Sleep. We all need it, want it and when we’re not doing it very well, even crave it. When you don’t get enough sleep, you feel lousy – which is your body’s way of telling you that EVERYTHING has been negatively impacted, all your organ systems including your brain and heart. Poor or inadequate sleep takes a big bite out of how well you learn, how clearly you think, how well you age, how effectively you fend off illness, your mood, your weight and yes, even your sex drive. So, if you think sleeping like crap every now and then is no big deal, think again. Turns out, sleep deprivation is a proven risk factor for Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, heart attack/ failure, stroke, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and obesity. In simplest terms, the time to get your sleep act together is now.
But why is it that something that used to come so easily and naturally in your youth can seem more of a struggle with each passing year? What is it that can make sleep so maddeningly elusive? Well, there are lots of potential reasons, so many, in fact, that in April my latest book “Better Sleep, Better You,” (Little, Brown Spark, 2021) will hit the shelves and help you get to the bottom of what’s keeping you up at night – and how to fix it. To tide you over till then, let’s address one of the most common, and easily-resolved, sleep problems: your relationship with light and dark. Though it may be something you’ve never thought much about before, learning how to better manage your light and dark cycles will put you on the path to sleeping easier. Here’s where to start:
It’s about rhythm – and we’ve screwed ours up quite a bit.
For thousands of years, the predictable patterns of day and night have cued our circadian rhythms – the 24-hour cycles that keep our body’s master clock in synch.
That natural ebb and flow was forever altered by the invention of the incandescent light bulb. It delivered virtually limitless, on-demand light – and brought about a dramatic shift in our deeply ingrained, genetically-imprinted sleep patterns. With the flip of a switch we could now override nature and chose when to start and end the day. By enabling us to lengthen our days and shorten our nights with artificial light, the electric light bulb, for all its advantages, inadvertently made good sleep a lot harder to come by.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s ‘lights out’ at sunset. But if you’re serious about sleeping better, you’ll need to consider the ways too much light at the wrong time is messing up your nighttime mission.
Our body clocks are out of synch.
To sleep well, our bodies actually need darkness, to trigger the brain’s release of sleep-inducing hormones like melatonin. Too bad, that late into the night, many of us have got artificial lights blazing in every room! So, as the sun rises, we’re dragging ourselves out of bed, then jolting ourselves upright with caffeine and sugar to get through the day. Trouble is, all that out-of-synch living sabotages health, not only by interfering with the body’s natural nighttime renewal and repair processes but also by encouraging a reliance on unhealthy habits to try to counter daytime fatigue.
The road to a longer, healthier life? It’s paved with a return to a more natural, restful sleep rhythm.
Light, and when you get yours, matters.
Think of light exposure as being akin to a cup of coffee — not necessarily good or bad in and of itself, it just depends on when you have it. Like coffee, a dose of natural, morning light can give you a natural energy boost first thing, the result of light being sensed by your eye’s optic nerve, which helps trigger the release of wakefulness hormones, like cortisol.
But get a blast of artificial light at night, and your brain gets tricked into perking you up, right when you need to be winding down for bed – not unlike what happens when you have that cappuccino too late in the day. Consequently, your sleep cycle gets pushed later and later into the evening instead of being more closely synched with the setting of the sun. Your body gets tricked into thinking it needs less sleep than it really does; and both sleep quantity and quality suffer.
Know your light and dark disruptors.
As a species, we’ve gotten very good at believing we get to create our own rhythms but energy slumps, blood pressure spikes, hormonal imbalances, mood swings, decreased libido, increased anxiety and depression are just a few of the ways that nature, and our circadian rhythms, are telling us it’s time for a rethink.
So, where are most of us going off the rails? Typically, we fall out of synch because we consistently give our bodies the wrong cues. We commonly create disrupted sleep patterns by:
- paying more attention to the clocks on our phones than the clocks in our bodies
- eating the wrong foods at the wrong times (for example, eating a big meal close to bedtime)
- ingesting rhythm-altering substances (like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol)
- exercising at the wrong times (or not at all)
- being relentlessly stressed – and not spending enough time on de-tressing and relaxing
- not getting enough natural light during the day
- getting too much artificial light 24/7
- not having consistent daily bedtime and rising times
- over-sleeping on weekends in hopes of ‘catching up’ (note to self: you can’t stockpile sleep!)
- getting too little or poor sleep (shocker, we know)
- drenching ourselves in blue light at night.
Beware of light at night – though by day, it’s especially OK.
Any kind of light in the evening can suppress melatonin production, but at night, blue light – the stuff that’s beaming out of your screens and TVs, energy-efficient florescent lights in the kitchen and bathroom and reading lights in the living room – is the biggest offender. Blue light itself isn’t bad (the sun is a major source) but it goes back to the coffee analogy — you don’t want the stimulating effects at night. Even dim light can interfere with your circadian rhythm and melatonin production. Researchers have found light as little as 8 lux (about what a table lamp gives off) can affect that rhythm. So, while things like night-mode settings and blue-light blockers can be beneficial, bringing the brightness way down matters too. How else to tame the blue light at night? Here are 9 ways to do it:
- In the early evening, increase the warm light “night mode” setting on your smartphone, if it has one.
- As darkness falls, switch to “dark mode” or “night mode” on your desktop, laptop, and other electronics (though this won’t address blue light, just the overall brightness).
- Use blue-light filters on your television, smartphone, tablet, ebook reader, and other screens (usually just a thin overlay that sits on top of your screen).
- Try wearing a pair of blue light-blocking glasses as darkness falls to start downshifting your brain and encourage the release of drowsiness hormones/chemicals.
- Avoid screens and bright artificial lights two to three hours before bed. The best way to keep yourself accountable? Set an “electric sundown” alarm, which can either be automatic (some phones can be programmed to switch to dimmer, warmer light after a certain hour), or simply an alarm you set for yourself to remind you to start dimming the lights.
- In the bedroom, to help downshift your brain and body and prep it for sleep, opt for low wattage, soft-white, red or pink incandescent bulbs – instead of blue-light-beaming compact fluorescents, halogens, and LEDs (save them for the morning!). If you can’t change the bulbs, then opt for dark-colored lampshades to cast a warmer glow.
- In the bedroom, as bedtime approaches, instead of lamps, use a few (virtually blue light-free) battery-operated flameless candles on bedside tables for a low-light option that will ease your transition to lights out. Add a few in the bathroom too so you can visit the loo without fully waking yourself up in the middle of night.
- Use more intelligent lighting, such as ‘smart’ bulbs, which switch between warm, reddish light in the evening and cool, blue-hued tones during the day. They can also be programmed to progressively brighten in the morning and dim in the evening. Some of these lights can connect to apps to program your home’s lighting. Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home Hub both offer this option.
- Commit to getting more natural sunlight exposure throughout the day – and every day – which tempers how your body perceives the brightness of artificial light.
Here’s to getting back in sync and more restful nights ahead!