Relief From Early Morning Insomnia

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.

early morning awakening can be avoided by postponing sleepIt 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.

A Timing Issue

Early awakening insomnia has to do with the body clock and the circadian system, which control internal processes that occur on a daily basis such as sleep and the secretion of melatonin (a hormone conducive to sleep).

Some people are simply born with a body clock that runs faster than normal due to genetic factors that run in families. Rather than completing a daily cycle every 24 hours or thereabouts, their internal clocks complete a daily cycle once every 23 or 23.5 hours. It’s an ongoing struggle for these early awakeners to keep their eyes open for evening meetings and concerts. Routinely they wake up at 3 and 4 a.m.

Circadian Factors in Older Adults

Lifelong early awakeners are relatively rare. But older adults commonly experience a shift in sleep timing that causes them to nod off and wake up earlier than they did when they were younger. This pattern is not due to a sudden shortening of the circadian period but rather to age-related changes in the circadian system.

Circadian rhythms tend to weaken with age. This weakening makes both the sleep and wake states less stable, leading to increased shifting between the two states. Older adults are thus more inclined to take naps during the daytime and wake up more often at night. Shifting often and easily between sleep and wake becomes the new normal.

Another effect of weakened circadian rhythms is the forward shifting of sleep timing that occurs in some older adults. In humans, the pressure to sleep mounts steadily during the day and is quite high in the evening. Throughout much of our lives, this pressure is counteracted by robust circadian forces working to keep us alert and awake until our normal bedtime (say, 11 p.m.). The weakening of these circadian forces makes it harder for older adults to stay awake in the evening and more likely that they will experience early awakening insomnia.

Postpone Sleep in the Evening

Regardless of what’s causing your early morning insomnia, the way to sleep longer in the morning is to postpone your bedtime. Here’s how:

  1. Get plenty of exposure to bright light in the evening. Light can have a big effect on the timing of sleep. Turn lights up full blast at about 7 p.m. and keep them on for a couple hours. If this doesn’t keep you from nodding off early, purchase a light box that emits light as strong as daylight. Set it beside you as you read or do whatever you do in the evening. In the summertime, take an evening walk.
  2. Avoid bright light early in the morning. Exposure to bright light soon after awakening will shift your body clock in the wrong direction, making you sleepy sooner rather than later in the evening. Keep lights dim and shades drawn early in the morning. Wear dark glasses if you go outside.
  3. Exercise late in the afternoon or early in the evening rather than early in the morning. Like light, activity can affect the timing of sleep. Early morning exercise will tend to make you sleepy early in the evening. But exercise late in the afternoon or early in the evening will help postpone the urge to fall asleep.
  4. Cut down on alcohol in the evening. Alcohol tends to make you sleepy when it enters your system. But 4 or 5 hours later, once it passes through your system, it tends to make sleep fitful and wake you up.
  5. Engage in pleasurable evening activities involving movement. Do crossword or jigsaw puzzles. Play the piano or take out a sketch pad and draw. Call friends and family. Take up quilting. Knit as you watch TV. Page through picture books and catalogues. Or try using a shiatsu massage pillow to see if the sensation is pleasurable while at the same time keeping you awake.

Exposure to evening light and habitual evening activities may not delay your sleep cycle to the extent you’d like. But awakening at 4:15 may end up feeling more palatable than awakening at 3:45.

Nap Rooms? Flextime Might Help More

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:

Insomnia probably won't be alleviated by offering employee nap roomsThere’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).

Napping at work can reduce workplace sleepiness; decrease insomnia among and improve the health of shift workers; and improve learning, memory, and overall performance. What’s not to like?

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:

Regularity in Sleep and Wakefulness

I study sleep and insomnia partly to manage my own trouble sleeping, and one thing I’ve realized is that my body thrives on regularity. There’s a reason insomniacs are told to go to bed and get up at the same time every day: it helps keep the forces controlling sleep and waking in sync with one another and with daylight and darkness.

Really good sleepers can get away with sleeping pretty much whenever they want. But if I stray too far from my regular bed and rise times, I have insomnia.

Likewise, I feel better where there’s regularity in my days, and research suggests that having a daily routine is protective of sleep at night. Working, eating meals, exercising, even socializing at the same time everyday helps keep the body’s circadian forces in sync.

