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Lifestyle & Life Moments

Green Dreams: How Biophilic Design Can Improve Your Sleep

A man and a woman holding hands with a young boy in a green filled bedroom.
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Ever notice how you sleep like a baby when you go camping? There’s something about being immersed in nature—the scent of the trees, the rustling of the leaves, the soothing blue color of the sky at dusk—that lulls us into a deep slumber.

For many of us, sleeping in the great outdoors only happens a couple of nights a year, if at all. But the good news is that you can replicate the calming effect of nature right inside your bedroom through a concept called biophilic design. This design style works to rebuild our innate connection with nature even when we’re indoors.

Placing a plant on your nightstand is one way to channel the beauty and sleep-promoting power of Mother Nature into your bedroom, but depending on your style, space, and proclivity for tending to plants, that’s just the beginning. Here’s what design principles and science say about biophilic design for sleep, with creative ways to bring a sense of the outdoors into your bedroom.

How Nature and Biophilic Design Benefit Well-Being

The benefits biophilic design can bring to our well-being are primarily rooted in the benefits of nature itself on well-being. It’s been well-documented that spending time outdoors helps both our physical and mental health. According to research analyzed by the American Psychological Association, spending time outdoors can boost working memory, improve cognitive functioning, boost happiness, foster a sense of purpose in life, and reduce stress, among other measurable benefits. In fact, the benefits of nature are so important Norway has even enacted laws that give people the right to hike and experience the outdoors nearly anywhere—even on private property—which stems from a concept called friluftsliv, or “outdoor life.”

There are several possible explanations for the benefits nature provides to our well-being. According to research analyzed by UC Davis Health, being outdoors can relax our minds by allowing us to escape from the sensory overload we experience in modern life. It also gives us the opportunity to get active in the sunshine, which boosts vitamin D, reduces the stress hormone cortisol, eases muscle tension, and may lower rates of heart disease. Spending time in nature has also been linked to lower rates of depression and improved attention, although that correlation is complex and may involve other factors.

While biophilic design can bring some of the physical aspects and benefits of the outdoors inside (such as natural light and better air quality), connecting with nature in any way has been proven to benefit well-being. A 2019 systematic review found that exposure to natural scenery in videos, photos, and virtual reality provided stress relief, and simply looking at flowers, greenery, and wood indoors had a positive effect on the brain and nervous system.

Biophilic design is not limited to visuals. In a 2021 study, researchers found that when people worked in offices that had multisensory biophilic design, they experienced reduced stress, improved cognitive performance, and a perceived boost of productivity. What’s more, patients in hospital rooms with plants and flowers had lower levels of pain, fatigue, and anxiety, according to a 2009 randomized controlled trial.

What Is Biophilic Design?

The word biophilic comes from the word biophilia, which is the human urge to engage with other forms of life in nature. So, it makes sense that biophilic design is about so much more than just filling a space with plants. It’s about tapping into our connection with nature from within our indoor spaces, explains Bonnie Casamassima, a researcher and biophilic design consultant. “How can we pull that feeling we experience in nature into our everyday spaces? That’s exactly what biophilic design is,” she explains.

Casamassima emphasizes the feeling of nature, not just the aesthetics. While the end result of giving your bedroom a biophilic design might indeed be a gorgeous, lush space, the bigger goal is to find ways to give your body some of the same sensations as being outside.

“Plants are a big piece of it, but there’s more. With biophilic design, we’re trying to emulate the experience we have in nature within our built walls,” she explains. “We also want to look at engaging a sense of place and honoring our holistic connection to our living environment.”

The idea behind biophilic design is that fostering a connection to nature in our indoor spaces—where Americans spend approximately 90% of their time—could help us reap more of the benefits from the outdoors and overall create more appealing environments for us to work, dine, live, and rest. “We evolved or adapted in a natural environment, and that’s the habitat we’re designed to be part of,” explains Nicole Craanen, a biophilic design consultant and founder of Rooted in Nature. “With biophilic design, we are creating habitats that help people flourish.”

