New research suggests the real key to getting a good night’s sleep might be to manage our own body clocks in a more efficient way.
To manage our own body clock effectively, exposure to daylight at the right time is important. Getting a good dose of it when we wake up is a good way of resetting our circadian rhythm.
Researchers have found that workers who are exposed to sunlight during the morning hours sleep better at night and tend to feel less depressed and stressed. Experts believe that exposure to more light during the day – and less at night – is critical for healthy sleep patterns because it helps to calibrate the body’s internal circadian rhythm.
In an office environment, being exposed either to natural daylight or electric lights that are rich in short wave ‘blue’ light are important for the health of workers. According to research carried out by the Lighting Research Centre at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, many office buildings may actually be reducing light to increase energy efficiency. Thinking about how we light our daytime environments would be step in the right direction.
The Rensselaer team recruited participants in five government office buildings across the United States to find out whether typical office workers get enough light to regulate their sleep/waking cycle. 109 employees working at the offices wore light-measuring devices for one week in summertime in order to gauge their exposure to different types of light throughout the day. 81 of the participants repeated the experiment in winter.
The workers logged their sleep and waking times and completed questionnaires about their mood and sleep quality at the end of each week.
The researchers found that workers who were exposed to greater amounts of light during the morning hours, between 8am and noon, fell asleep more quickly at night and experienced fewer sleep disturbances during the night compared to those exposed to low light in the morning. Those who got more morning light were also less likely to report feelings of depression and stress.
They also found that people who were exposed to higher levels of light throughout the day, from 8am to 5pm, also reported lower levels of sleep disturbance and depression.
Lack of good quality sleep has been linked to mental and physical health problems, including issues with mood, thinking, metabolism and the immune system.
There are some things individuals can do to increase their exposure to sunlight that could have beneficial effects on mood and sleep, such as moving closer to a window or even changing the type of bulbs in lights. Getting out of the office at lunchtime and into the bright sunshine is one remedy and one that is also supported by researchers at Washington State University.
The overall recommendation is for a robust pattern of high levels of light during the day and lower levels in the evening.
Anger can also adversely affect sleep. Previous research suggests that people become more easily angered because they do not get enough sleep, which in turn makes it harder to hold back negative emotions, which affects their ability to sleep, thus creating a vicious circle. But research carried out by psychologists at Iowa State University adds to a growing body of evidence that being prone to anger that leads to poor sleep. In fact, anger and sleep may be more directly related than first thought.
Individuals who are angry generally, especially those who struggle to keep their temper, keep themselves awake by dwelling on their frustrations and find it harder to achieve the calmness and relaxation needed to doze off. There may also be a physical reason – feelings of anger increase cardiovascular activity, which in turn makes it more difficult to fall asleep.
The researchers studied 436 volunteers whose sleep was monitored after they completed a questionnaire designed to find out if they were quick-tempered or easily angered. They were asked how angrily they would react to specific provocations – for example, being criticised by others. Then, they were sorted into groups based on how they dealt with that anger.
Those who controlled their anger, saying they could keep their cool under pressure, were seen to have better quality sleep during the week their sleep patterns were monitored. By comparison, those who repressed or ‘bottled up’ their anger did not get the same amount of sleep.
[Reported in the Journal of Research in Personality.]
Anxiety can make it harder for some insomnia sufferers to fall asleep because one significant cause of insomnia is expectation and perception.
Patrick Finan, a researcher in psychiatry and behaviour at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, thinks that a placebo pill could be effective in improving quality of sleep because insomnia patients who took placebos felt more rested than those who received no treatment at all.
This theory is so similar to what hypnotherapists already know about suggestion, expectation and perception, that the effectiveness of a placebo comes as no surprise.
Researchers from the University of Sydney examined data from 13 studies involving 566 insomnia sufferers. Divided into two groups, they were either given a placebo – which they were told contained an active drug – or no pill at all. The patients given the placebo reported improvements in their ability to fall asleep, the total amount of sleep and the quality of the sleep they got.
The results of the placebo test were compared against recognised insomnia therapies. This comparison revealed that individuals who believed they had received a sleep-inducing treatment found the condition eased. I would have expected that the suggestibility of these patients would also have been tested for, but there is no mention of that or any correlation between the two in the study, which was published in the journal Sleep Medicine.
However, the study does strongly suggest that a genuine placebo effect works with people who suffer from insomnia, although the researchers found no difference between the two groups when it came to testing and monitoring how quickly they fell asleep.
So it’s entirely possible that Insomnia may be a condition of the mind. It is true that different people need different amounts of sleep – one person may average four hours a night and feel sufficiently rested, while another may get eight hours and still feel tired. It is also true that as we get older, we require less sleep, but those with more active lives seem to suffer less than those who have less to do.
One reason older people seem to sleep less at night is that insomnia may actually be an age-old survival mechanism. Our distant ancestors would have had to take turns keeping watch at night, and it was more likely the older members of the tribe that would stay awake to protect the children from being eaten by wild animals.
However, there are some things you can do to improve your quality of sleep without resorting to pills or potions.
First and most obvious, is to avoid taking naps during the day, especially in the late afternoon because that will inevitably affect your level of tiredness later in the evening.
Blocking out light will also help because light stops the brain producing the sleep hormone melatonin. You should also avoid using tablet computers or looking too long at your mobile phone at least an hour before going to bed – ‘blue light’ from these devices also affects production of melatonin and thus your ability to nod off.
Using soft foam earplugs may also help you sleep better because they block out a lot of background noise. Bedtime is always the time when we’re more likely to notice background noise – the things that go bump in the night – so anything that can be done to reduce noise will be helpful.
If you have pets, you shouldn’t allow them in the bedroom and you definitely shouldn’t allow them to sleep in there. Allowing them onto the bed is an absolute no-no. Pets are a common cause of allergies that can affect your ability to sleep and they tend to move around a lot more than humans, something which will also disturb your sleep.
If you have one of those alarm clocks with an illuminated display, best to turn it away from you so the light from the numbers doesn’t keep you awake. Constantly checking the time won’t help you either because it often has the effect of keeping you awake.
If you’re struggling to get to sleep, try closing your eyes and imagine doing everything you did before bed in reverse order – and in as much detail as possible – just like watching a film played backwards. This is a very unusual and unnatural exercise for the brain and so it’s also quite tiring. I recommended this to some of my clients and they found it very useful.
There are other tried and tested solutions of course – hot milk before bed works for most people, and there’s always a good book. Bedtime reading is remarkably effective! You could also try meditation or self-hypnosis – both are easy to learn and put into practice.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.