A nap room at work wouldn’t help me—and not just because napping now and then would interfere with my regular schedule, or because long naps can reduce the build-up of the sleep pressure that triggers sleep at night. The truth is that except when I’m sick, I simply can’t drop off during the daytime. I may feel exhausted but I’m never sleepy enough to fall asleep.

Work and Circadian Rhythms

I sleep and feel better when I work in the morning, when I’m most alert. But as an employee, often I had to work evening shifts. The effort it took to pay attention at evening meetings of school boards and townships I covered as a reporter (which were usually deadly dull) was so arousing that it took me hours to calm down enough to fall asleep.

Even worse were the split shifts I worked for a year in Mexico. I taught class from 7 to 10 a.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. at night, 5 days a week. This schedule would have been doable for many people—5 hours a day in the classroom, with the entire midday stretch free to kick around town, visit the market, or see friends.

But it was awful for me. In the afternoons, knowing I had to teach again later the same day, I couldn’t fully relax (much less take a nap). Returning home after 9 p.m. and then having to wind down enough to fall asleep and be up for a 7 a.m. class was practically impossible. Insomnia kicked in big time and I was a mess.

“You can’t fight your body clock,” a friend said to me. Even then, before I knew anything about circadian rhythms and preferences, I sensed she was on to something big.

The Flextime Option

As a freelance writer–editor now, I set my own hours. It’s done wonders for my sleep. But not everyone has the option to give up regular paychecks.

Sleep-savvy employers—those who really understand the importance of sleep—will not just give their employees nap rooms. If the work itself does not preclude it, they’ll offer flextime options so that all employees—including the sleep challenged—can work when we’re most alert and most productive. It’s a win–win setup. So why not?

Have you been in a work situation where you had to “fight your body clock”? How did you manage? Were flextime options available? If they weren’t, might they have made a difference?

Insomnia or Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder?

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:

Night owls are better off with bright light therapy than sleeping pillsSometimes I hear from people whose trouble sleeping sounds more like a circadian rhythm disorder than insomnia. Here’s what Laurel wrote:

 

 

 

 

I have trouble sleeping virtually every night—it is not intermittent—and I always have. I was a poor sleeper as a child, staying up until very late (3 a.m. to 5 a.m.), then being exhausted during the next school day and napping in the afternoon . . . continuing the vicious cycle. This pattern has pretty much stayed the same throughout my adult life. It seems to run in the family, as my mother had awful insomnia, as does my sister.

Laurel was taking sleeping pills to get to sleep at night. But if her problem has mainly to do with her body clock—if what she has is delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD)—she’d be better off with other types of treatment.

Symptoms of DSPD

DSPD symptoms are similar to the symptoms of people with sleep onset insomnia:

  • Trouble falling asleep at bedtime
  • Catastrophic thinking at night (related to how their inability to fall asleep will affect their performance or interpersonal functioning the next day)
  • Poor cognitive functioning in the daytime and irritable mood

But in one fundamental way, the symptoms associated with the two disorders are different. Sleep onset insomniacs are inclined to poor sleep regardless of sleep opportunity. People with DSPD, in contrast, can generally get a good night’s sleep when allowed to sleep during the hours of their choosing (as, for example, when they’re on vacation). Their sleep problem has mainly to do with timing. School and work obligations fit poorly with their internal circadian rhythms. The result is sleep loss, poor performance, and, over time, reduced life prospects.

How DSPD Develops

It begins in adolescence. Then, for unknown reasons, children experience a biological delay in their sleep pattern. This delay causes them to want to go to bed and get up later (which is why later school start times for middle and high school students makes so much sense).

Then, as people reach the age of 20 or so, most of us start shifting backward again to earlier preferred bed and wake times. But a small number of people don’t shift back. They become night owls, and their preference to stay up till 3 and in bed till 11 can persist into middle age and beyond.

Delayed Circadian Rhythms

What keeps people like Laurel running late? Two phase markers determine when we feel like sleeping and when we’re ready to wake up. Onset of melatonin secretion is one. Melatonin secretion is negligible during the daytime but high at night, starting about 1 to 2 hours before normal bedtime. Research has shown that melatonin secretion begins about 4 hours later in people with DSPD than in normal sleepers.

