It seems that more and more of us in modern life are struggling to get one of the most instinctual requirements for health: enough quality sleep. As adults, we need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. We used to manage this, as mother nature set us up with built-in mechanisms to help us fall asleep with the rhythm of the sunrises and sunsets. Over the years, the amount of sleep we are getting has been declining, yet nothing has changed in us physiologically. Mother nature doesn’t suddenly require us to get less sleep, so what’s going on? What’s happened in our recent history to make us so bad at sleeping?
Stress, Screens, and Schedules
We used to sleep routinely with the rise and fall of the sun. The term ‘midnight’ literally refers to the middle of the night, except nowadays it’s more like the beginning of the night for many of us. Thanks to electricity, we don’t have to fall asleep and wake up with the cycle of the sun anymore. We can sleep and wake up whenever we want to, or whenever our schedule allows us to. Many of us have stressful jobs and stressful home lives to contend with. Add the stress on top of our ability to choose when we sleep, along with more and more screen time and we have a recipe for less and less quality sleep.
Screens and Sleep
When we look at the decline in the overall amount that we sleep, and compare that to the increase in screen time over the years, we start to see a correlation. Screens are by no means the sole reason for our decline in sleep time, they do however play an important part in the deterioration of our sleep hygiene.
We mentioned that we used to wake and sleep with the cycle of the sun. This is because our body produces and releases a hormone designed to get us sleepy: melatonin!
Melatonin is released by the pineal gland when it is time to sleep. Our body knows it’s time to sleep thanks to darkness. When the sun sets, and we don’t have any artificial lights in the way, our body releases melatonin and prepares us for rest. When the sun rises, the pineal gland stops releasing melatonin so that we can wake up.
It makes a lot of sense that our bodies would have this built-in mechanism for sleeping at night. As animals, we are adapted to be active during the day. Our vision is improved during the daytime, which used to be much more important for our survival, as we could hunt and gather in the day and rest at night in the dark. So the term ‘midnight’ used to mean the middle of the night! The sun would set at around 8pm and would rise at around 4am, and this was around when we would fall asleep and wake up. But then, we created electricity, and we were able to choose when we experience light and darkness. This introduction of light meant that we were influencing our body’s production and release of melatonin without realizing it. Essentially, our modern world is the reason we’ve become so bad at sleeping.
The Harm Caused by Blue Light
Artificial light stops the production of melatonin, just like natural sunlight, and just like the light emitted from your phone screen, tablet screen, and computers. Even the Kindle which is designed as an alternative to books emits a small amount of blue light (better than screens, but will still have an impact on your melatonin release).
The blue light emitted from our screens essentially tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime, so we don’t produce melatonin, so we don’t get sleepy, and so we end up laying in bed scrolling endlessly through social media on our phones waiting to feel tired enough to fall asleep: it’s not going to happen! Being addicted to our screens can make us bad at sleeping.
We need at least a couple of hours away from screens and bright light for our body to produce enough melatonin to get sleepy. And melatonin doesn’t just help us fall asleep. Research is showing that melatonin could have a role to play in the quality of our sleep too, helping us stay asleep in different sleep stages.
If you want to test this out for yourself,
try letting the sunset tonight without turning any lights on in your living space. You’ll probably notice yourself becoming tired the darker it becomes. A good way of encouraging the production of melatonin is to keep the lights dim in the evenings. Even turning off some of the lights in your home to minimize the light in the evenings can help in the production of melatonin.
Stress and Sleep
Why can’t we sleep when we’re stressed? Because we’re in fight, flight, freeze mode and we need the body to be in rest and digest mode. We experience stress as a survival trait. We need to feel stress in order to be motivated to change our situation to be safer. If we didn’t feel stress, we would blissfully wave at a bear stampeding towards us instead of appropriately, running away, preparing to fight, or freezing out of pure shock.
