Sleep Health

Need more sleep? Make friends with the dark side

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If you want to wake up feeling alive and ready to take on the day, it may mean embracing the dark.

Too much light could be the reason you’re tossing and turning at night instead of enjoying restful slumber. The light from those screens you view in the evening can interrupt your body’s natural sleep rhythm, and scientists now know why.

How does darkness affect sleep?

You’ve heard about those countless reports telling you to avoid screen time right before bed? The ones that say not to use your mobile phone or iPad before you drift off? Yet you still do it, right? We love our technology and we bring it everywhere we go, including to bed, even though we're repeatedly told it's a bad habit.

But what’s the big deal? Why is it such a bad thing? 

It's because the light from devices may have a significant effect on how well you sleep. Light triggers the human body and mind, stimulating the state of wakefulness. So while you’re lying there with your face aglow, checking your Facebook feed or touching up your last Instagram photo before nodding off, you’re actually sabotaging your ability to obtain a fulfilling and healthy night's sleep.

Light's role in your sleep patterns

Humans are not nocturnal. We’ve evolved to be active during the day and to rest at night. As a result, exposure to light activates alertness and increases energy levels because in the natural world, light occurs during the daytime. The problem is, with technology, we now have access to artificial light, and its exposure late into the evening may prevent your body from reaching the correct sleep phase. 

If you want to wake up feeling ready to take on the day, you may need to embrace the dark.

Darkness and melatonin

Darkness is an essential condition for sleep. When your eyes detect the fading of light at the end of the day, your brain produces a hormone known as ‘melatonin’ which signals your body that it’s time to rest. This initiates your body's physiological preparations for sleep.1

Melatonin works together with your body’s circadian rhythms. It helps muscles to relax, body temperature to drop and your active internal functions to power down, ready for maximum relaxation and repair throughout the night. In normal conditions, after the sun sets and darkness falls, melatonin levels naturally rise into the evening and throughout the night, before subsiding after the sun rises again the next day.

However, exposure to artificial sources of light after sundown inhibits the natural production of melatonin, which can hijack this internal biological mechanism (often referred to as a 'sleep clock'), thus interfering with both the quantity and quality of sleep you receive.

Are you at risk of sleep apnea?

If you frequently wake up during the night you may have sleep apnea. Take our sleep assessment to find out

 

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It's a modern problem

Sleeping problems affect 33% to 45% of Australian adults at one time or another.2 They can be brought on by worry, discomfort, illness, certain medications, an unsettled baby, sleeping in a new place, jet lag or disturbances due to noise (such as a snoring partner).

The invention of electricity and technology fundamentally changed our relationship with light and dark and consequently, causing further challenges to our sleeping patterns. Worse is that most of us don't even realise the impact it has on our health, which means we remain unaware of why we can often feel unnaturally tired.

Luckily, now we’ve shed some light on the problem you can make the necessary changes.

6 ways to manage your light exposure 

Ultimately, managing light exposure in your home and especially in your bedroom at night, is essential to creating a conducive sleeping environment. Here are some tips for reducing exposure to light at bedtime:

1. Ensure that your curtains are fully drawn and thick enough to block unwanted light sources such as street lighting or early morning rays.

2. Gradually decrease the lights as the night goes on, to maximise your body's preparation for sleep and production of melatonin.

3. Commit to a regular and consistent 'lights out' time, to restore your sleep clock.

4. Consider wearing a comfortable eye mask at night to deepen the darkness experience and protect your eyes from light.

5. If you must use your phone at night e.g. using it as a night light to stumble to the bathroom or check on the children, set it to 'blue light filter' mode. This reduces the blue light exposure from the screen, and displays only the red spectrum, which is less disruptive to sleep patterns.

6. You can boost your ability to sleep at night by exposing yourself to bright light during the day. This can also help with your mood and alertness.3

How a sleep assessment can help you

If you’re still not sleeping well despite making friends with the dark, you may have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. You can do a simple online sleep assessment to see if you’re at risk of sleep apnea. Or if you’re having problems falling asleep take a look at some devices that may help you get to sleep faster.

ResMed

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