The second phase marker is core body temperature. We’re physiologically alert at times when our core body temperature is high and sleepy when it’s low. Normal sleepers’ body temperature is highest—and physiological alertness, greatest—in the evening from about 6 to 9 p.m. In people with DSPD, this temperature high occurs 2 to 6 hours later.

The lowest core body temperature in normal sleepers—when people are sleepiest— occurs around 5 a.m. Research has shown that the body temperature low occurs on average over 2 hours later in people with DSPD. No wonder they can sleep right through buzzing alarm clocks.

A Longer Circadian Period

Studies have also shown that people with DSPD have longer-than-normal circadian periods. The average circadian period in humans—the time it takes to complete a full cycle—is 24 hours 12 minutes. Exposure to sunlight corrects for the 12-minute delay and keeps most of us running on 24-hour days.

The body clock in people with DSPD tends to run slow, cycling once every 25 or even 26 hours. The 1- or 2-hour advance needed to bring them into sync with the 24-hour day is harder to accomplish, say sleep experts, and likely another cause of DSPD.

Treatments

The gold standard in treatment for people with DSPD is early morning bright light therapy combined with a melatonin supplement taken around dinnertime:

  • Bright light: The light source can be the sun or a light box that disseminates light at 10,000 lux. Light exposure should occur immediately upon waking up. Two-hour sessions are most effective.
  • Melatonin supplement: Phase advances are also larger when morning bright light therapy is combined with a melatonin supplement taken late in the afternoon or early in the evening. In a recent study, 0.5 mg of melatonin taken late in the afternoon and 30 minutes of bright light therapy in the morning produced 75% of the phase shift that occurred with the 2-hour light exposure.

Back to Nature? Not for This Insomniac

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.

Electric lighting can be helpful and harmful to sleepArtificial 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.

Camping

Some folks claim that camping is a sure path to better sleep. What better way to detach from our worries and synchronize our body clocks with terrestrial time than to pitch a tent in the woods? There’s science behind this claim:

  • Two years ago researchers reported that after a week of camping, eight adults experienced changes in the timing of their sleep, going to bed and waking up an hour earlier than usual and feeling more energetic in the morning.
  • In a more natural setting reported on in June, scientists found that people living without access to electricity in a remote community in Argentina slept 40 minutes longer in the summer and 60 minutes longer in the winter than people living with electric lighting 30 miles away.

As persuasive as these reports may be, living closer to nature is not going to improve my sleep. For one thing, I’m naturally an early riser. The prospect of awakening still earlier does not appeal.

And what about the bugs? All it takes is a mosquito buzzing around my head to get me swatting at the walls of the tent, and even if I manage to kill it I’m still wound up. And if that doesn’t keep me awake, the camping mattress will. I have yet to find a mattress that’s comfortable for my back.

Glamping

glamping

Glamping, or glamorous camping, might solve the mosquito problem and would certainly provide a comfy bed. But even if I could afford to “glamp,” I’d still be out in the middle of nature, and for all its virtues (I will admit there are some) nature isn’t quiet.

Nocturnal creatures were not raised by parents like mine, who insisted that to do anything but tiptoe around and whisper after 10 p.m. was inconsiderate and rude. Without so much as a by your leave, animals at night will shriek, snarl, snort, hoot, growl.

Light sleepers and insomniacs, exactly how is this going to improve our sleep?

A Glass House

glass-house

Here’s another shelter said to bring circadian rhythms into harmony with nature, deepen sleep, and boost our sense of well-being: the all-glass house. Its lack of privacy might give pause. Yet the all-glass house has one advantage over many glamping setups I’ve seen: it blocks out up to 85 percent of external noise.

 

 

Let’s Cut to the Chase

The main reason these back-to-nature solutions aren’t my cup of tea is that I’m a naturally short sleeper, and even the longest days of the year are not quite long enough for me. Going to bed at sundown—even when that means 10 p.m.—is a recipe for a terrible night’s sleep: tossing and turning, thinking existential thoughts, pondering insoluble problems. Who needs that when with the flick of a lamp switch I can pick up a book and fill my brain with happier thoughts?

Yes, I could read by candlelight or lantern. But that’s not nearly as convenient or easy on the eyes as the incandescent light beside my reading chair. I could also entertain myself in the dark by listening to a book on CD. But then I’m apt to nod off too early, and a too-early bedtime spells a night of insomnia for me.

