Unplug and Get a Good Night’s Sleep

I used to have a terrible time with insomnia. Used to — I have to knock on wood — don’t want to unleash the demons. I could get to sleep just fine, but would be wide awake a few hours later and could not get back to sleep. Was it stress? The full of the moon? The french vanilla ice cream I had for dessert? Could it be my electronic gadgets?  I was addicted, yes addicted, to my cell phone. At all times of day or night I was monitoring emails, going on Facebook or googling something. Just ask my family – they even did an intervention. I’m not completely saved, but I’m better. I also frequently used my laptop in the evening and, at least one night a week, watched  my favorite TV shows until way past my bedtime. All common behaviors, according to a poll just released by the National Sleep Foundation. Common behaviors that can rob you of valuable sleep.

The Foundation has been surveying American sleep habits since 1991. The 2011 Sleep in America® poll “finds pervasive use of communications technology in the hour before bed. It also finds that a significant number of Americans aren’t getting the sleep they say they need and are searching for ways to cope.”

Previous research has already shown a connection between technology and poor sleep. Whether you are on your cell phone, your iPad or your computer, playing video games or watching television in the hours before bedtime, you are exposing yourself to artificial light, which suppresses production of melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone made by a small gland in the middle of our brains. During the day the gland is basically idle. But as soon as the sun goes down, it begins to produce melatonin, which makes us feel less alert and ready for bed. When the sun rises, the amount of melatonin in your blood dips and you should feel more alert and ready to take on the day.

A new study suggests that exposure to artificial light before bedtime is bad for our health. “Our study shows that this exposure to indoor light has a strong suppressive effect on the hormone melatonin. This could, in turn, have effects on sleep quality and the body’s ability to regulate body temperature, blood pressure and glucose levels,” says researcher Joshua Gooley, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. His study is scheduled to be published in the March issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Natural daylight can also affect melatonin levels. The lack of it may cause Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in some people. My daughter Katharine, who has given me permission to talk about her, is one of those people. We’ve always thought of her as a night owl who could easily sleep until noon, especially during fall and winter. This year, at her doctor’s suggestion, she established a routine of going to bed around 9 pm and getting up around 5 am.

Her doctor explained that, in addition to decreased levels of melatonin, increased levels of the hormone cortisol have also been observed in people who suffer from chronic sleeplessness and depression. Cortisol is what gives us the energy to bound out of bed in the morning and helps keep us mentally alert. Levels usually peak in the early morning. If you continually stay up at night and sleep late in the morning, not only are you not getting “good” sleep, you throw off the body’s natural balance. “Early to bed and early to rise,” was just what Katharine needed to reset her  her cortisol levels. “The results were amazing,” she says. “Within two days, I felt a difference — I had more energy, could concentrate better and my memory improved.”

As for getting to sleep in the first place, I found these tips on Get Sleep, a web site developed by the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

  • maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule
  • avoiding caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and other chemicals that interfere with sleep
  • making your bedroom a comfortable sleep environment
  • establishing a calming pre-sleep routine
  • going to sleep when you’re truly tired
  • not watching the clock at night
  • using light to your advantage by exposing yourself to light during the day and limiting light exposure in the evening
  • not napping too close to your regular bedtime
  • eating and drinking enough—but not too much or too soon before bedtime
  • exercising regularly—but not too soon before bedtime

How did I solve my sleep problem? Two things made a huge difference. First and foremost, I recognized that stress was a major factor. Once I came to terms with the cause of my stress and took steps to alleviate it as much as possible, I started sleeping better. Also, after reading that you should sleep in a totally darkened room, I noticed (at three o’clock one morning) that my bedroom was aglow with LED lights. I started wearing a cute little sleep mask, which worked immediately.  As for cutting down on my use of technology at night — I try, sometimes.

How about you? Do you have trouble sleeping?