Sleep well this winter
The days are getting darker and winter is creeping in. This encourages earlier bed times and difficulty getting up in the morning. We even know that the transition to increased darkness can cause feelings of depression and can even lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Is it possible to keep your ‘summer’ mood and not be affected by the darkness? Well, yes it is. To understand this we need to understand how our sleep cycles work:
Our days are made up of light and dark cycles, and we tend to sleep at night and be awake during the day. This isn’t just coincidence- light has a huge influence on our melatonin production. The hormone melatonin regulates when we sleep, and a lack of light during the day can alter how much melatonin is produced- tricking your body into thinking its sleep time before it actually is. This makes us feel tired and sluggish during the day and can encourage us to hit the sack a little too early. Similarly, too much light exposure (such as artificial light) in the evening can encourage sleep deprivation by reducing our melatonin levels and not letting our bodies get the sleepiness cues it needs. It is the ‘blue’ artificial light that seems to affect our melatonin production the most. This is the kind of light that is emitted from televisions, computer screens, tablets, smart phones and other devices with self luminous electronic displays. All this doesn’t just affect when we go to sleep, it affects the quality of our sleep.
Quality and timing of sleep significantly affect how we feel- this is because sleep is regulated by our internal body clock which also regulates other important systems such as when and how much certain hormones are released like serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone). If our daily routines become disrupted, all these systems become out of sync.
So how can we stop ourselves becoming sleepy, sluggish and sad? The first step is to take control of your own body clock. If you maintain a regular wake time, the biological clock will start syncing all its systems to it. That means hormones will be released which help you to feel awake/happy/sleepy/hungry/alert all at the right times. The more regulated your system becomes, the more healthy and refreshed you will feel. It is less important to keep a regular sleep time- your body will soon dictate to you when this needs to be if you concentrate on getting up at the same time every day.
Of course, if you continue to expose yourself to artificial light at the wrong time of day (evenings) then you can easily mess up the system again. There are a few things you can do to avoid this- do a little research on the internet and you will find that there are several apps, light bulbs, glasses and screens designed to reduce and get rid of any light you are exposed to that may have blue rays in it. This will encourage melatonin production in the evenings rather than suppressing it and help you stay in sync with your natural body clock.
Similarly, we don’t want to produce melatonin in the mornings when we want to feel alert and awake, but this can be difficult when we wake up in the dark. This is where artificial light becomes helpful. There are light boxes which you can purchase that are designed to suppress melatonin and improve the regulation of serotonin. The closer these lights are to real daylight the more likely you are to feel refreshed, alert and happy. It’s therefore very important to check the spec of any light box gadget you might want to purchase. Look out for the following:
-the Lightbox should be at least 10,000 LUX of illumination
-there should be evidence of successful peer reviewed clinical trials
-smaller is not always better- you want your eyes to be in the therapeutic range of the light.
Don’t be fooled by cheaper options if this spec isn’t provided.
Once you have a light box you only need to use it for about 15-20 minutes in the morning or if you are a shift worker, these lights can be incredibly useful for ‘tricking’ your body into thinking its morning at the beginning of your shift so that you can be awake and alert at unusual times of the day.
The most important thing to remember is- you do have control over these seemingly seasonal affects and small adjustments in our daily routine can make a significant difference. If you are still sleepy or struggling to sleep despite these things, then its time to contact a sleep professional as you may have a sleep disorder.
Sleep well sleepyheads!