How do common sleep aids affect you? How much sleep do you actually need? How close to your bedtime should you watch TV?
My life was a bit of a blur five and a half years ago. I had an 18-month-old who was a horrible sleeper and a newborn. I was probably averaging 5 hours of sleep…on a good night. My husband did help at night, but he was also really good about going to bed at 8:00 pm to make sure he could bank some sleep for late-night waking. If you ask my husband about that time frame, he will say that he loved me even though it seemed like I had put part of my brain in storage for later use. Don’t worry, I retrieved it, but he wasn’t wrong. It was hard to stay on task and focus, but I could not convince myself to stop working so I could go to bed early. However, I don’t remember feeling super sleepy, but oh, was I.
It is a myth that people think they can accurately tell how sleepy they are. When you get less sleep chronically, you adapt to that sense of sleepiness, and it becomes your new normal. However, if you were brought into a sleep lab, we could easily see on tests that you are sleep deprived. You could even be so sleepy you could be walking around with a brain equivalent to you being legally drunk. So why don’t you feel sleepy? Well, sleepiness has this very unique characteristic called masking, which means that when you’re under bright light, if you’re motivated to get a task done, if you’re up and about if you’re walking around, you’re less likely to feel sleepy. It is when you sit and have to concentrate that the mask is peeled back, and you can’t stay awake easily without artificial assistance via caffeine or screens.
Sleep issues are prevalent as most of us have a love-hate relationship with it. We all love to sleep but hate to shut down when we can get enough of it, or maybe we have a hard time staying asleep—hang on, I will get to that later. Sleep is googled more than Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian’s love life. No, really, you can compare the rates at which different terms are googled, and sleep is googled 100x more often than either of the above. But why do we need sleep, and what exactly is the circadian system that manages when we fall asleep and when we wake up?
Sleep and the Circadian System
Sleep forces both the mind and the body to be inactive, so rest and restoration of your brain and body can occur. Stuff in the body and the brain needs cleaning and fixing up for at least six hours a night. Hint, if you are only in bed for six hours you are not asleep for six hours. We spend one-third of our lives (hopefully) sleeping. If we didn’t need sleep, that is a pretty huge design flaw, especially when you think about how vulnerable we are to environmental threats while sleeping—mainly before humans designed deadbolts and steal doors.
Your circadian rhythm is the intrinsic timekeeping clock that we all have. Those clocks regulate almost all physiological functions daily. The master circadian clock is located in your brain and synchronized to the local environment by exposure to light and dark. In addition to that master circadian clock, we also have local clocks in almost every cell in our body, and the master clock controls them.
The master clock in the brain is like a master conductor in an orchestra. The master clock coordinates the timing and function of all the local clocks and, thus, all the body functions. When you don’t get enough sleep, certain functions don’t work as they should because you didn’t follow your clock. An example of a function that gets out of wack when we don’t get enough sleep is hunger. Hormones control hunger, and when you don’t get enough sleep, those hormones don’t send signals the right way, resulting in extra calories every day.
The clock knows when to start because of when light enters your eyes after you get out of bed. This light stimulates the biological clock to suppress melatonin and secrete an alerting signal, which keeps you awake during the day. Now in the afternoon, there’s a mild dip in the alerting signal, which is why you feel a little sleepy, but it does increase after that dip until it starts to get dark. Melatonin is secreted when the light starts to fade at night.
Melatonin and Sleep
Many people have started taking melatonin because it is an “all-natural sleeping pill.” Melatonin is not a sleeping pill; it is not a magic pill, meaning that if you do things to keep you awake, like having a lot of caffeine, it can’t counteract your previous actions. Melatonin is a hormone. When you take melatonin or your body releases it, it signals your brain that you’re getting ready to sleep.
If you take melatonin, the first thing to remember is that you don’t need very much, and your body can release what you need unless you are doing something like changing several time zones. If you are supplementing, you should take it two to three hours before you want to fall asleep. If you take it too close to bedtime, you may not fall asleep, and higher doses may prevent you from falling asleep.
Humans are the only animals that routinely ignore our master clock with artificial light and caffeine. We often hit “I’m still watching” to binge a show when our master clock says to go to bed.
Screens and Sleep
Typically my excuse is “I deserve to sit here and be entertained because it was a hard day” or “it will help me unwind.” First, all scenes, such as TV, playing video games, and scrolling through social media, are distracting, not unwinding. When you get on them, it is like going to a buffet, you are going to get all that you need and more. No one walks away from a buffet thinking, “I am just lightly full,” just like no one walks away from a screen thinking, “wow, I just did the minimum.” PLUS, those backlit LED screens suppress melatonin.
Many people feel that they just do better late at night than in the morning, which can be true. There is a genetic trait called a chronotype, which is your genetic influence on whether you are a morning person (morning lark) or a night person (night owl). Your chronotype modifies whether you do better by being more active in the morning or the evening.
However, this super cool but small research study was done in Colorado, where they took folks on a week-long camping trip with no screens allowed. They collected information via a smartwatch and saliva samples before, during, and after the study. The researchers found that the onset of melatonin shifted two hours earlier with more exposure to natural light. The subjects also went to sleep more than an hour earlier. The night owl participants shifted more than the morning larks to the point that the night owls started looking more like morning larks. If you are interested here is a video of the researchers describing the study (scroll down).
If you are looking to lose weight, decrease your chances of a depressive episode this year, improve your immune system or have nicer-looking skin look no further than getting some extra zzzs. Want to know exactly why or can’t get back to sleep? For all the reasons why sleep affects weight gain and how to get back to sleep check out my upcoming post. In the meantime, check out this week’s DIG Deep Steps and work on getting those zzzs in.
DIG (Get Deliberate, Get Inspired, Get Going) Deep Action Steps:
Get Deliberate: Get yourself started on some sleep hygiene techniques so you can get to bed when your master clock has prepped your body for sleep.
Follow the 10, 3, 2, 1, 0 Good Sleep Guide
- 10 hours before sleep, stop caffeine (in the next post you will find out why…)
- 3 hours before you go to sleep, have your last meal of the day
- 2 hours before you sleep, stop all work and destress
- 1 hour before you go to sleep, stop your blue-screen devices
- 0 is the number of times you hit the snooze button in the morning. If you are hitting the snooze you are sleep deprived and should have gone to bed earlier.
Get Inspired: Create a sleep sanctuary in your bedroom. Take out the TV, charge your phone in the hallway and bring in the lavender spray. Try this Tiny Habit goal. Write down on a piece of paper, “When I am done brushing my teeth I will put my phone in the hallway to charge” or “When I am done loading the dishwasher I will sit and listen to a book or read a book for 30 min.” Did you know that by writing it down you are 42% more likely to actually do it?
Get Going: When you plug in your phone celebrate that you followed through! Celebrating when you do something good for yourself is HUGE for wiring in that new habit! You won’t always succeed but when you do a micro celebration. Running man or moonwalk back to your bedroom. I dare you.