When we think of sleep disorders and their causes, we tend to think of the internal problems that may be to blame. Hormonal changes, anxiety, and other illnesses can all disrupt sleep patterns and lead to a poor night’s rest. However, there are also some external factors that play their part too.
One doesn’t simply block out the outside world while going to sleep. There isn’t an off switch that shuts the world out and allows us to sleep – although many insomniacs and those dealing with sleep disorders often wish there was.
A better understanding of these external factors and their impact on the body allows for a better night’s sleep. This means a better understanding of the impact that multiple sources of external stimuli have. The best way to do this is to consider the different sense of the body and their triggers. Here we will look at the sight, hearing, touch and smell and the different factors at work in different environments.
External Factors vs. Internal Factors
Internal influences on sleep disorders are all the physical, hormonal and metabolic issues that may have an impact on our ability to sleep. Some people struggle to sleep on an empty stomach because of hunger pains or because of low blood sugar levels. This is why sleep hygiene specialists recommend a light, healthy snack of protein before bed.
Hormonal imbalances, particularly regarding cortisol and other stress-related hormones, stop us from falling into a deep, restful sleep. On that note, stress, anxiety and other mental health issues play a major role in insomnia and other sleep disorders.
External influences are different. They are the stimuli from the outside world that interact with the body and create a knock-on effect. This is why we refer at various senses when we talk about them.
These external factors may not seem like they would be as important for maintaining disorder and correcting sleep disorders. Surely the biggest issues are the mental and physical problems that directly affect the ability to sleep? This is not quite true. These external stimuli can be pretty strong and impactful.
(Source: Eric Berg)
Triggers of light and sound can break a state of drowsiness in an instant and wake us in the night. Also, these external factors have an influence on the internal factors. Negative sounds and bright lights can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and frustration that make it even harder to get to sleep.
On the flip side, hormonal changes can increase body temperature and reduce the ability to get comfortable in bed. There is a lot to consider on both sides, and we need to pay close attention to both the internal and external factors.
These senses constantly remain alerted to stimuli to wake the body if needed.
Any stimuli that have an impact on these sensory organs has to affect sleep patterns. They can either prolong the experience of trying to get to sleep in the first place or disrupt a pattern as we become alerted to changes.
It is all part of a survival instinct; we need to be alert to danger while we are vulnerable as we sleep. It is the same reason that hibernating animals have built-in survival mechanisms that wake them up in an emergency. We need to be able to hear the danger – the fire alarm, the intruders, the dog barking. Too much noise and audible stimuli can be detrimental.
Similarly, the ability to respond to light and visual stimuli is important for detecting other problems and waking up in natural light. Our DNA tells us to sleep when it gets dark, rest up, and wake up when the sun rises. It is an important aspect of any diurnal species.
The problem here is that there is often too much light to contend with for this to work. Also, our lifestyles and habits aren’t simple. There are as many night owls among us as early birds. Shift work, long hours and busy schedules create a range of timetables where not all of us are in bed at a “reasonable” hour.
This issue of light levels leads to the problems of visual environmental factors and sleep disorders.
When doctors talk about a circadian rhythm and the importance of melanin for a good night sleep, this isn’t just an important aspect of the internal factors of sleep deprivation. We need to remember that light plays a major role in these melanin levels.
The hormone is best regulated with periods of natural light during the day and complete darkness at night. This is easier said than done in many homes these days. The first problem is the amount of artificial light that still comes through the windows, even at what should be the darkest hour.
Street lights, security lights, and other illuminations mean that a regular suburban street is rarely plunged into complete darkness. This problem gets worse in densely urban areas with light from traffic and the neon of shop signs. People living in these areas are often surprised at how dark it gets at night when they visit the countryside. This idea of rural vs. urban living for a good night’s sleep is something we will revisit later on.
The other issue of light regards blue light. Blue light is the light emitted from the screens of our laptops, tablets, and phones. It may be pleasant during the day, but this artificial simulation of daylight can play havoc with melanin levels and confuse the brain. There is a conflict between the part that knows it is late and the part that thinks that it must be much earlier in the day than it is. The simple act of checking social media on a blue-lit smartphone for 10 minutes before bed can do a surprising amount of damage.
Sound levels and the impact of audible external factors on sleep patterns and disorders.