Biophilic Design Tips for the Bedroom

Don’t let the photos of bedrooms that look like greenhouses fool you into thinking biophilic design requires master-level gardening skills. A nature-inspired bedroom can actually be pretty simple and inexpensive. Here are some biophilic bedroom design tips from the experts.

Incorporate Living Plants

What better way to bring nature indoors than adding houseplants to your bedroom? While living plants are by no means a requirement for biophilic design, they can be a beautiful way to foster a connection with Mother Nature.

“Plants can make you calmer and help create a zen experience in the bedroom,” notes Hayley Steinkopf Bonafede, an interior plantscaper whose family has owned and operated Steinkopf Nursery, a nursery and garden center in Farmington Hills, Michigan, for four generations.

Place your plants in groups of three around your room to amp up the design factor. “Try having a large one and two medium plants or a large, medium, and small plant together. Aesthetically, groups of three look really good,” says Steinkopf Bonafede.

You can pot your plants in gorgeous vessels from home decor stores or antique shops to add another design element. Then, experiment with placing them in different locations in the room. “If you have built-in shelves, a pothos or philodendron would look really nice because the leaves would trail down,” says Steinkopf Bonafede. “You’ll want to wake up and see your plants right away, so make sure they’re in a position visible from your bed.”

Don’t have a green thumb? There are plenty of other ways to incorporate biophilic design into your bedroom—no watering or pruning required.

Embrace Artificial Plants

Biophilic design experts say that using artificial plants as bedroom decor can be almost as good as living plants for our well-being.

“While a living plant can help improve the air quality of our spaces, artificial plants have come a long way and offer some similar psychological and well-being benefits,” says Casamassima.

The key is to find ones that look as realistic as possible. You can also make faux plants look more like the real deal by draping greenery off shelves and styling them intentionally.

“Look at the pot you’re putting it in and allow that to be part of a tactile experience,” Casamassima says. “Does it have a terracotta feel to it, or is it a slick, smooth surface? Those are different levels for an opportunity in biophilic design.”

Pro tip: Dust the leaves of your artificial plants regularly and place them away from direct sunlight to keep them looking lively.

Stream Natural Sounds

Biophilic design can include sound, as well. Consider getting an ambient noise machine for your bedroom or streaming outdoorsy sounds from your phone or a smart home device, says Jennifer Walsh, a specialist in biophilic design and biophilia on human health, host of the Biophilic Solutions podcast, and author of “Walk Your Way Calm.

“You can stream ocean waves or a trickling stream. A lot of people also love the sound of a crackling fire, especially in the cooler months, which is rooted in how we evolved outdoors around fire pits,” she says.

Walsh also suggests tuning into the sound of birdsong in the morning. “Birdsong has this ability to relax us without thinking about it,” she says.

For even more natural audio, you could place a tabletop water fountain somewhere in your bedroom. Not only will it offer the soothing sound of a babbling brook, but it can also add an element of visual movement to your space.

Give Your Bedroom a View

Many of us dream of having a bedroom with big windows and a panoramic view of nature. But if that’s not in the cards, biophilic design suggests hanging landscape photos or paintings instead.

“If you have a beautiful photo or mural of anything in nature, looking at it for just 40 seconds will relax the brain,” said Walsh. Her statement is supported by several published studies, including a 2015 study in which students who spent 40 seconds looking at an image of a flowering meadow on the roof of a building experienced a “micro-break” in their brains that helped restore their attention and make fewer errors on a task.

Casamassima recommends displaying images of scenery with which you have a deep personal connection or that make you feel happy.

“Look at elements that invigorate your connection with nature. Maybe you love gardening as a hobby, so you look for art with gardens. Pulling that into our spaces helps establish that sense of place and connection,” she notes.

Splash the Walls With Earthy Colors

Repainting your bedroom walls creates another opportunity to add an element of biophilic design: color.

“Using color can be a really powerful design tool,” says Casamassima. “Our social conditioning around color is different from person to person, but in general, blues and greens can be really calming, and orange, yellows, and reds can be more energizing.”

Think about the prevailing hues in natural spaces that resonate with you. If you feel at peace near a beach or lake, painting your walls blue could mimic that calming feeling of being near water. Those who love the desert may feel more at home in a space splashed with oranges and yellows.

