I would say about 85% of the people I meet in my work have some sort of problem with their sleep. Currently being termed a ‘sleep crisis’, sleep deprivation has become an epidemic.
Until recently, the impact of poor sleep on the country’s health has been hugely underestimated. Exacerbated by the cultural messaging that sleep deprivation is essential if you want to be a high achiever, most of us don’t prioritize sleep when we organise the hours in our day.
There are many, many reasons for poor sleep. These range from chronic pain, allergies, noise disruptions and digestive complaints to stress, grief, relationship troubles and financial strain, to name but a few. This post isn’t about to delve into all the great research being done to help relieve this epidemic, although follow-up posts will.
Today, I wanted to look at one key factor in particular, that puts a little perspective on our ‘sleep crisis’.
What Is the Circadian Rhythm?
Defined as “an internal cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep, rise, eat”, our circadian rhythm is a roughly 24-hour cycle, that regulates our sleep-wake patterns, hormone release, body temperature and other important bodily functions. Exposure to darkness and light are both vital to how well our circadian rhythms work. This internal body clock is directly triggered by environmental cues like sunlight, darkness and temperature.
Melatonin is the hormone that helps control our sleep and wake cycles and is released when the body is exposed to darkness and turned off when the body is exposed to natural light.
This shines an interesting light (pun intended!) on those struggling with sleep, as mobile phones, web use and TVs emit a blue light thought to be the same frequency as daylight that confuses our 'evening' brains and hence our body's natural 'wind down' processes.
There are alternative screen colours now to try to counter this but if you do struggle getting off to sleep, it is advisable to restrict use of these things at least an hour before you go to bed. Knowing this may also change your bedtime routine. Maybe a dark candle-lit bath will prove the best way to trigger your melatonin production and help you drop off more easily? Or making sure your room is completely dark, quiet and cool may be the answer to a quality sleep.
Taking this a step further, the higher the levels of serotonin present in the body, the more melatonin can be produced. A new study shows that the brain produces more serotonin, the hormone known for it’s mood-lifting, calming and focusing effects, on sunny days than on darker days as direct exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of this essential hormone. Hence why in the winter months, people are more likely to have low energy, anxiety and SAD (seasonal affective disorder).
But also, in terms of sleep, lack of sunlight exposure during the day, may mess with our sleep cycle at night, as reduced serotonin levels, the precursor to melatonin production, may lower the amount of melatonin available to us as darkness falls.
There is so much bad press about the harmful effects of UV that many people have ‘sunlight malnutrition’. From wearing high factor face cream to hibernating inside our offices, people aren’t getting even the small amount of daylight exposure essential to our health and vitality.
When it comes to sleep, most people focus on their nightly rituals but what you do during your waking hours is just as important. A beautiful brisk walk in the daylight, the earlier in the day the better, will help keeping your natural rhythms on track and everything else will follow.
As the famous quote says “Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you”…… and maybe your mood, your sleep and your whole day will be improved in the process!