Unless you live in a remote mountain wilderness, far from city street lamps or a glowing laptop screen, it’s hard to find—or make—a truly dark space at night. And even if you choose an electronics-free lifestyle, you may still suffer from a night that’s too light. Most people living in the United States dwell in light-polluted areas (where artificial sky brightness is greater than 10 percent of the natural sky brightness). But in order to rest well, say experts, our bodies and brains need a sleep environment with as little artificial light as possible.
“Light signals the brain’s biological clock that it’s time to wake up. Our sleep becomes more fragmented when we’re exposed to light in our sleep,” says Lawrence Epstein, MD, author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep (McGraw-Hill, 2006). Exposure to even small amounts of light during sleep (or upon waking in the middle of the night) suppresses the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that sets your body’s internal clock and helps you sleep long enough to replenish physical and mental stores. Melatonin not only regulates the sleep-wake cycle, but also may play a role in cancer prevention. According to recent research, women living in the most heavily light-polluted neighborhoods had a surprising 73 percent higher risk of breast cancer than women in regions with less artificial lighting.
And cancer isn’t the only health risk we run: “Disruptions to that cycle can cause sleep deprivation, which in turn can lead to major health problems,” says Epstein, including weight gain, high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, and increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Whether or not you suffer from insomnia or sleep problems, here are a few smart ways to get into the dark and stay there, for health’s sake.
Segue to slumber. At least an hour before bedtime, turn off any bright lights throughout your home. “Being in a dim environment helps set you up for sleep, which is especially important for people who have trouble dozing off at night,” says Sarah Nath Zallek, MD, neurologist at the Illinois Neurological Institute Sleep Center in Peoria, Illinois. Once you’ve turned the lights down, try unwinding with a bath, book, calming music, or gentle yoga poses. In a preliminary study published in 2008, researchers found that practicing yoga helped increase total sleep time in people with chronic insomnia.
Pull the plug. “We tend to wake up and open our eyes several times throughout the night without even realizing it,” says Zallek. “When that happens, even a little bit of light from the TV or computer can stimulate us and make us more likely to stay awake.” Even light from small items like cell phone chargers can be disruptive, she notes. But if you can’t ditch the devices altogether, at least unplug or cover up all light-emitting devices before you hit the sack. You should also turn your alarm clock away from you, or use a clock that doesn’t give off any light (such as a Zen alarm clock), recommends Zallek.
Black out the lights. At bedtime, shut off all the lights in your home. Scan your bedroom for any illuminated spots. If you notice light shining in from outside, consider investing in blackout curtains (shades made with specialized fabric that obstructs outdoor light). “Blackout curtains are also helpful for people who need or want to wake a little later, since they help you sleep right through sunrise,” says Zallek. For more help in blocking out ambient light, slip on a sleep mask or eye-pillow.
Resume your rest. If you find yourself unable to return to rest after waking in the middle of the night, it’s important to resist the urge to switch on the bedside light. Even a few moments of light exposure can mess with your melatonin production and stimulate your brain, which could make returning to sleep all the more difficult. “One of the best ways to get back to sleep is to practice breathing slowly and deeply, which helps induce relaxation,” says Shannon Sinsheimer, ND, a California-based naturopathic doctor.
Brighten up. When you wake in the morning, draw the curtains back and flood your room with natural light. In addition to helping you to wake up, morning light helps set the stage for healthy sleep later, says Zallek. “Getting that light at the same time each day is key to establishing a sleep-wake cycle, which can be especially helpful for people who have a hard time waking in the morning.” If there’s a lack of natural light in your home, try using a lamp equipped with full-spectrum light bulbs (designed to simulate sunlight).
Keep a schedule. For sleep that’s in sync with the darkest hours of the day, try to snooze from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. “There’s some evidence that getting that eight hours between dark and dawn might be ideal,” says Zallek. But even if the 10-to-6 plan doesn’t jibe with your schedule, sticking with the same sleep hours each night is important to healthy sleep. By conditioning your body to expect certain sleep and wake times, explains Epstein, you can help to regulate your internal clock and—in turn—protect against sleep troubles such as insomnia.
What it is: An essential mineral that helps maintain muscle and nerve function.
,strong>How it works: Promotes relaxation.
How to take it: Stir 100 mg of magnesium powder into a cup of warm water and drink one hour before bed. Increase dose up to 400 mg if tolerated by bowels.
Cautions: Taking more than the recommended dose may cause diarrhea.
What it is: A naturally occurring chemical in the body involved in maintenance of cellular function.
How it works: Helps regulate stress hormones.
How to take it: 100–200 mg in capsule form one hour before bed.
Cautions: Side effects are rare, but may cause mild gastrointestinal distress.
What it is: An herb with sedative effects.
How it works: May help increase the body’s supply of gamma-aminobutyric acid (a chemical known to promote relaxation).
How to take it: 100 mg in capsule form one hour before bed.
Cautions: May cause headache or dizziness.
What it is: A calming herb.
How it works: Also thought to increase the body’s supply of gamma-aminobutyric acid.
How to take it: 100 mg in capsule form one hour before bed.
Cautions: Considered safe and nontoxic, but may trigger adverse reactions in those who are allergic to the plant.
Source: Shannon Sinsheimer, ND.