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Does darkness affect how you sleep?

Have you heard those countless reports that tell us to avoid screen time right before bed? The ones that say not to use your mobile phone or iPad before you drift off? Yet we all can’t help ourselves. We love our technology and we bring it everywhere we go, including into the sheets at night, even though we’re repeatedly told it’s a bad habit.

Have you ever wondered why? It’s because light has a significant impact on how we sleep. Light causes an instinctual trigger on the human body and mind, stimulating the state of wakefulness. So while we are lying there with our faces aglow, checking our Facebook feed or touching up our last Instagram photo before nodding off, we are actually sabotaging our ability to obtain a fulfilling and healthy night’s sleep.

Light’s role in our sleep patterns

We, as mammals, are not nocturnal. We have evolved to be active during the day and to rest at night. As a result, exposure to light activates alertness and increases energy levels because, in the natural world, light occurs during the daytime. The problem is, with technology, we now have access to artificial light, and its exposure late into the evening can cause significant difficulties in triggering our bodies to reach the correct sleep phase. 

Darkness and melatonin

Darkness is an essential condition for sleep. When the eyes detect a reducing amount of light at the end of the day, the brain produces a hormone known as Melatonin which signals the body that it is time to rest. This initiates the body’s physiological preparations for sleep, causing muscles to relax, body temperature to drop and the active internal functions to shut down, ready for maximum relaxation and repair throughout the night. In normal conditions, after the sun sets and darkness falls, Melatonin levels naturally rise into the evening and throughout the night, before subsiding after the sun rises again and during the day.

However, artificial sources of light exposure after sundown inhibits the natural production of Melatonin, which can corrupt this internal biological mechanism (often referred to as a ‘sleep clock’), thus interfering with both the quantity and quality of sleep you receive.

It’s a modern problem

A recent study conducted by Sovereign found that more than a third of New Zealanders (35%) reported not getting enough sleep, or that the quality of their sleep is compromised. Among those aged 35 to 49, the figure rises to 42%. These statistics are quick alarming.

The study also revealed females were more likely to express dissatisfaction than men about the quality and quantity of sleep they’re getting (38% compared to 32%).

The invention of electricity and technology fundamentally changed our relationship with light and dark, creating significant impacts on how our bodies interpret day and night, and consequently, causing challenges to our sleeping patterns. Worse is that most of us don’t even realise the impact it has on our health, which means we remain unaware of why we can often feel unnaturally tired. Luckily, you now know the potential source of the problem and can make the following helpful changes.

Managing your light exposure to improve sleep

Ultimately, managing your light exposure in your home and especially in your bedroom at night time is essential in creating a conducive sleeping environment. For example:

  • Ensure that the curtains are fully drawn and thick enough to block unwanted sources such as street lighting or early morning rays.
  • Gradually decrease the lights more and more as the night goes on, to maximise your body’s preparation for sleep and production of Melatonin.
  • Commit to a regular and consistent ‘lights out’ time, so restore your sleep clock.
  • Consider a comfortable eye mask at night to deepen the darkness experience and protecting the eyes from receiving light.
  • And if you must use your phone after this time, such as a night light to stumble to the bathroom or check on the children, set it to ‘blue light filter’ mode. This reduces the blue light exposure from the screen, and displays only the red spectrum, which is a long wavelength light that has been shown to be less disruptive to sleep patterns.
How a Sleep Assessment can help you

If you are experiencing problems sleeping, you may wish to consider undertaking a free sleep assessment to better understand how to improve your restful state and your overall health. The assessment asks you a series of simple questions designed to help you uncover the cause, and the results will be conveniently sent to you via an email.

You can access the Sleep Assessment here:

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[1] “New study reveals a third of Kiwis are sleep deprived”. Scoop Business on behalf of Sovereign. 15th Feb, 2016.