Often we think of sleep as a time when our senses all but shut off. It seems as if our resting mind becomes wrapped in a filter through which common sights, sounds and smells cannot pass. Only very intrusive stimulants such as the blaring of the alarm clock or a sudden flash of  bright light appear to penetrate the barrier and alert us.

Research is now showing us a very different picture of the resting brain. It seems that even as we sleep our minds continue to respond to stimulants from all of our senses regardless of whether they actually awaken us. By understanding how these subtle signals from each of our senses affects sleep we can achieve  truly sensational sleep.

robot sleep

Sight

When exploring the impact of light on sleep the most common place to look is eliminating obvious light sources. Multiple studies have shown that even small amounts of light (such as that from a glowing alarm clock) can interfere with sleep quality.  When trying to improve your sleep environment just remember, if it glows it goes.  Not being able to see the clock can be a benefit in its self. Checking the clock when your are having trouble sleeping can increase stress and make sleep even more elusive.

Ambient light is not the only way sight impacts sleep. There are indications that even brief exposure to light — even light that does not wake you up — can interfere with sleep. The flash of headlights, or the glow from the adjoining bathroom can signal your brain to move from deeper to lighter levels of sleep.

Light blocking shades or curtains can help cut the outside distractions. You may also need to work with your  family to help remove distractions introduced by the resident night owl.  If you are unable to get the lights down, consider a sleep mask.

Hearing

Just as subtle light sources can prevent deep sleep, noises that do not awaken can disturb slumber. Due to the noisy environments soldiers are often forced to try and rest in, the Department of Defense  has investigated this problem.  The DOD concluded that white noise played at about 40 decibels was useful for smoothing out the sonic background. Considering that a normal conversation rates between 60 and 70 decibels, little is much when it comes to night sounds.

Less formal studies from civilian dream warriors have reported good results with classical music and other soothing tunes. A maximum sleep strategy might be to combine both. Try low volume classical music on a loop. This could also be the basis for an anti-alarm clock. By putting your music on a timer and setting it stop when it is time to wake up, you might be able to ditch the buzzer.

Touch

The pinch of constrictive clothing, rough sheets or springs in the back can all interfere with sleep. Choose soft, loose fitting sleep attire — or none at all. Research on sleeping in your birthday suit indicates that sleeping nude may lead to more energy during the day.

When it comes to your mattress, be picky. A good mattress will be with you for between five and seven years. If you don’t feel comfortable testing the springs while in the sleep store, ask about the return policy. A thirty-day money back guarantee may be on offer. If you shop online, find out about return shipping fees before you check out.

While finding the perfect mattress is a highly subjective experience, Spine-Health.com suggests that those who suffer from back pain will do well to look for medium firmness. As for pillow picking, WebMD says size matters. If your pillow is the wrong size, you could end up putting a strain on your neck.

When it comes time to choose sheets and blankets you might want to think thin. Our bodies naturally cool down during sleep. Heavy blankets and thick sheets might keep your body from reaching the optimal temperature for rest.

Smell

Scents can trigger long forgotten memories or awaken new feelings. They can also play a surprising role in sleep.  The NY Times reported on a study that indicates pleasant smells during certain parts of the sleep cycle could significantly enhance retention of recently acquired facts.

Even if you are not looking for the brain boost, one of the methods used in study highlights an important scent fact. The study used bursts of scents delivered in intervals to keep the brain from tuning out fragrance. An aroma dispenser that changes fragrances or emits the same scent at intervals will help maximize fragrant effects.

Popular scents for rest include chamomile, bergamot or lavender. In the case of lavender, you might even consider dispensing with the dispenser and growing the real thing in your bedroom. The plant is hardy and perfectly content in smaller pots. The only drawback is the possibility of becoming so accustomed to the scent that it fades into the background.

Taste

Only about two or three percent of the population actually eat while sleeping. These people are suffering from a nocturnal sleep related eating disorder, or NS-RED for short. For the rest of us, the issue of sleep and food has to do more with what we eat prior to sleeping.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a glass of warm milk really might help you fall asleep. Dairy products such as milk and yogurt contain tryptophan, an amino acid that the body can convert into sleep inducing chemicals such as melatonin. For the lactose intolerant, try crackers and peanut butter. The combination of high carbohydrates and a small portion of  protein seems to be the key.

While not exactly food, nighttime vitamins may give your dreams a boost. Vitamin B6 has been linked with more vivid dreams and easier dream recall.

Try to avoid heavy meals prior to napping — unless you are a sumo wrestler. These famously fat athletes intentionally gorge themselves before napping to help pack on the pounds. Night time over indulgence has also been indited for inducing insomnia.

The Sixth Sense

When trying to maximize sleep, the most important sense may be your sixth sense: common sense. Be careful when performing your own sleep experiments. It may be tempting to rush results by attempting several fixes at once, but this only obscure the benefits of any particular change. If you are moving away from the alarm clock, keep it set for a few minutes after time to wake as a backup. Also, if your sleep problems go beyond the occasional restless night or groggy morning, start with a visit to the doctor before trying any home fix.