I Upgraded My Sheets and Started Sleeping Better Than I Have All Year—Here’s Why Doctors Say It Works

published Dec 10, 2020
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I love sleep. That is, I love everything about allowing my body to rest, from changing into cozy clothes to indulging in a nighttime ritual. But between the pandemic, the election, and so many fluctuations in my ever-changing freelance schedule this year, the way I sleep has taken a serious decline—and my overall mental health has been affected along with it. 

According to a report from the National Institutes of Health which highlighted a study early in the pandemic, many people have experienced “very high rates of clinically significant insomnia” along with more acute stress, anxiety, and depression in past months.

All of that lost sleep could have a major impact on overall health, especially given that the link between quality sleep and mental health is well-documented. According to Harvard’s Mental Health Letter, “chronic sleep problems affect 50 to 80 percent of patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10 percent to 18 percent of adults in the general U.S. population.” Lack of sleep can lead to or worsen psychiatric issues like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and ADHD. 

So a month ago, after struggling with sleepless nights  for the better part of a year, I came to the realization that something had to give. I decided to upgrade my sleep space, and my sleep life improved drastically. 

Credit: Amelia Lawrence/Apartment Therapy

How I upgraded my bedding

My first line of defense was upgrading my sheets: In my opinion, making your bed with quality sheets should be deemed an act of self-care, as well as a commitment to one’s overall well-being. 

Linen sheets are considered the top-of-the-line: They’re usually expensive because of the time and resources required to make them, but the flip side of the high price point is that they’re typically made to last much longer than your average cotton sheets. I was lucky that the ever-popular Parachute sent me a set of their linen sheets to try out, and used that as a sign to purchase a new duvet insert and pillows from the brand on my own dime. I also found a previously-loved Wayfair bed frame in great condition on Facebook Marketplace, and added a 3-inch memory foam Tempur-Pedic mattress topper to my current mattress to complete the deal. 

Of course, new bedding can quickly add up, and not everyone can (or even wants to) make that hefty of an investment all at once. If you’re looking to upgrade your sleep setup but don’t have the means to do it all at once, try upgrading piece by piece. It’s also worth thoroughly assessing your bedroom to see which pieces need to be upgraded, and which have a little more life in them. All-new everything might seem nice, but saving money and resources is always the best route to go.

Investing in your bed also makes sense given how much time you (theoretically) spend there: Though the number of hours of shut-eye you get each night may vary, the average person spends at least one-fourth of each 24-hour period in bed. To break down the relationship between sleep quality and the quality of what you’re sleeping on, Apartment Therapy talked to psychiatrists and psychologists who are well-respected sleep experts and have extensively researched the relationship between sleep and mental health.

Credit: Minette Hand

What is sleep quality?

First off, it’s important to understand what sleep quality is. “Sleep quality relates to how we sleep while asleep,” behavioral sleep medicine specialist, Lisa Medalie, PsyD, DBSM, tells Apartment Therapy. “The most common examples of poor sleep quality would be fragmented sleep, frequent brief awakenings (or microarousals), and higher than expected stage 1 sleep [or] lower than expected REM or stage 3 sleep.”

According to Medalie, there are a lot of different reasons why you could be experiencing poor sleep quality. There are medically-based sleep disorders like sleep apnea, as well as external factors like pain, side effects from medications you’re taking, and environmental disturbances (i.e. noise and light) that can be disrupting your sleep cycle. When these factors are ruled out but someone still feels “unrefreshed,” poor sleep quality may not actually be the reason. Instead, the person might be sleep-deprived, meaning they did not get enough sleep; or might be dealing with a change in mood like depression, or a nutrient deficiency of some kind. It can be helpful to reach out to your primary care physician if you suspect any of these issues are impacting your sleep.

If you’re able to avoid these disruptions and have no underlying health conditions that prevent you from achieving deep sleep, then you can look forward to good sleep. “‘Good’ sleep allows you to go through all four stages of sleep, from REM to stage 4 sleep, so you can feel rested,” Jenny C. Yip, PsyD., ABPP, tells Apartment Therapy. “When you are sleeping, you are emptying your brain of unnecessary information so that you can have the bandwidth for new information the next day.”

Why is sleep quality important? 

According to Dr. Medalie, insufficient sleep quality or quantity negatively impacts your mood, causing you to be more irritable. Not getting enough sleep also increases your risk factor for anxiety—and if you’re already prone to or dealing with anxiety, depression, or a similar issue, you might notice your symptoms worsen following sleep loss. It’s also generally more challenging to control thoughts and emotions with insufficient sleep, which leads to unsettling mood states. 

So in simpler terms, lack of sleep can make you feel like a more irritable, more high-strung person—two descriptions that accurately portray the majority of my personality prior to a month ago. 

Credit: Sylvie Li

How does stress affect sleep quality?

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a stressful year for everyone, leading to a rise in insomnia that Dr. Medalie has noticed others in the medical community calling “coronosomnia.” She adds that a host of factors—including decreased daytime structure and less access to hobbies, exercise, and coping strategies—have likely all coalesced into a nationwide sleep shortage. 

There’s also a biological reason for sleeplessness when you’re stressed. “When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, the main stress hormone,” clinical psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, tells Apartment Therapy. “This coincides with sugar, or glucose, entering the bloodstream, which elevates your blood pressure. Soon, your muscles are tensing up, your heart is pumping, and your brain is working overtime. This reaction is best known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, an innate survival mechanism our bodies activate when we’re in trouble.”

“Our bodies are simply hardwired to keep us awake when we’re stressed,” Dr. Breus notes. “At that point, the body starts to get used to higher cortisol levels. This not only continues to get in the way of getting quality sleep, but can lead to more serious health issues, including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and depression,” he adds.

How does bedding contribute to good sleep?

“The key to high-quality sleep is to be in a state of comfort,” says Dr. Yip. “Since high-quality bedding provides more comfort, it translates to getting more quality sleep.” Sleeping—and rather, getting quality sleep—is an act of self-care that she encourages patients to indulge in as much as they can. She notes that anytime you’re able to focus on self-care, you are signaling to yourself that you matter. You’re prioritizing your well-being, which directly influences your mental health. 

And Dr. Breus believes that sheets specifically can make or break a quality sleep experience. “What touches our skin appears to have a significant effect on our sleep experience,” he says. “The single biggest factor here is temperature [because] sleep follows our core body temperature rhythm. As [the] temperature goes up, we are alert, [and] as it lowers, we get sleepy. So what we surround ourselves with during sleep is a big deal.” 

When you’re thinking about investing in different bedding, there are a few things Breus urges his patients to keep in mind. He recommends looking for natural, breathable fibers like wool, down, cotton, linen and silk (though watch out for allergies with down) and make sure they feel soft and comfortable for your body. You should also be washing or changing out your bedding once a week—including your duvet—especially if animals sleep in your bed.

Of course, there’s also the matter of price. While it can certainly be helpful to invest in things that improve your mental and physical well-being, Dr. Yip notes that financial health is just as important. “If you’re spending money within reasonable limits on yourself, then you’re also telling yourself that you matter,” she says. “However, if you’re spending money that you don’t have, that’s going to increase your anxiety, [and therefore, lessen your sleep quality].” 

While investing in a healthy sleep situation can have a positive effect on your mental health, you don’t necessarily need to spend a ton of money to see the effects. Buying the same sheets you already own can feel like an indulgent act of self-care, and will allow you to cycle through your sets (and wash your sheets!) every week. Whether you upgrade for a luxe set or dream on a budget, you’ll be well on your way to better sleep quality… and more restful sleep.