I hear that some lucky people can actually enjoy periods of wakefulness at night. They let their minds wander and manage to achieve a relaxed, meditative state. But that’s not me. Artificial lighting saves me from the gloomy thoughts that are always ready to waylay me at night.

No doubt I’m sending the wrong message here: for every one of me there are a hundred teenagers texting and peering at their iPads at night and seriously shorting themselves on sleep. Turn off your devices, you sleepyheads, and turn out the lights!

But hey, Thomas Edison, here’s one insomniac who still thinks electric lighting is cool.

Artificial Lighting Harmful to Sleep and Health

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.

Insomnia and cancer are more likely in brightly-lit, urban areasWe hear a lot about the effects of light on sleep. Light in the evening—especially 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, where 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, say epidemiologists Richard G. Stevens and Yong Zhu. More and more evidence suggests that artificial lighting is behind the uptick in modern diseases, the topic of their recent opinion piece in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B.

“It’s a new analysis and synthesis of what we know up to now on the effect of lighting on our health,” said Stevens in a University of Connecticut press release. “We don’t know for certain, but there’s growing evidence that the long-term implications of this have ties to breast cancer, obesity, diabetes, and depression, and possibly other cancers.”

In the Beginning

Humans evolved in an environment where the sun was the sole light source influencing internal circadian rhythms. The rising and setting of the sun determined when they slept and ate; it also set the rhythm for fluctuations in body temperature, gene expression, and hormone production. Sunlight in the daytime and darkness at night kept these systems cycling on a 24-hour day.

But the artificial lighting we spend our time in now is dim and poorly timed. Too little light during the day and too much at night lead to the disruption of circadian rhythms, insomnia, and increased susceptibility to disease.

Artificial Lighting and Cancer

Research suggests there is a relationship between exposure to light at night and breast cancer. Several studies show that women who work at night are more susceptible than women who work during the day. Night work is associated with melatonin suppression and, in women, higher levels of circulating estradiol, a reproductive hormone linked to breast cancer. Changes in the lymphatic system have also been observed.

Population studies, too, suggest a connection between breast cancer and exposure to light at night. Researchers in two studies used ambient light as measured by satellite at night to compare breast cancer risk across communities. They found a correlation between ambient light levels and breast cancer. “This has been tested and confirmed within Israel,” Stevens and Zhu write, “and among 164 countries of the world.”

Studies in molecular epidemiology also point to a relationship between circadian disruption and breast cancer. Long-term exposure to shift work alters patterns of gene expression throughout the body in ways that may increase breast cancer risk. Shift work may be a causal factor in colon and prostate cancers as well.

Do What You Can to Protect Your Health

You may be able to reduce your risk of developing these and other light-related health problems:

  • Get a healthy dose of sunlight during the day. If you can’t, buy a light box and use it.
  • Cut down on screen time at night. If you have a choice between an e-reader and a book, go for the book. Incandescent light is better than the blue light emitted by screens.
  • Use heavy curtains to block out all light sources when you’re sleeping.
  • Use red light if you must have light at night. (See my suggestion for red nightlights.) Firelight is circadian friendly for the same reason: it contains an abundance of red wavelengths.
  • Cut down on red meat to reduce the risk of colon cancer. Epidemiological studies show there is a correlation between eating red meat, which is high in iron, and developing the disease.

Timing Your Exercise for Optimal Sleep

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.

exercising at the same time of day everyday helps your sleepIt’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.

Challenging Gospel

First, let’s look at a new study that turns conventional thinking on its head. You’ve probably read that you shouldn’t exercise too close to bedtime. Exercise increases your heart and breathing rate, increases the stress hormones circulating in the blood, and delays secretion of melatonin. None of this is compatible with sleep—when your body is in rest-and-relax mode.

Still, there’s little evidence that vigorous exercise in the run-up to bedtime is harmful to sleep. So Swiss researchers set out to study the effects of evening exercise on 52 young adults who routinely exercised 2 or 3 nights a week. Specifically, they wanted to find out if the amount of exertion in the hours before bedtime would have a negative effect on sleep.

Surprising Results

Following an evening of normal exercise, subjects were hooked up to an EEG machine for the recording of brain activity during sleep. In bed, they completed a questionnaire to assess how vigorously they’d exercised and how they felt. Then the EEG recordings began, no more than 70 minutes after exercise stopped.

