounds, most notably dioxin, and is harmful to humans and the environment. Lyocell, Tencel, and Modal are also “New Rayons.” A step up from synthetics. (New materials and practices are coming out all the time, so look for brands who are being transparent about their sourcing and production—a good brand is going to have answers about all of this in the FAQ section of their website, and an ethical brands WANTS to be transparent about these things). Opting for the generic natural fibers like 100% cotton and wool is going to be a good middle of the road choice for most people. The reason this is just the middle of the spectrum and not the absolute best option is that cotton has some of the most severe environmental impacts in its production. It requires an incredible amount of water and pesticides to grow, and conventionally-produced cotton is still highly bleached and chemically-treated. At the top of the line, you’ll find natural fibers that are certified organic, certified fair-trade, and there are certifications like Oeko Tex and others that third-party verify that textiles are free of harmful chemicals. There are sometimes separate certifications and classifications for how the original raw materials were grown or produced, and how the finished textile has been chemically treated. It’s a lot to wade through, I know. You can read more about third party certifiers here.
While purchasing high quality organics is great, it’s not a fully eco-conscious choice to just toss your old polyester sheets in the trash and upgrade your bed. The way we dispose of or use these things up matters, too. If you have some polyester sheets in your house that are 6-12 months old, it’s likely those brand-spanking-new chemicals have off-gassed and they’re not a huge health hazard. If you’re definitely ready for an upgrade, make sure to responsibly dispose of them, donate them, or upcycle them. Because I’ve invested in these purchases, these items will be well cared for, repaired, upcycled, or gifted as years pass.
Details: Peacock print sheets, OEKO-TEX certified cotton available at Target. Organic jersey GOTS cotton sheets from The Company Store . Organic kapok pillows courtesy of Savvy Rest. All furniture second-hand.
Blue Light is the latest buzz phrase in the health and wellness world and has stretched into the mainstream. We know definitively that blue light—the spectrum emitted from our electronics—has a negative impact on our melatonin levels and sleep quality when we’re exposed to it after sundown, and we are just learning about the health implications of this disruption of our natural circadian rhythms. The blue light in sunlight is mixed with other spectrums of light, and is also appropriately synced with our wake/sleep patterns, so blue light in itself is not harmful, it’s the constant exposure outside of the natural rhythm that is problematic. A few easy changes to the lighting in your house and your sleeping spaces can mitigate these issues as well as help your body wind down for deeper sleep.
Switching out your reading lamp lightbulb from a traditional lightbulb to an amber lightbulb will give your room a cozy glow that is still easy to read by, doesn’t jar you awake or disrupt your melatonin, and makes bedtime with kids a lot easier! We have amber lightbulbs in every lamp in our home. They’re easy to find in any price point and at various levels of eco-consciousness—choose what works for you. Also consider using amber for night-lights and other places where you might need light in the middle of the light that won’t jar you awake and disrupt your ability to go back to sleep.
You can also mitigate the effects of blue light directly from the devices you use after dark. Most iPhones have a Night Shift setting which will automatically switch to an amber hue depending on the time of sundown where you live. You can also download apps for your computer like f.lux which will automatically do the same for your computer screen (you can even set up the time you normally wake up in the morning, and f.lux will pop up to tell you when it’s time to head to bed.) If your devices aren’t compatible with these programs, blue-blocker glasses are officially cool now.
Finally, using blackout curtains is another sure-fire way to improve your sleep quality if you live somewhere where artificial light from streetlights or light pollution pours into your windows at night, or if daytime light affects your kids’ ability to wind down at the end of the day. It’s helpful to have the room as dark as possible for your eyes, but your SKIN also has light receptors that react hormonally to light! Get your room dark and let your body fully power down for sleep.
There are so many more factors to consider when improving your sleep, and most of them don’t require you to make purchases at all! Here are a few additional considerations to keep you and your family sleeping soundly:
Stay hydrated. Nutritional Therapists recommend you consume half your body weight in ounces of water each day, with an upper limit of about 100oz. (140lb = 70oz)
Remineralize! Mineral deficiencies and imbalances, especially with regard to magnesium, can affect your body’s mental and physical relaxation. It’s always best to consult with a practitioner or nutritionist to determine which minerals you need, and how to best supplement to bring them back into balance. (Look for an NTP near you)
Get sunlight, especially early. When you let sunlight into your eyes and onto your skin, it signals the body to engage in the correct day/night hormonal exchanges necessary for a healthy and functional circadian rhythm. After the sun goes down, keep artificial and blue light to a minimum.
Cool the temperature down. Preliminary data and MOST anecdotal evidence suggests people sleep better and longer when the temperature is slightly colder than normal (since our body’s natural circadian rhythms expect this temperature drop after sundown).
Have a routine. A routine can make bedtime easier for the family, but also signal to the brain to start relaxing and prepare for sleep. When it’s built into a routine, it’s one less thing to think about.