What gives? They say that Scandinavia is the land of the midnight sun, but I have discovered that this is just a cute little euphemism for the land of sleepless nights. Since being here I have been unable to fall asleep with ease, or sleep soundly without waking. My daytime hours have been spent in a serious Danish daze. It’s not jet lag. It’s the fact that it never gets dark!
When someone comes to me with sleeping problems, the first thing I like to do is assess their bedtime patterns and sleeping environment. Many people watch television towards the end of their day to unwind and some even have a TV in their bedroom and fall asleep watching horrible made-for-TV movies starring Tori Spelling. Some people write emails with their laptops inches from their face, the bright monitor lights blaring into their tired eyes. My stepmother falls asleep reading with all the lights on and wonders why she wakes up an hour later, the rest of her night completely sabotaged.
See what I am getting at here? The dark matters. Think about what the world was like before electricity: I know, that was like, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, but back in the day, humans’ sleep cycles were totally (and naturally) dependent on the day’s light cycles. They rose with the rising sun and slept when it got dark. And it was really dark. Do you think they relied on Ambien? Halcion? Lunesta? I doubt it.
Here’s how it works: Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the retina in the eye to an area in the brain called the hypothalamus. There, a special center called the supra-chiasmatic nucleus (SCN) initiates signals to other parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or wide awake.
The SCN works like a clock that sets off a regulated pattern of activities that affect the entire body. Once exposed to the first light each day, the clock in the SCN begins performing functions like raising body temperature and releasing stimulating hormones like cortisol. The SCN also delays the release of other hormones like melatonin, which is associated with sleep onset, until many hours later when darkness arrives.
Melatonin is a natural hormone made by your body’s pineal (pih-knee-uhl) gland. This is a pea-sized gland located just above the middle of the brain. During the day the pineal is inactive. When the sun goes down and darkness occurs, the pineal is “turned on” by the SCN and begins to actively produce melatonin, which is released into the blood. Usually, this occurs around 9 pm. As a result, melatonin levels in the blood rise sharply and you begin to feel less alert. Sleep becomes more inviting. Melatonin levels in the blood stay elevated for about 12 hours – all through the night – before the light of a new day when they fall back to low daytime levels by about 9 am. Daytime levels of melatonin are barely detectable.
Of course, there are other reasons that people cannot sleep besides their bedrooms being too bright. Stress and anxiety, drug side effects, noise, jet lag, physical pain, or simply being uncomfortable in bed can contribute to a poor night’s sleep. However, making a few small changes to your sleeping routine, instead of resorting to drugs is always the preferred method in my books. Here are some tips for making your night as restful as possible:
1. Try to go to bed at the same time every night to establish a routine.
2. Ensure that the room is dark and quiet.
3. Ensure that the room is a comfortable temperature; not too hot or cold.
4. Invest in a comfy bed.
5. Address any physical problems or discomfort (e.g. heartburn, menopausal hot flashes, arthritis, headaches or back pain) that make sleeping difficult.
7. Exercise during the day, but not within three hours of going to bed.
8. Do not drink alcohol before going to bed.
9. Do not drink caffeinated beverages in the afternoon or evening.
10. Do not work in bed or just before going to bed.
11. Do not watch television or use the computer at least one hour before going to bed.
Even though I always suggest to others that they ensure their sleeping environment be totally dark when they go to bed, sometimes I forget to take my own advice. My boyfriend handed me a sleeping mask last night, and today I feel like I am back to my old self again. Now that I’m back in the dark, I can finally see the light.