Street lamps and security lights pierce the darkness outside our homes, cell phones and computers glow within the same rooms we try to rejuvenate our bodies and minds in.
Constant artificial illumination allows us to work and play well into the night. For many of us, night has become day. We work, travel, shop, exercise and socialize in hours that used to be reserved for relaxation and sleep. Time is a limited resource and to make full use of it, the night has been illuminated and occupied.
Millions of Canadians are suffering from lack of sleep due to various factors associated with the 24/7 society that we are building around us. Two of the huge factors being studied by sleep experts around the world, and common ones that apply to almost everyone living in our modern culture, include overuse of artificial light and increased electronic media use.
Making sense of one of the largest reasons for lack of sleep can help us banish the light and come back to healthier sleep patterns and healthier minds.
Loss of darkness
There are numerous studies now being performed that show the adverse effects of those who alter their day/night cycle. According to Dr David Crawford, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association, a group that campaigns against light pollution, the loss of darkness has created a number of health problems. As natural beings we have evolved with a day/night cycle and it is quite essential to good health.
Your circadian rhythm , or "body clock" is a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It's also known as your sleep/wake cycle. Circadian rhythms are not only for humans but apply to almost every living creatures. They are affected greatly by the amount of sunlight and temperature. When our body clock receives signals and clues that it isn't time to sleep by exposure to blue light from artificial sources it sends signals to not produce melatonin.
Role of Melatonin
Melatonin is released by the pineal gland and is responsible for the maintenance of the circadian rhythm and plays a huge role in hormone regulation. Melatonin is released when the light dissipates. Without the presence of darkness, melatonin cannot be released at sufficient levels.
Beyond sleep, research (over 6000 studies) shows that melatonin benefits are profound and far reaching. Known as the body’s most efficient free-radical scavenger with an impressive ability to control oxidative damage, melatonin has powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immune properties. These properties function as brain, heart, neurological, cognitive and cancer protection through the reduction of trauma from brain injury; preventing heart muscle damage; neuroprotection; increasing cognitive functioning; and offering cancer support while reducing the toxic effects of chemotherapy.
Protect your health
While some people may like to believe that they can train their bodies to not require as much sleep as they once did, this is not the case. Sleep is needed to regenerate certain parts of the body, especially the brain, so that it may continue to function optimally. After periods of extended wakefulness, or reduced sleep, neurons may begin to malfunction, visibly effecting a person's behaviour and going without adequate sleep carries with it both short- and long-term consequences.
In the short term, a lack of adequate sleep can affect judgment, mood, ability to learn and retain information, and may increase the risk of serious accidents and injury. In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even early mortality.
Get better sleep
With overconsumption of light and overproduction of information entering our brains, we must put effort into making our sleep as healing and rejuvenating as possible. I wish I could say that there was an easy fix to our sleep issues, however, some lifestyle changes are in order to really allow ourselves the deep rest that is needed.
1. Good sleep starts an hour before bedtime. One hour before hitting the pillow put away your screens and either dim your lights or light up candles. This will signal melatonin to be secreted and will put you on the pathway to a deeper rest.
2. The darker the better. Create as dark a space as possible in your sleeping quarters. It has been proven that even a soft glow from a night light, alarm clock or electronic device can disrupt your sleep. Use dark window coverings if you live in the city or in a well-lit area, kick your electronics out of your bedroom and if you use an alarm clock make sure that no light is emitted.
3. Become a minimalist. Sleep with just the basics. Creating a clutter free zone in your bedroom will create a better sleeping environment as you are free from distractions. Having other items in your sleep space that are unrelated to sleep can create more tossing and turning as they can keep the mind busy.
4. Move your body. Move your body during the day and as soon as you hit the pillow it will be much easier to drift off into dreamland. If you tend to do vigorous exercise make sure that it is done in the morning or afternoon as it can be too energizing in the evening. Some soft restorative yoga can be a wonderful practice in the evening to help you wind down. One way to help ground your body and mind before bedtime is to place your legs up the wall for 15-20 minutes at night. Simply bring your bottom as close to the wall as possible and place your legs up the wall. It may not produce results immediately for everyone but with continued practice it really make a difference in how quickly you fall asleep and how deep you sleep.
5. Quiet your mind. As the Dalai Lama states, "Sleep is the best form of meditation." This goes the other way as well in the fact that meditation an improve your sleep. A study showed that mindfulness meditation can greatly aid in creating a relaxation response. Even of you meditate earlier in the day that relaxation response can still benefit you when it's time to sleep. Mindfulness meditation is a practice of focusing on your breath, bringing your attention into the sound or feeling of your inhale or exhale. If the mind begins to wander simply remind yourself to come back to your breath. If your mind wanders every few seconds don't become frustrated with yourself. It's common and the practice is still highly beneficial as long as you keep your focus and attention coming back to the breath. This practice has the best results when done for at least 20 minutes but 5 minutes can also work wonders.
6. Deeper darkness, deeper rejuvenation. Ancient practices of dark room therapy or dark room meditation are extremely rejuvenating and have numerous benefits for the body and mind. The practice of spending extended periods in complete darkness - anywhere from 1 to 14 days - has been a higher meditation practice in many cultures around the world. The benefits of such practices are extensive but includes the production of high amounts of melatonin. With no presence of light emissions melatonin continues to be produced and we can receive the mental, physical and emotional benefits from removing ourselves from not just the light but from the busy, noisy society that we have created.