Are you having a late night affair with your computer, iPhone,or iPad then finding it hard to go to sleep when you finally tear yourself away?  Do you wake up feeling tired after a particularly long night-time screen session?  We all know that going to bed late and skimping on the sleep can make the next day a bear, but spending that late night time in front of an electronic screen can make things even worse.

What’s Light Got to Do With It?

Your computer screen emits a quality of light most closely matched by the light the sun produces around noon time.  In the middle of the day, the sun’s light has the greatest quantity of blue tones, stimulating you and keeping you awake.  This blue light effect is superb during the middle of the work day because inside light, outside light, and your circadian rhythm are congruent.  The high levels of blue light emitted by your computer screen aren’t necessarily bad at the beginning or end of your work day if the sun is still up when your computer time is over.  But, these blue light emissions are downright terrible if the sun has been down for a few hours and you are still eyeballs deep in your screen.  Why?  Because, as far as your brain is concerned that light still says it is high noon and no time for sleep!

Sound familiar?

When we are exposed to blue light, like the light from the  mid-day sun or the light from our electronic screens, we inhibit production of the sleep hormone melatonin.  Back in the day, when we were diurnal mammals living in a primitive world, this is system was perfect.  During daylight hours melatonin production is inhibited and we are awake and alert – hunting, gathering, building, mating, etc.   Remove the blue light stimulus with the setting sun and we all settle down and go to sleep for the night.

The problem is we are still those diurnal mammals.  But now, because of artificial lights, our bodies think the sun is up nearly 24 hours a day.  Our modern world filled with artificial blue light and we inhibit our body’s natural melatonin production long after the sun has set and when we should be fast asleep.  As a result of artificial light we stay up later, have poor quality sleep, and are generally running around sleep deprived.

Melatonin & Sleep

Everyone knows when they get enough sleep they just feel better.  But, when you don’t get enough everything seems more stressful.  You’re tired, hungry, cranky, forgetful, and maybe just a little bit crazy.

Melatonin helps to regulate your sleep/wake cycles by causing drowsiness and lowering the body temperature to send you into the first stage of sleep.  Continued melatonin production helps you stay asleep throughout the night.

Aside from making us sleepy, melatonin has another very important role as one of our body’s most powerful antioxidants.  This antioxidant activity plays a crucial role in the aging process and susceptibility to disease by preventing damage to your DNA.  In addition, melatonin regulates the function of the immune system keeping you from getting sick.

What Happens When We Don’t Get Enough Sleep (The Cascade Effect)

Just one night of no sleep or a few days of inadequate sleep (< 6 hours) raises cortisol (the stress hormone) levels.  This rise in cortisol causes the body to be less sensitive to insulin, making it more difficult to regulate blood sugar.  Your pancreas now has to work harder to produce more insulin to lower your blood sugar and the harder your pancreas has to work, the more likely you are to develop diabetes in your lifetime.  In addition, an increase in cortisol also promotes fat gain, especially around your midsection and vital organs, creating additional stress and further elevating your cortisol levels.

Elevated cortisol levels, in addition to excess light, disturbs sleep patterns.  A healthy cortisol production is highest in the morning to handle the stresses of the day and lowest at night, allowing us to go to sleep.  Sleep deprivation reverses this ebb and flow.  Low cortisol in the morning makes it nearly impossible to get out of bed and high cortisol at night keeps the mind racing when it is time to go to sleep.

Improving Sleep Quality

Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to difficulty losing weight, weight gain, and depression in addition to other serious conditions like diabetes.  So, what can we do to ensure we get the sleep that is necessary to keep us healthy, vibrant and energetic throughout the day and no longer slaves to the ever present alarm clock?  Well, when it comes to sleep, quality is as important as quantity.   Try these tips to help improve your quality of sleep:

  • Avoid caffeinated beverages after 3pm.  When you eat and sleep well there is no such thing as a 2:30 feeling, no matter what the 5 hour energy commercials say.
  • Avoid alcohol and/or eating a large meal within 3 hours of bedtime.  Both of these will disturb your sleep with fluctuating blood sugar.  Remember, your body is designed to repair during sleep, not digest!
  • Choose a bed time and stick to it.  Get your body into a rhythm of waking up and going to sleep at the same time each day. 8 – 10 hours of sleep is ideal.  I know an earlier bed time might cut into your social life, but so will cancer and diabetes.
  • Remove or block all light sources from your bedroom.  Even the smallest bit of light will inhibit melatonin production and prevent you from getting a complete night’s rest.  Invest in blackout curtains, turn your alarm clocks around, and turn your phone over (or better yet, ban it from the bedroom) so late night texts don’t stop your melatonin production in its tracks.
  • Reduce blue light exposure after sunset.  Blue light, the kind of light produced by your TV, computer screen, iPad and smart phone, suppresses melatonin production.  This suppression effect increases with light intensity and length of exposure. Try an electronic fast (no tv, no computer, no smart phone) for at least 30 minutes before bed.
  • If an electronic fast is simply not possible, reduce the amount to blue light emitted from your computer screen with F.Lux.  This FREE computer program automatically reduces your screen’s blue light emissions based on time of day.  An absolute must for anyone tethered to their screen late night.  Click here to get F.Lux!

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