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.

A Tip for the Tired and Wired

I recently joined a friend to watch Cloud Atlas at her home. A bad choice for evening entertainment! This is a movie where evil is lurking around every corner.

New research on laboratory mice suggests why arousing activities have such a strong impact on sleep.

horror-movieI recently joined a friend to watch Cloud Atlas at her home. A bad choice for evening entertainment! This is a movie where evil is lurking around every corner, and the suspense in each of the six plotlines tied my stomach up in knots. We turned off the DVD player near bedtime, but unwinding enough to fall asleep took me nearly three hours. Even then my sleep was patchy and unsatisfying.

What we do and what we think about before bedtime has a big impact on our sleep. Aristotle had this figured out back in Ancient Greece. “The intellectual activities which cause wakefulness are those in which the mind searches and finds difficulties rather than those in which it pursues continual contemplation,” he wrote.

New research on laboratory mice suggests why arousing activities have such a strong impact on sleep. Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have discovered two new proteins, one that tracks sleep need and the other that determines how long it takes to fall asleep. Their study, published last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that these two processes are separate, and that even mice that were sleep deprived did not fall asleep quickly when placed in an arousing environment.

Tired and Wired

The subjects in this experiment were three groups of mice with identical genes. The control group was allowed to sleep and wake up at will.

The two test groups were deprived of sleep for six hours. During this time, one test group underwent a series of cage changes. With each new cage change, the mice set about vigorously exploring their new surroundings for about an hour. Mice in the other test group were kept awake by a researcher gently tapping the cage or waving a hand in front of their faces.

When finally the mice in the two test groups were allowed to sleep, the second group dropped off right away. But the cage-exchange mice took as long to fall asleep as mice in the well-rested control group.

“The need to sleep is as high in the cage-changing group as in the gentle-handling group,” said Dr. Masashi Yanagisawa, lead author of the study, quoted in Science Daily. “But the cage-changers didn’t feel sleepy at all. Their time to fall asleep was nearly the same as the free-sleeping, well-rested control group.”

Moral of the Story

You can’t always control what happens in the evening, and it’s boring to be a shut-in while others are out having fun. But if sleep is what you’re after, follow the advice offered by Dr. A. Brigham in 1845: “Those who are liable to have disturbed sleep should take especial care that their evenings pass tranquilly.”

What kinds of evening activities typically disrupt your sleep?

Q & A: Getting Back to Sleep at 3

What can you do when insomnia strikes in the middle of the night, a woman wrote to Ask The Savvy Insomniac.

I’ve dealt with this one myself. Here’s how:

reading at nightWhat to do when insomnia strikes in the middle of the night? A woman writing to Ask The Savvy Insomniac described her situation this way:

“I have the type of insomnia where I wake up to go to the bathroom around 3 a.m. and then I can’t fall back to sleep. Immediately I say to myself, here we go, I need to go to the bathroom really quick and try not to wake up too much. I try not to think about anything and get right back into bed. But then I start to have a lot of anxieties and tension. My mind starts racing and I can’t quiet it enough to fall back to sleep. I stay in bed, but I get progressively more upset about being awake.”

How, she asked, could she train herself to fall back to sleep after going to the bathroom?

I’ve dealt with this one myself. It is galling to awaken in the dead of the night and know you need more shut-eye, yet be unable to fall back to sleep.

Looking for a Cause

One thing to consider is whether the cause of your wake-ups is within your power to change. If needing to go to the bathroom is the issue, maybe cutting down on liquids (particularly alcohol) in the evening would enable you to sleep through the night, or at least sleep longer.

The culprit may lie in the environment. Once I overheard a man talking about the frequent wake-ups he experienced at 3:04 a.m. One night he stayed up to investigate the situation and found that the water softener in his home came on with a loud blast at exactly 3:04 in the morning! Setting the water softener to run at an earlier time, when he was sleeping more deeply, solved the problem.

So You’re Awake: Now What?

I know a couple of middle-of-the-night insomnia sufferers whose solution is to lie in bed listening to books on CD, and eventually drift off. An insomniac writing on the Internet uses deep breathing and relaxation exercises in bed to return to sleep. More power to these folks, I say. Do what works.

But If I wake up at night, the worst thing for me is to stay in bed. Inevitably I start feeling warmer, and a thousand negative thoughts clamor for attention. Getting up to do something is the only thing that helps (though crawling out from under warm covers in the winter can be brutal). I leave the bedroom and read till my head starts nodding. Then I head back to bed.

Sleep experts talk about insomniacs’ need to break the associations that trigger wakefulness in bed. The more time awake we spend in bed, so the theory goes, the more wakefulness becomes a fixed pattern, and the more awake we’re likely to be. I suspect this is how it works in me.

So if insomnia strikes in the middle of the night, I plant myself in the comfy chair in my office and read till I’m sleepy. I don’t always manage to slide over the hump, but sometimes I do.

What do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night? Does it put you back to sleep?