Sooo, here we are, back again. I have a project to finish so let’s wrap up the series on sleep based on the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker with the last few topics I want to cover.
To round this up, I still want to break down three more topics for you that Walker has researched in his book in greater detail.
Three topics that I found so interesting that I can’t resist sharing them with you.
At best, those last few insights will help you deal with your sleeping problems or equip you to help out a friend or family member that struggles with similar issues. So I hope.
So, taking the last few steps on our little sleep journey, let’s look at some things today that keep us from sleeping:
According to Walker, there are 5 major factors!
Now, I am not talking about our kids keeping us up at night or a birthday party that caused us to stay up late one night, no, I am referring to common factors that are continually interfering with our sleep. Factors that we can and should be in control of but that most of the time control us. These
five key factors have changed how much and how well we sleep: (1) constant electric light as well as LED light, (2) regularized temperature, (3) caffeine, (4) alcohol, and (5) a legacy of punching time cards.Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep
Walker even states that “it is this set of societally engineered forces that are responsible for many an individual’s mistaken belief that they are suffering from medical insomnia.”
Let’s consider each influencing factor in greater detail:
1. Constant Electric Light
Back in the day, when we were hunters and gatherers, people would totally rely on daylight and darkness to tell them when to sleep and when to wake up.
Of course, people would not just hit the sack as soon as the sun was down.
Rather, as different sources tell us, they would start a bonfire and sit, chat, laugh, sing and have a great time with their tribe after sunset. However, the fire light didn’t have much of an impact and people still had a functioning sleeping rhythm and routine.
This is why:
The loss of daylight informs our suprachiasmatic nucleus that nighttime is now in session; time to release the break pedal on our pineal gland [=the spot in our brain where melatonin is produced; editor’s note], allowing it to unleash vast quantities of melatonin that signal to our brains and bodies that darkness has arrived and it is time for bed.M. Walker
Today, however, we have electric light! The whole natural process of getting tired at a decent time is significantly disturbed if not totally lost.
Artificial light, that we all use every night when daylight has gone, will send signals to our brains trying to sell them that the sun is still up and shining. Thus, melatonin is not released and our sleep is delayed.
By the time we finally do switch of the (night-) light, we might still be far from falling asleep since our brain has only just begun to send signals of „it is dark now“ to the brain which then starts to produce melatonin. You see the problem.
And in case you were wondering: Yes, even dim light of a tiny bedside lamp can hold back the production of melatonin and therefore delay your sleep.
To make it worse, LED light has been invented. Although LED lights have longer life spans and need less energy, its blue light – especially in the evening – „has a more harmful impact on human nighttime melatonin suppression than the warm, yellow light from old incandescent bulbs.“
I am sure you know this, but smartphones, tablets and laptop screens are LED powered. Most of us use at least one of those devices every night. Sometimes for hours and right before we go to bed.
Studies have shown that this LED light of our smartphones etc. not only delay our sleep, but also negatively influence our REM sleep. Participants felt sleeper and less rested the next day. Hence, sleep quality also suffers from the use of electric/LED light!
To conclude this section: When we use electric light before bedtime, we are artificially forcing ourselves to stay awake. We stay awake longer, falling asleep gets harder and the sleep we get is less restful.
My guess is that temperature in terms of sleep is often underrated. It shouldn’t be!!!
The truth is: We humans sleep better in colder rather than warmer rooms/surroundings. If temperature drops, our core temperature drops also. In order to sleep better, our core temperature should decrease by about 1°C.
Similar to rising darkness, this fall of temperature also sends signals to the internal clock that we are getting ready for bed. Hello melatonin!
This might come as a surprise, BUT the recommended bedroom temperature is 18.3°C. Of course assuming that you wear your pyjamas and cover yourself with a blanket.
However, since we are all individual human beings, this might not be the one and only perfect temperature for you. Take it as a benchmark and see what works best for you.
Be sure not to cool it down too much, though! Walker recommends to not have a roomtemperature below 12.5°C.
We discussed the effects of caffeine on your sleep in an earlier blog posts so I will just repeat what I have said about it before:
Caffeine can highly affect your sleep. You have probably heard people say that they can’t have coffee after a certain time of day because otherwise they won’t fall asleep at night.
That is very mindful and true!