Surprisingly, the more vigorous the exercise,

  • the more tired subjects felt
  • the more quickly they fell asleep
  • the deeper and more efficient their sleep was, and
  • the fewer awakenings they had.

Not only did the results show that vigorous exercise late in the evening was not harmful to sleep. On the contrary, it actually improved sleep in many ways.

This study shows that evening workouts may be beneficial to the sleep of healthy young adults. Whether the results would generalize to other populations is still unknown, but the results bode well for people who want to exercise but can’t find time during the day.

Exercise and the Circadian System

What about people with insomnia and older adults? Evening exercise may be OK for us (or not), but when should we exercise to maximize our chances for sound sleep? Following is the gist of what little is known.

One key to using exercise to benefit sleep is to make the activity regular. Scheduled exercise is known to improve the function of the circadian system, and sleep tends to be more stable when internal rhythms are in sync.

Sunlight is the main external cue that keeps your internal circadian rhythms in sync with the earth’s 24-hour light/dark cycle. But exercise has a lesser synchronizing effect on circadian rhythms. Especially near the winter solstice, when you’re exposed to the least amount of sunlight all year, regular exercise may be a good way to keep insomnia at bay.

The Best Time of Day

Regarding optimal timing, one study found that long-term fitness training in the middle of the day improved the consolidation of the sleep/wake cycle in older men.

Other studies suggest that in older adults with insomnia, sleep quality is more likely to improve with exercise scheduled late in the afternoon or early in the evening. Research from the 1980s is supportive of this claim. Exercise heats the body up and eventually triggers an internal cooling mechanism favorable to sleep—specifically, deep sleep. So you may be able to improve the quality and depth of your sleep by scheduling exercise sessions later in the day. I have.

But the timing of your workout may be less important to sleep than doing it at the same time every day. So experiment to find out when exercise is more appealing (or least unappealing!) and seems to help with your sleep. Then make it part of your routine.

If you exercise, when do you do it, and does it help your sleep?

Eat Right to Sleep Tight

In the late Renaissance, many medical authorities were convinced that digestive processes controlled the duration of sleep. People slept as long as necessary to digest their evening meal.

That proposition fell by the wayside long ago—yet new evidence suggests that the timing of meals does affect our sleep. Particularly in people who are prone to insomnia, eating more regular meals, and eating dinner earlier in the evening, may be important keys to sounder sleep and good health.

Eating irregular meals, and iron-high snacks at night, is harmful to sleep and healthIn the late Renaissance, many medical authorities were convinced that digestive processes controlled the duration of sleep. People slept as long as necessary to digest their evening meal.

That proposition fell by the wayside long ago—yet new evidence suggests that the timing of meals does affect our sleep. Particularly in people prone to insomnia, eating regular meals, and eating dinner earlier in the evening, may be important keys to sounder sleep and good health.

In Sync

Regularity is a familiar theme to people with insomnia. “Go to bed and get up at the same time every day,” we hear again and again.

Good sleepers tend to do this naturally. Their stable, high quality sleep is a sign that their internal circadian rhythms are all synched up. These rhythms are established by the body clock, which hews to a 24-hour cycle with daily exposure to sunlight.

People with insomnia are not so regular about sleep. Over a two-week period, the authors of a study of daily activities and sleep found, insomnia subjects had over an hour of daily variability in when they went to bed and got up in the morning. This variability could throw their internal rhythms out of whack and lead to symptoms of insomnia.

But compared with normal sleepers, the insomniacs were also more variable in when they had meals and snacks. For them, lunch could vary by as many as 3 hours from one day to the next. The timing of their evening snacks had a range of almost 3 hours as well.

A Relationship between Eating and Sleeping         

Sunlight is not the only thing that keeps our circadian rhythms synched up. In addition to the master clock in the brain, which is set by the sun, many peripheral clocks are spread throughout our bodies. Some of them are sensitive to the timing of meals. Eating at odd hours disrupts their rhythm. Circadian rhythms are then thrown out of sync, and this invites insomnia.

“This finding highlights the potential importance of regular mealtimes,” the authors state. “Perhaps incorporating a regular meal schedule into treatment for those with insomnia could help to align the internal clock with a 24-hour light/dark cycle, which would contribute to healthier sleep.”

