Regular Columns

How to get a good night’s sleep: Total darkness helps

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By T.L. Grace West

I have a drape over my bedside lamp to dim it while I read before bed. After putting on my eye mask, I settle in to sleep.

My son and daughter-in-law have dark curtains for my grandson’s bedroom windows to help with sound sleep.

What does darkness have to do with getting to sleep and staying asleep all night?

Research by the National Sleep Foundation (sleepfoundation.org) shows a greater understanding about how our brains and external environment work together to help balance our sleep-wake cycles, which promote our health and wellness.

Adults ideally should get seven to nine hours of sleep a night.

Our inherent biological rhythm that helps balance our sleep-awake cycle is called our circadian rhythm.  The term circadian comes from the Latin circa, meaning “approximately,” and diem, meaning “day.”

Each day, our eyes send information to the brain’s biological clock about the amount of light present and that information is relayed on to another part of our brain that produces the hormone melatonin.

Sometimes referred to as the “Dracula of hormones,” melatonin is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light, which helps us feel sleepy at night and awake during the day.

With the advent of nighttime artificial light, our natural rhythms can be altered and the production of melatonin can be delayed resulting in difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep. Light sources that delay the production of melatonin include bright lights in your bedroom, and even light from your alarm clock; light from TVs, computers, smart phones and tablets; and light that seeps in from outside.

But you can support your natural circadian rhythm and production of melatonin to promote a sound night’s sleep.

About an hour before bedtime, dim your lights and shut off computer screens. The jury is still out on the effects of reading e-books at night. E-books light up differently from the short-wave blue light found in other screens, so their effect on the production of melatonin has not been shown to be detrimental.

You can darken your bedroom with curtains and cover lights from clocks and TVs, or you can wear an eye mask.

If you get up during the night, instead of turning on lights, use a red-yellow dim light, night light or flashlight so you can return to sleep easily.

Turn off outside lights not needed at night. Investigate different kinds of outside safety lights including motion lights and lights that are directed downward to minimize light pollution. For some people, taking melatonin supplements helps regulate sleep. Research indicates melatonin supplements are especially effective with jet lag. More research is needed for this over-the-counter sleep aid.

But why bother with all of this?

Getting regular sleep promotes your levels of alertness, mental efficiency and motor functioning.

Research suggests that sleep deprivation can be as much if not more damaging than alcohol intoxication while driving a car or working with dangerous machinery.

The World Health Organization has linked night shift work, which suppresses melatonin levels, with an increased risk for breast and advanced prostate cancer.

Many body systems are negatively impacted from a lack of sleep, i.e., memory lapses or loss, impaired immune system, increased risk of diabetes (Type 2), increased risk of heart disease, tremors and aches, risk of obesity, depression and anxiety.

If you suspect you might have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, sleepwalking, restless leg syndrome, night terrors, then seek medical advice and treatment.

Otherwise, why not try working with your natural circadian rhythm and promote timely production of melatonin in your body by allowing for darkness to tuck you in for a good night’s sleep.

The circled area shows the darkness of the Outer Banks relative to the rest of the East Coast.

DINING IN DARKNESS:

Fun Fact: Darkness can enhance dining experience.

Since a blind clergyman in Zurich, Switzerland, opened the first “dining in the dark’” restaurant in 1999, dozens of international sites have followed suit.

Initially, the intent focused on awareness-raising about blindness to the sighted customer. However, the experience of dining in the dark also resulted in a greater enjoyment of food through the use of other senses. Some restaurants employ blind or visually impaired waiters and share proceeds with organizations for the blind.

While Ocracoke lacks a “dining-in-the-dark” restaurant, you may want to try to simulate this idea by wearing blindfolds for at least part of a meal with family and friends.

Using only taste and smell rather than sight may bring unexpected surprises to your dining experience.

 

 

Terrilynn Grace West lives, gardens and works on Oc­racoke, providing warm water massage therapy.

 

 

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