It may be true that the early bird gets the worm. But there’s no advantage to waking up before the birds—or so I’m told by insomnia sufferers who routinely wake up at 2:30 or 3 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep. It’s depressing to wake up too early night after night.
Here’s why early morning insomnia occurs and how to get your sleep cycle more in sync with daylight and darkness.
There’s a campaign going to educate people about the importance of sleep. Some companies are responding by installing “nap rooms” where employees can catch a few winks during the workday (or the work night).
But access to a nap room at work would not improve my productivity or my health. Nor would it make me less prone to insomnia. What would help (if I were still going in to work everyday rather than working from home) would be the option to work on a flextime schedule in sync with my body clock. Here’s why:
Sometimes I hear from people whose sleep problem sounds more like a circadian rhythm disorder than insomnia. Laurel wrote that she’d always been a night owl. So she was taking sleeping pills to get to sleep at night.
But if her problem is due to a delayed or sluggish body clock—if what she has is delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD)—she’d be better off with other types of treatment. Here’s more:
Artificial lighting gets a bad rap in stories about sleep these days. Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, we’re told, our forebears slept longer than we do today.
There are reasons to think this might be true: Exposure to artificial lighting at night delays secretion of melatonin, in turn postponing sleep. Light at night can also reset the body clock, altering sleep timing and giving rise to circadian rhythm disorders and insomnia.
Advice for how to avoid these problems usually runs along the lines of dimming lights in the evening and getting plenty of exposure to sunlight during the day. Count me as a believer here. But the back-to-nature solutions some are touting? Meh, I’ll pass.
We hear a lot about the effects of light on sleep. Light in the evening—especially the blue light emitted by devices with screens—blocks secretion of the hormone melatonin, causing symptoms of insomnia. Low lighting during the day also delays melatonin onset and shortens the night.
Shift work, in which workers are routinely are exposed to light at night and must sleep during daylight hours, is so likely to disturb people’s sleep that the problem has its own name: Shift Work Sleep Disorder.
Not only do unnatural lighting conditions interfere with sleep. More and more evidence suggests that artificial lighting is behind the uptick in modern diseases such as cancer.
It’s pretty well established now that exercise is good for sleep. Compared with couch potatoes, exercisers generally fall asleep more quickly, sleep more soundly, and feel more alert during the day.
The timing of your workout can also affect your sleep. Lack of exposure to sunlight can be a setup for insomnia, and now that the days are short, you may be able to improve your sleep by making exercise more regular or exercising at a different time of day.
Blue light gets a bad rap these days in articles about sleepy teens. Exposure to blue light in the evening interferes with the secretion of melatonin (a sleep-friendly hormone), pushing circadian rhythms out of whack. This can lead to insomnia or sleep deprivation. Doctors are counseling teens and the rest of us to turn off devices that emit blue light—computers, tablets, and smartphones—in the run-up to bedtime.
This is sound advice as far as it goes. But the story on light is bigger than this simple warning suggests. Knowing how to manage your exposure to blue light can help you steer clear of sleep problems and increase your daytime stamina.