Avoid Iron-Rich Foods at Night

Another study suggests that eating foods high in iron at night is harmful to health. Not only does it alter circadian rhythms, but it may also increase our vulnerability to obesity, diabetes and other metabolic disorders.

This study was conducted on mice. One of the many peripheral clocks in mice and humans is located in the liver, an organ that regulates blood glucose levels. In this study, scientists found that dietary iron establishes the circadian rhythm of the liver.

Eating iron-rich foods during the daytime is healthy. Metabolic processes that ensue after a meal high in meat, beans, leafy green vegetables or dried fruit are not harmful when they occur in sync with the body’s natural rhythms.

But feeding iron to mice at a time when they would normally be asleep resulted in the clock in the liver going out of sync with the body clock in the brain, and a dysregulation of blood glucose levels. Particularly in shift workers, said investigators in ScienceDaily, eating foods high in iron at night could lead to obesity, diabetes and other metabolic disorders.

So if you’re a poor sleeper or prone to raiding the fridge at midnight, aim for regular meals and lighter midnight snacks.

What foods do you typically eat when you can’t sleep?

 

Blue Light's Effect on Sleep? It's Not All Bad

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.

Blue light interferes with sleep and melatonin secretion at night but is beneficial during the dayBlue 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.

“I Play Solitaire on My iPad at Night”

Screen time at night not just a temptation for teens. A grandmother I met the other day wondered if playing solitaire on her iPad in the middle of the night was contributing to her insomnia and making it harder to fall back to sleep.

I replied that it might be. Humans are most sensitive to the effects of blue light when our brains least expect it: late in the evening, at night, and early in the morning. The most intensive source of blue light is the sun. But the self-luminous screens of computers, iPads and iPhones emit blue light, too, at wavelengths that suppress melatonin. TV screens also emit blue light. But proximity to a light source matters. We position ourselves much closer to handheld devices and computers than we do to TVs, so the newer devices are more likely to interfere with sleep.

There’s an App for That

If you can’t bear to part with your iPad at night, there are ways to protect yourself from the light it emits. Dr. Craig Canapari recently posted an article containing helpful advice, and I’ll summarize it here:

  • Manually dim screens on devices at night
  • Visit Just Get Flux to download free software that automatically adjusts the color temperature of your computer screen according to the time of day
  • Get “night mode” software for your tablet or smartphone. The display will appear as white text on a black background.

You can also wear blue light-blocking glasses at night. A new study of teens shows that blue-blocker glasses with orange lenses allow for normal melatonin secretion and sleepiness to develop at night regardless of time spent looking at screens. But expect to pay more for these glasses than for a cheap pair of sunglasses with orange lenses. Cheap glasses will block blue light and other colors, too, so they won’t work well indoors.

Last but not least, use dim red lights as nightlights. Red light is least likely to suppress melatonin secretion and shift the rhythms of your body clock.

Soak Up the Rays During the Day

In the daytime, on the other hand, exposure to blue light is beneficial. Not only does it boost your attention, speed your reaction time and elevate your mood. It also helps you maintain a regular sleep/wake cycle.

But as the days grow shorter, you may miss out on daily exposure to the sun, a critical source of blue light. If you work in a windowless office, warehouse, or power plant and you commute in the dark, the daily resetting of your body clock enabled by sunlight does not have a chance to occur. Your circadian rhythms may go off track and your sleep take a turn for the worse.

A study just published in PLoS One illustrates this neatly. It was conducted at a polar base station at a time of year when crew members got no daily exposure to sunlight. Here’s what the researchers found:

  • When the subjects were working in standard indoor lighting for 2 weeks, they experienced a significant, 30-minute delay of melatonin secretion in the evening, and a decrease in sleep duration.
  • Working in blue-enriched white light for 2 weeks, they did not experience the delay in melatonin secretion. They slept longer and experienced a greater sense of wellbeing and alertness during the day. Daily exposure to blue-enriched light made the difference.

If you regularly miss out on the sun, consider investing in a light box, which will give you the daily dose of blue light your body needs. Better yet (but maybe something of a long shot), suggest the installation of blue-enriched white light at your workplace. The fact that it enhances work performance could sweeten the idea for the boss.

Have you noticed a seasonal pattern to your insomnia, where in the wintertime it tends to grow worse?