“You can take a photo of scenery and get colors matched at the paint store,” says Casamassima. “Then, get samples and see what they look like in your space with your lighting.”

Layer Textures

Perhaps one of the natural sensations we lack most in our modern lives is the feeling of touching varied surfaces.

“We’re touching screens and glass surfaces all day,” says Casamassima. “Our bodies are really hungry for a sense of texture from nature.”

Feed this need through the biophilic design principle of introducing natural materials, surfaces, and textures into your space. That could mean live-edge wood furniture, chunky knit blankets woven from merino wool, a hand-braided jute rug at the foot of your bed, boho macrame wall hangings, or a rough stone vase, just to name a few ideas. Textural differences can extend to plants, too. A blend of different shapes and textures of plants helps make your surroundings feel more like an actual escape into the woods.

Design for Scent

Scent can also play a role in fostering a relationship with nature indoors and augmenting biophilic design. “Both pine and lavender scents can be very relaxing to people,” says Walsh. “These natural elements make such a big difference on the body.”

You can use a diffuser, essential oils, candles, or room sprays to lightly add a soothing, earthy aroma.

Get Lit

Lighting can set the mood of your bedroom throughout the day and help keep your circadian rhythm synced with the cycle of nature. This could come from bright, sunny windows, but artificial lighting options can provide similar biophilic benefits, too.

“Using an alarm clock that simulates the rising sun allows you to wake up with the same patterns as nature,” says Casamassima. “When our bodies are able to wake up in that natural state, we are more rested, alert, and productive.”

There are new high-tech lamps that mimic the characteristics of sunlight throughout the day, continuously adjusting the color temperature and brightness to align with nature. Sunset lamps can also be a fun, affordable way to add a biophilic design element to your bedroom. They use LED bulbs to cast a golden glow on a wall and bring the vibe of the sunset inside.

Which Plants Work Best in a Bedroom?

To figure out which plants would work best in your space, Steinkopf Bonafede says you should consider how much natural light your bedroom gets, then find a plant that would do well in that setting. Jade plants, aloe vera, sago palms, and hibiscus love bright, direct light, so they would thrive in a bedroom with a south-facing window.

“If you don’t have really great light in the bedroom or you have north-facing windows, opt for something [that can tolerate low light], like a Monstera or ZZ plant,” she says. “Snake plants can also tolerate low light, although they really flourish in high light.”

These plants can be large enough to fill out a corner for a statement-making living decor item. You can breathe life into the bedroom with small plants, too. “Succulents are great if you want something small—I have many cacti that are small on a side table,” says Steinkopf Bonafede. “String of pearls are also super cute and not too difficult to take care of.”

It can also be touching to add a plant that holds sentimental value to your bedroom. “I have a fern that was from my great-great grandmother that was given to my grandmother at her wedding shower in 1957, and my mom gifted me part of that fern at my shower in 2018,” says Steinkopf Bonafede. “When I see that fern, it means something to me.”

Make Biophilic Design Personal to You

There are near-infinite ways to bring biophilic design into your space. Whether you turn your bedroom into an oceanic oasis with a soothing blue color palette and the sounds of crashing waves, a jungle-inspired sanctuary filled with greenery and live plants, or simply add a few nature-derived decor items to your nightstand, the important thing is to tap into your individual relationship with nature.

If you’re into desert environments, play that up in your bedroom—you could add a meditative zen garden filled with sand atop your dresser, accent your room with living succulents in terracotta pots, enliven a corner with a trio of tall cacti in varying heights, and paint your walls a shade of orange that makes you think of warm, far-flung desertscapes.

Those who resonate with forest environments might stack decorative birch logs near the doorway, drape their bed in green and brown linens, and use peel-and-stick wallpaper to create an accent wall that feels like you’re surrounded by redwoods.

“Have that self-reflective experience to figure out how you’re honoring your sacred connection to nature and all living things, and let yourself have permission to make your bedroom look exactly how you want it to,” says Casamassima. “It’s your space—let it celebrate you and what you love.”

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