The body needs to feel a healthy balance of stress and calm so that it knows how to survive in potentially dangerous situations, and so that the body frequently rests and digests. When our sympathetic response is active (fight, flight, freeze), our body stops any jobs that are non-essential, like digesting and resting. When we’re undergoing stress, the body has one object: KEEP ME ALIVE. Save whatever nutrients I currently have by closing off my cells, not letting anything new in but also not letting any precious nutrients out. Little does the body know that it’s going a bit overboard in its stress response… we’re not stressed because of survival challenges, we’re stressed because my boss criticized my work project.
We need to activate our parasympathetic response (rest and digest) multiple times per day to make sure the body stays good at doing the things it needs to do during rest to thrive, like digesting our food and recovering.
It’s, unfortunately for many, not good enough to live with stress and then ‘destress’ on the weekends or on holiday. The body needs to rest and digest multiple times every day. If we don’t leave room for our parasympathetic response, we end up with chronic stress and poor mental health, and it becomes that much more difficult for the body to be good at resting and digesting.
The trouble in the modern day is that we experience stress in a very different way than we used to. Our body can’t differentiate stress from arguing with a loved one vs stress from being chased by a bear. We need to actively tell our body ‘Hey, it’s cool, I’m fine, just an argument with a loved one, we got this.’ Luckily, the body has some pretty nifty built-in mechanisms for encouraging the parasympathetic or sympathetic response.
Practice Deep Breathing
What happens to our breath when we’re stressed? What happens to our breath when we’re relaxed? When we’re stressed, our breath is short, rapid, and shallow. When we’re relaxed, our breath is long, slow, and deep.
Not only does our breath inform us as to how we’re feeling, but we can also use our breath to influence how our nervous system is responding to a situation.
If we have time to intentionally breathe deeply, then the body knows we’re in a safe situation and aren’t being chased by a bear. The action of breathing deeply sends the message to the fear center of the brain that we are safe, and in turn, the parasympathetic response happens.
You can practice deep breathing anywhere at any time. Simply take a deep breath in through the nose, and a long slow breath out through the mouth. You can breathe in and out through the nose if you prefer! Keep the body relaxed as you breathe slow, deep breaths. Doing this multiple times a day will give you the parasympathetic response multiple times a day, essentially training the body to get really good at activating this response and staying there.
Schedule and Sleep
In the modern-day, we all have schedules to contend with, and a lot of the time our schedule directly conflicts with our body’s natural circadian rhythm. So our schedules have a lot to do with why we’re bad at sleeping. The circadian rhythm describes our body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. If you have ever worked a shift job, you’ll know the struggle of sleeping and waking at different times every day and often at times that don’t feel natural.
Some of us create our own sleep schedule, staying up late or waking up crazy early, regardless of our body’s natural circadian rhythm. It is much easier for the body to wake and sleep at the same time every day. The body gets into its own routine of when to release certain hormones and start certain functions. By waking and falling asleep at the same time every day, we’re essentially helping the body stick with its natural rhythm. However, not everyone has the luxury to be able to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
Whatever your schedule is, if it’s a sporadic one, a great goal to aim for is getting between 7-9 hours of sleep per night, even if it’s at different times every day.
The Things to Remember about Sleeping in 2021
The way that society currently functions in a lot of places in the world seems to actively discourage a healthy relationship with sleep. We’re stressed and on our screens a lot these days, especially since the pandemic, with more people working from home and more people fearful of their job security. We set expectations for ourselves that make us bad at sleeping and lead to unhealthy sleep schedules and habits.
The fact of the matter is, in order to thrive, whether that’s at work, at home, as a parent, as a friend, as an individual, we need to get enough quality sleep. For many of us, that might mean examining our current lifestyle and questioning what we value, and what we want to start with in terms of improvements to our sleep routine.
We can’t do it all at once. Once you identify the areas of your sleep that you’d like to improve, pick one small item from your list to focus on until it turns into an automatic habit that you don’t need to think about anymore, then you can focus on the next item on the list. It’s not a habit until it’s automatic.
From us at Somnus Therapy, sleep well and stay safe!
Gabie Lazareff is a certified health and yoga coach and experienced wellness author. Writing for Somnus Therapy, the online sleep therapy platform, Gabie is educating readers about the importance of sleep not just to survive, but to thrive.