What’s really keeping you awake
A good night’s sleep is becoming more and more elusive. While many issues including stress and overwork play a part, there are some definite biological factors driving our difficulties in getting quality shut-eye.
Because sleep deprivation has such a huge impact on all aspects of quality of life, I’m keen to share what I’ve recently learned about the impact of artificial light on your sleep cycle—in particular blue light from laptops, phone and electronic devices. Once you’re clued up on the health impact of disrupting your circadian rhythm, I’ll take you through some practical, achievable steps you can take to help restore deep rest for body and mind.
Where did the stars go?
It’s been a long time since we lived our days in keeping with sunrise and sunset. Since the advent of artificial lighting we spend our evenings illuminated by bright lights in our streets and homes. Now the ever-present electronic devices at our fingertips cast their own bright glow over the hours after dark.
While lighting has enabled us to do many things, the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light—known as light pollution—can have serious environmental and health consequences for humans and wildlife.
As someone who is sensitive to light (I wake as soon as a sliver of sun reaches around the curtain edges), I’ve always kept my bedroom dark. I prefer natural light to artificial, lamps to overhead lights, and rarely turn on a light when getting up in the night for the loo. I also try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to avoid the computer or phone after dinner.
More recently my love of darkness has been made more difficult: our street lamp has been upgraded to a “stadium-grade” bright light, which glares into our bedroom and confuses the magpies who now start their carols at 3am.
We now know that light at night throws our circadian rhythm, our body’s biological clock, out of balance. It does this by suppressing melatonin, the hormone which tells our body it’s time for sleep.
This could be why many people struggle to get up in the morning and then find they are too wired to sleep when they try to hit the sack earlier. Their biological clock is out of whack trapping them in a loop of exhaustion.
So if you think of yourself as a night owl, rather than one of those unsexy kookaburras, up and laughing at sunrise, it may be have more to do with your night-time exposure to lumens than an inbuilt trait of your personality.
Blue light is not for night
Light exposure affects not only our sleep, but our health, and may be contributing to the incidence of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Even dim light can interfere with melatonin levels. Blue light is particularly potent. Blue wavelengths are actually beneficial during daylight for boosting alertness and mood, but are disruptive to our natural winding down process at night.
According to Harvard University researchers, 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light suppressed melatonin twice as long as green light and shifted the subject’s biological clock by up to 3 hours. These shifts have been shown to increase blood sugar levels and reduce leptin, a hormone that gives you the full feeling after a meal, changes that are linked to a range of health issues such as diabetes and obesity. As well as impacting sleep quality, melatonin reduction is also being investigated in relation to cancer.
To make matters worse the environmentally friendly CFLS and LED lights we’ve all adopted for energy-efficiency emit more blue light than previous bulbs.
But it’s not just light bulbs in our homes that disrupt our sleep. A large amount of blue light is emitted from our mobile phones, laptops, computers and TVs. (The closer they are to your face and eyes the worse your exposure.)
The effects of blue light don’t stop as soon as you put down our phone or shut off your laptop for the night either. Exposure to blue light just before bed, lasts for several hours into sleep, causing you to take longer to fall asleep.
Studies have shown that the time spent in deep sleep is also compromised meaning you don’t get as much benefit from your sleep and wake up feeling tired. This can have long-term adverse effects on your productivity, motivation, mood, and health.
Top light tips for better sleep
Luckily you can address the impact of artificial light on your sleep cycle and reset your biological clock in a matter of days by making a few key changes to how you use lighting and technology.
(If you’re dubious this will work for you, check out the University of Colorado study into a group of campers who reset their melatonin levels after just one weekend away from the bright lights, causing levels to rise two hours earlier in the evening and increasing their shut-eye)
As well as a better night’s sleep, these changes will have the benefit of reducing your stress and freeing up more evening time for family and leisure.
- Shut down your screen devices at least one hour before bed, preferably two or three. Be an example to your kids and switch off small electronic screens after dinner and have the family do the same. Read books, talk or if you must use a screen watch a movie on the TV together instead. (TVs emit blue light but your exposure is reduced by sitting further away)
- Install blue light reducing software. If you are using a screen after dark, you can install f[lux] or similar software – this will gradually reduce blue light according to the time of day. Experts say this works better than the inbuilt night shift function on most devices.
- Buy blue-blocking LED and CFLs to use in your home, particularly in sleeping areas. You can find these online or in specialty lighting stores. Any light bulb that emits a yellowish glow, with a correlated colour temperature (CCT) of around 2700-2800 Kelvins, will help to reduce blue light.
- Red light for night. If you need to use a night light or are getting up for a nocturnal visit to the bathroom, invest in a few dim red light bulbs for late night use. Red light has the least effect on circadian rhythm and melatonin levels.
- Have a winding down routine to signal to your body it’s time for rest – reduce stimulation, have a warm drink or hot shower—and attune your sleep and wake times according to the season. Day-to-day, try to keep regular sleep and wake times as much as possible.
- Get out in the morning light. Ensure you get enough natural bright light in the daytime. Morning light is especially good for raising vitamin D levels. Daylight lifts your mood and alertness and helps you sleep better at night, so pop outside when you can if you work indoors.
- Consider wearing blue-blocking glasses for use in the evenings at home, or at work if you are on night shift. For safety reasons, you’ll need to get quality ones that only block the blue light, if you are using them for work.
- Black out your bedroom. If you are a problem sleeper (or have bright street lights outside your window!) install thick blinds or curtains that block UV and light. Use pelmets on curtain rails—or place a piece of wood or even black cardboard over the top of the curtain rail so light can’t get in. (Also useful for keeping heat in or out and saving energy.)
- Wear a quality face mask. Improve your sleep with a comfortable mask that wraps around the eyes and ears to cocoon you from light and noise. (The Sleep Master sleep mask is my absolute fave.)
Give these tips a try, and let me know how you go with getting a better nights sleep!