The other problem with a modern, urban landscape is that light is not the only thing emitted that can cause sleep problems. Modern towns and cities are noisy places. The convenience of a city that never sleeps, with 24-hour services and a night-time economy, is offset by a poor sleeping environment.
The monotonous tone of the traffic outside a window can be pleasant to those that like to fall asleep to noise. However, a siren, car horn or car alarm can jolt us awake pretty quickly. Then there is the noise of neighbors and other residents passing by. The closer we live to the city center, the louder and more disruptive this can be.
We can close the windows to the outside world, to a degree, but there are also different noises within the home. We often don’t realize how noisy an apartment or just the bedroom is until we stop and listen. Electrical devices emit a small amount of noise unless completely switched off at the main electricity supply.
A gentle whirring across the room could be a laptop on standby. Then there are all the other noises across the home with the fridge, plumbing and maybe even the air conditioning on a hot day. The problem here is that it is much harder to close the windows or shut off the air conditioning in hotter months.
Touch and the impact of external factors like temperature and comfort on sleep disorders.
This issue of temperature leads us to the sense of touch – the way that the body responds to stimuli through the skin. This is apparent in some ways. The temperature of the body and the presence of cool air on the skin is important for most sleepers. We need to maintain an optimal body temperature for sleep around 65 Fahrenheit or 18 Celsius. We will often struggle to fall asleep if it gets too high above this. The other issue of touch is the comfort of the bed. This means the pressure points and supports of the mattress, the quality of the pillow and sheets.
Scent and its role as an external factor in the development of sleep problems
Smell is a sense that we don’t always consider when it comes to sleep and sleeping patterns. We pay a lot of attention to the light levels and noise that may disrupt us, or distract us. We don’t always think about the impact that scent has. The use of scent is about more than just the ability to block out negative smells and replace them with positive ones. If external influences play a big part in the internal influences, it makes sense to try and manipulate the scents in a room to create this sense of well-being and relaxation.
Scents stimulate the limbic system of the body which not only helps to relax us but also brings up memories. This idea of a sense memory is important for general well-being as these moments can take us back to childhood memories and places of security.
More often than not, these sense memories occur via smell. It is one of the reasons that mown grass, freshly baked bread and musty books are all cited as such common favorite smells. A fresh, pleasing scent within a room – carried on that fresh air from the air conditioner – can help to relax the mind and put us at ease before sleep.
Urban vs Rural Living for the Best Night Sleep
These external stimuli and influences on sleep disorders will vary between locations. Urban residents tend to have a hard time getting to sleep because these external influences are more extreme. The light levels are stronger, the noise levels increase with the population and activity, and the temperature is often a degree or two higher in the city. This slight rise in temperature could make a difference in the summer, especially if residents didn’t open their windows to the noisy city outside. However, country living also adjusts all of those external stimuli mentioned above – most for the positive.
It isn’t rare for people to head out on a country retreat and get the best night sleep they ever had. Some will add this up to the relaxing experience of being away from home or work or having exhausted themselves in the fresh air of the countryside. Both influences will play a major role on the internal influences for a good night sleep. Other factors are at work here too.
Light levels decrease because there isn’t the light pollution or activity in such a sparsely populated area. The nearest neighbor could be half a mile away, as could the nearest street light. Most of the light that comes into the room is likely to be natural, which again helps with melanin levels.
The only major risk of artificial light is the blue light that comes on any screens in the room. Here, sleep hygiene experts encourage travelers to unplug from the world during their break. Noise levels are also lower with no night-time economy or dense population.
There could be more noise early in the morning, but this is when we should wake up anyway. The only drawback with these sensory influences for visitors could be the scents of the country. Locals may tolerate them or have that positive limbic connection.
We cannot overlook the importance of external stimuli on the development of sleep disorders.
External stimuli play an important role in the ability to get to sleep and the development of sleep disorders. There seems to be a lot of bad news here.
First of all, these factors are numerous regarding the sense affected and the impact on sleep. Light levels, noise levels, temperature, the feeling of the bed and even smells can all either help or hinder a sleep pattern. Secondly, this issue gets a worse if you live in an urban area where the stimuli are more extreme, frequent or simply harder to ignore. Finally, the rise of shift work, 24-culture and a dependency on tablets isn’t helping matters. However, those that identify negative and positive external factors can work to improve the situation, improve their ability to create a sleeping pattern and improve their overall health.