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Still chasing Zs? A neurobiologist shares the science of sound sleep

Set yourself up for a night of sweet dreams with Emma – The Sleep Company

Still chasing Zs? A neurobiologist shares the science of sound sleep

The sleep environment is critical to quality sleep. Photos: Emma – The Sleep Company

Set yourself up for a night of sweet dreams with Emma – The Sleep Company

For neurobiologist Dr Verena Senn, sleeping on the job isn’t a bad thing for her subjects. After all, the sleep expert studies what goes on for a good third of our lives – not only to investigate the processes our body undergoes during sleep, but also the conditions that grant quality sleep.

Dr Senn is the head of the sleep research team at Emma – The Sleep Company, and has been developing her research with the mattress makers to support the design engineering founded by Dr Dennis Schmoltzi and Manuel Mueller in 2013. Emma sold 1.5 million mattresses in 2020, and is one of Europe’s most-awarded mattress brands.

At the heart of why Emma does what it does is to make a positive impact on people's lives by enhancing their sleep. According to a 2019 Philips Global Sleep Survey, 62 per cent of adults reported a lack of quality sleep. Whether it’s the blue light from screens before bed, or more recently, the toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears that multiple factors can get in the way of us having a restorative night of rest.

This predicament has given rise to many sleep myths, but which of these are really backed by science? Dr Senn clears the air on these beliefs and shares what she feels are really vital to good sleep.


No, it may not be that cuppa after 3pm or that exercise session you squeezed in just before bed. Such advice may not guarantee a good night’s rest and the danger here, according to Dr Senn, is that people oversimplify tips and feel frustrated when sleep still eludes them.

Coffee, for example, works by having caffeine mimic adenosine – a chemical that tires the brain and hogs the receptors to prevent its effect. But because the effects vary greatly in individuals, this may have no impact for some, she shared.

And while high-intensity late-night exercise increases heart rate and endorphin levels, some studies show that the thermogenic effects of body temperatures lowering after exercise helps with inducing sleep.

According to Dr Senn, “prioritising sleep is the first and most important big lever for good sleep”.

To maintain sleep hygiene, she suggests sticking to a sleep schedule, avoiding alcohol and unnecessary medication that disrupts patterns, and investing in a high-quality mattress to build towards optimal rest.

The most significant bad sleep habit that needs to be broken, she said, is using a phone – or any light-emitting device for that matter – just before sleeping.

“The blue light emitted delays our body’s internal clock, suppressing the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Furthermore, the type of activity we perform on our device, such as social interaction, makes us feel awake,” she explained.

If you’re thinking about keeping your scrolling habits before bed and catching up on sleep debt on the weekends – bad news, it might not work as well as you think, and it comes at a cost. “Replenishing lost hours of sleep is possible only to a very limited extent and only on an acute basis,” said Dr Senn. “Studies show that we have more ‘deep sleep’ at night after sleep loss. However, if you constantly cut down on sleep, you’ll miss out on some of its other benefits.”


It turns out that ‘deep sleep’ is not the only important component of truly rejuvenating rest. Getting quality sleep encompasses all stages: Light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep.

“Sleep is composed of a series of sleep cycles during which the brain moves through four different sleep stages,” Dr Senn said. “It is important to keep in mind that sleep stages follow each other sequentially and in order to reach deeper sleep stages, we need to go through REM and lighter non-REM phases. A good night’s sleep thus usually requires an optimum balance of different sleep stages.”

So while deep sleep (or slow-wave sleep) is in charge of vital functions like strengthening of the immune system as well as repair and growth, making it the most restorative phase, the other phases have their purposes, too.

According to research from Emma – The Sleep Company, lighter sleep or the N2 sleep stage is proven to be important for memory processing, learning and automaton of movement sequences, which enables people like athletes to perform better during their training. REM sleep, most recognisable through eye movement in the sleeper, cuts off the noradrenaline stress chemical from the brain, and allows the amygdala and hippocampus – in charge of emotions and memory – to be reactivated, processing our experiences without anxiety.

“Any kind of environmental intrusion such as noise, too much light, extreme temperature or simply an uncomfortable mattress can be a reason for awakening and can disturb the natural sleep cycle progression independent of which sleep stage the interference occurs,” shared Dr Senn. “Thus, ensuring uninterrupted sleep through taking care of the sleep environment is very important.”


You’ve cooled the room, dimmed the lights and ditched the devices – what’s next? Dr Senn highlights one oft-neglected pillar to quality sleep.

“Although a mattress is only one component of the sleep environment, it can potentially be the most important one. Considering that we spend one-third of our lives lying on a mattress, investing in one that is supportive and comfortable should be the clear choice,” she said. “According to a study, sleeping on old mattresses impairs sleep quality and this effect is especially prominent in people with underlying sleep disturbances.”

The Emma Original Mattress was designed to address issues of poor support, movement transfer and pain relief. Sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress can trigger restlessness and delay phase transitions. “On a good mattress, spines and intervertebral disks are balanced. This is especially important for the intervertebral discs that lose liquid during the day from the load they carry,” stated Dr Senn. ”During the night, they soak up with liquid once again.”

German engineering and the neuroscientists at Emma combined their expertise to produce an innovative strategy for the multi-zonal mattress. The design calls for a cooling top layer that wicks away moisture while minimising transference and providing isolated bounce to maximise comfort.

Then, the core seven-zonal foam layer below provides smart support for comfortable sleep, with a distinct design that adapts to body pressure. The seven symmetrically arranged pocket variances provide ergonomic zones that grant support to targeted areas such as the head, shoulder, curve of your spine, pelvis, down to your leg and feet, as they redistribute pressure. A supportive point-elastic foam at the base provides that final counter-pressure for full lower back comfort.

With such extensive research backing its design, it’s no wonder the Emma Original Mattress has earned multiple awards in nearly all 30 countries it has a presence in. But why take its word for it – the mattress comes with a 100-night trial period, a period calculated to let our bodies adjust to a new sleeping surface.

Wake up from a better sleep with the Emma Original Mattress. Till Aug 12, get an extra 5 per cent discount on top of the 45 per cent discount when you purchase the mattress online. Simply add the code TODAYEIGHT when you check out. Terms and conditions apply.

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