Because once it is consumed, caffeine is fighting a chemical inside your body that is called adenosine.
Adenosine is building up in your brain throughout the day. As it does so, it basically tells you that you are getting a little more tired every minute toward the end of the day until you finally go to sleep at night.
Caffeine blocks exactly that process. It stays in your system for way longer than you might think.
Sleep will not come easily or be smooth throughout the night as your brain continues its battle against the opposing force of caffeine.M. Walker
Alcohol is known for its sedative effect. It sort of calms our brain down, we loosen up and become light-hearted. However, as Walker points out, sedation does not equal sleep!!
Alcohol sedates you out of wakefulness, but it does not induce natural sleep.M. Walker
Now that we clarified this, alcohol affects our sleep in two other ways:
1. Alcohol causes short interruptions of our sleep that we neither notice nor remember. Similar to the effects of LED light, we therefore feel less rested.
2. Alcohol often suppresses REM sleep. For somebody who drinks large amounts of alcohol daily, this can have severe consequences. Since REM sleep is also the time when we dream, not being able to dream at night can cause dreaming during the day. I am not talking about happy and satisfying daydreaming, but rather about dreams forcing themselves into our consciousness when we are wide awake, leading to „hallucinations, delusions and gross disorientation.“
Even if we just have a glass of wine with dinner every now and then, REM sleep can be suppressed for it is also that phase of sleep during which our brain processes new things we have learned and stores and retains memory.
If we don’t get enough REM sleep, studying and building memories will be much harder.
5. Enforced Awakening
What Walker refers to as „a legacy of punching time cards“ is basically the historical development of artificially ending our sleep.
In the beginnings of this development, it may have been whistles to wake up a whole village of workers, or signaling the beginning of their working time. Today it is the alarm clock on our nightstand, our phones, the school bell whatsoever.
No other species demonstrates this unnatural act of prematurely and artificially terminating sleep.M. Walker
If we are artificially awakened from sleep, our bodies react with a rise of blood pressure and a faster heart rate.
The snooze button, that I have written about in greater detail here, repeats this process of being artificially awakened as many times as you hit the snooze button. So please, try to do without it.
What is worse is the fact that we actually need our alarm clock because our internal clock does not wake us up anymore (I know there are exceptions 😉 ).
We find ourselves in a very bad and unhealthy cycle: Our caffeine and alcohol consumption plus our use of artificial light at night cause us to be „under-slept.“
Because we have a hard time falling asleep, or simply don’t allow our brain to get the melatonin into our system, we go to bed too late. Because we go to bed too late (but can’t sleep in the next day), we have to set an alarm to wake us which, on top of all gives our heart a little shock every morning. Or multiple shocks, if we can’t go without the snooze function.
You might consume or do all of the things listed above and still be a sound sleeper. Good for you! However, you might have come across this post because you have trouble falling asleep or don’t get really restful and recovering sleep?
Here is what you can do:
- Reduce the use of artificial light at night and don’t play, read, watch on your phone, tablet or laptop screen before bedtime! Rather, read a real book, look at a magazine, use the time to plan your week, plan your meals, play a board game with your partner, meet a friend, go for a walk, do some housework, etc… If you can’t waive your phone at night, change the display settings to „true tone“ and dim the screen-brightness.
- Cool down your bedroom if possible. Change your sheet for a thinner one. Adjust your pyjamas to warmer temperatures during the summer.
- Limit your total caffeine intake. Avoid caffeine in the afternoon. Remember: There are several kinds of tea such as black tea or green tea that also contain caffeine!
- Concerning alcohol, I let the author speak himself: „the annoying advice of abstinence is the best, and most honest, I can offer.“ If this is not an option, try to go without alcohol during the week and save it for the weekend.
- Last but not least, you will find this piece of advice many times whenever you research advice for better sleep and I have written it many times throughout this series, BUT: Try to go to bed at the same time every night every day of the week! Also, get up at the same time every morning every day of the week. Routine is the best you can do. It will help your inner clock to run smoothly, steadily and reliably. You might even be able to get rid of your alarm clock for good soon after your routine is established.
Did you find this post helpful. What has kept you from sleeping in the past or still is keeping you from a good night sleep? Do you have tricks and tips that have helped you sleep better?
To a better sleep.