Our culture doesn’t place much value on sleep. How often have you thought that sleeping is a waste of time or heard someone utter “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”? If you don’t sleep well, you could be dead a lot sooner than you might like.
Not getting enough sleep has been found to increase increase rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even overall death rates. It’s that important.
In 1960, 2% of the population slept less than six hours, now 35% sleep less than six hours.
A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 43% of Americans between the ages of 13 and 64 say they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep. 60% say that they experience a sleep problem every night or almost every night. About two-thirds say their sleep needs are not being met during the course of the week. (1)
Why can’t we get to sleep? A big part of the problem is artificial light.
Circadian Rhythm Disruption
Most people are exposed to way too much artificial light at night and too little natural sunlight during the day. These unnatural patterns of light exposure that disrupt circadian rhythm lead to chronodisruption or Circadian Rhythm Disruption (CRD). CRD leads to many maladies of the brain including short-term memory loss, inability to concentrate, mood swings, irritability, and depression.
Most people know that the circadian rhythm affects sleep but they might not realize the wider implications. It governs more than sleep cycles — it also controls body temperature, hormone levels, and somewhere between 5-15% of gene expression.
We have cells in our retina that are there only as light receptors. These receptors have nothing to do with vision and even blind people have working receptors. They regulate the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleep cycle.
Artificial light exposure at night suppresses melatonin production which affects the quality and quantity of sleep. Melatonin suppression also increases the stress hormone cortisol and the hunger hormone gherlin which promotes overeating.
Normal room light can be a problem, but by far the biggest offender is the blue light emitted from computers, smartphones, TVs, and iPads. These give off light similar to sunlight, signaling to your brain that it’s daytime.
Is Your Job Affecting Your Sleep?
People who work shift work are particularly at risk for developing CRD-related problems. This comprises roughly 20% of population who work hours that are not the normal day shift.
Time zone changes really mess up circadian rhythm which is why jetlag is such a big problem for people who travel extensively, particularly for people who work in the airline industry.
The negative effects of circadian rhythm disruption have been widely studied by one industry — the airlines. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as you can imagine, is very concerned with how lack of sleep and jet lag (a form of CRD) affects pilots and other personnel and has released this very enlightening document — Circadian Rhythm Disruption and Flying. It warns pilots to watch out for the following symptoms of CRD:
- Difficulty concentrating, staying alert, or accomplishing mental tasks
- Increased negative moods and mood swings
- Apathy or loss of interest
- Impaired sensory perceptions
- Impaired decision making
- Slowed reaction time
- Tendency to avoid personal interactions
- Increased frequency and severity of piloting errors
You can see how acutely serious it would be for a pilot to suffer from this set of symptoms!
The FAA guide recommends that pilots get as much daylight exposure as possible and exercise to reset circadian rhythms.
How to Mimic Natural Light Cycles
It’s not reasonable to expect you to get up with the chickens and go to bed with the sun. Here are some ways to mimic natural light cycles without sacrificing your lifestyle.
In the Morning
Start your day right. It seems counterintuitive, but what you do in the morning will help you sleep at night. Increasing light exposure in the morning increases melatonin production at night.
Ideally, you should get outside early in the morning for a 15-30 minute walk without sunglasses. If this isn’t possible, get a light machine that emits 10,000 lux and use it in the morning. This will help reset your circadian rhythm. If you also have Seasonal Affective Disorder, this has been found to work better than prescribed drugs!
If you don’t have time to get light exposure in the morning, there’s a really innovative idea that’s popular in Europe but has just made its way here — Valkee Bright Light Ear Headset. Unlike SAD lamps, this ear headset is easily transportable and studies have shown you can get the same effects as using a light machine in a fraction of the time. This device was developed in Finland, where people have serious problems with lack of sunlight.
In the Evening
Control your exposure to light at night. Start dimming down the lights in your home three hours before your bedtime.
Few of us would be willing to stop watching TV or using our computers in the evening. (What else is there to do?!) Here are a few solutions so you can still enjoy your electronics without sacrificing sleep. Download f.lux software to your computer. This free program automatically changes the quality and quantity of light of your computer screen to sync with the time of day.
Speaking of cool … grab a pair of Uvex Skyper orange tint glasses which have been proven to improve sleep and mood. Not only will they block the blue light coming from all your electronics, they’ll make you look uber-cool like Bono. ;-) At under ten bucks on Amazon, this is an easy and inexpensive solution.
Make your bedroom as dark as possible. Get blackout shades to keep out light, or wear a sleep mask.
Make sleep a priority. You can no longer shrug off your poor sleep habits as “just the way you are”. I always considered myself a night owl, but now I know there is no such thing — I’m actually chronodisrupted instead.
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