23. July 2013 · Comments Off on On Sleep Patterns and the Wonders of Modern Chemistry · Categories: Blog Miscellania

Sleeping man: Image courtesy Flickr user steveleenow via Creative Commons

I spend a lot of time staring into brightly lit screens at close range. I do tech stuff for a living, so it comes with the territory. Plus, the proliferation of mobile gadgets that I’m constantly mucking about with – phones, tablets, whatever – virtually guarantees that for quite a bit of the day I’ve got blue-white LED backlighting shooting into my eyeballs.

Research has indicated that bright light, especially short-wavelength light of the type that a lot of computer screens emit, has the ability to disrupt our sleep/wake cycles. Particularly if you get a good dose just prior to trying to bedtime. I’ve always been sensitive to the amount of ambient light when trying to get to sleep. Needless to say, over the years I’ve had a lot of experience with irregular sleep patterns.

So, recently I decided to try to remedy this. Some would say the smart thing to do would be to avoid any situations or devices that flood my retinas with intense white light before bed. But let’s face it – that’s not likely to happen in an age of Kindle apps, LED-lit flat-screen TVs, the Internet, and smartphones. Too much of what I get information from comes equipped with a high-res screen attached to the front of it.

I did, however, change a number of other things. I go to bed at pretty close to the same time every weeknight. While I’m not a fan of black-out blinds, I do pull the curtains in front of the slat blinds to soften the bright summer morning sun and to further reduce ambient outdoor street lighting at night. I’ve also taken to using earplugs – once I’m asleep I want to make sure I stay that way unless something really loud and important happens.

The thing that has helped significantly, though, has been to add a melatonin supplement. You see, shining bright lights in your eyeballs kinda cheats your internal clock. Exposure to bright light suppresses the natural melatonin release cycle. Melatonin is the hormone that’s responsible for applying the metabolic brakes to your system while sleeping – your heart rate slows, your body temperature drops slightly. Without it, you struggle to fall asleep as the rest of the body wants to keep running at its regular pace. And it can take hours before your natural levels rebound. Taking a supplement boosts your melatonin levels within about a half-hour. I’ve found that 3mg while I’m getting prepared for bed works very well.

Previously, I would regularly be getting to sleep at 1-2 AM. At least once or twice a week. Sometimes it wouldn’t be until three or four in the morning that I’d finally doze off and catch a couple hours sleep until it was time to rise and not-quite-shine. In the four months since starting the new routine, I’ve fallen into a steady pattern of being asleep within 20 minutes of turning out the light and up again at a nearly uniform time in the morning. The only odd effects I’ve noticed is that a) due to the shift in pattern, “sleeping in” on the weekends really doesn’t happen and b) some dreams can be a bit more intense.

Still, if you are having regular problems with primary insomnia (difficulty falling asleep initially), I would recommend both establishing a regular bedtime schedule and trying a melatonin supplement. It promotes regular and natural sleep, unlike sedating anti-histamine based sleep aids. It’s also way safer than prescription options like Ambien. There’s the chance that it may not do anything for you at all. Some insomnia has nothing whatsoever to do with melatonin levels, and supplementing won’t help. But it’s a reasonably safe remedy to try before moving to more drastic measures.

Oh, and as always if you’re on any other medication (especially anything that affects your hormone levels or neurochemistry like antidepressants, antianxietals, MAOI’s, etc.) check with your doctor or pharmacist regarding any potential interactions.

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