Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Sleep

I’ve been looking into sleep lately and relearned a few things I thought I’d pass on. First, circadian rhythms are our bodies’ biological clocks, which work with light and darkness to naturally put us to sleep and wake us up. Second, melatonin is a sleep hormone, while cortisol is a hormone that helps us wake up. And third, artificial light of all kinds affects our circadian rhythms, which control the timing of many physiological processes.

It’s pretty widely known that we’re not getting enough sleep. Less well known is that one of the major causes is the blue light emanating from our electronic devices, which has been shown to trigger sleeplessness. Blue light suppresses melatonin production for more than twice as long as other light wavelengths and alters circadian rhythms by twice the degree. It can also increase the frequency of waking during the night.

Further, blue light prevents body temperature from dropping at night. Part of how we settle into sleep is by gradually lowering our body temperature. When that process gets disrupted, we don’t sleep as well. And since we sleep fewer hours than we should anyway, anything that diminishes our quality of sleep is dangerous.

So how do we overcome this disruption to our sleep patterns?

What I find helpful is to read in bed on an old-fashioned, information-dispensing device – not an iPad or phone. I’m talking about paper and ink, getting away from my electronics as a way of preparing my brain for slumber. Yes, there are blue-light-blocking glasses that help, and I could set my lights to gradually turn off at a certain time too, though I would still need the blue-light filters if I wanted to read off a screen.

So, a book, huh? Or a magazine? How quaint. And yet, very effective at inducing slumber for me. I find the best kind of reading before bed is nonfiction or poetry, something interesting enough that I’m willing or even eager to get back to it every night, but not so captivating that I’ll stay up late to find out what happens next.

Less helpful is reading a novel. With most fiction, I have to remember who all the characters are and what they did last and who’s trying to destroy whom and who’s in love with whom. By the time I recall all that, I’m too tired to read.

I particularly enjoy nonfiction – short pieces/essays I can read in a few minutes. That way, if I’m not tired after finishing one, I can move on to a second or even third piece. However, even longer books will work since I can read a few pages and put the volume down without worrying about whether I’m going to remember what I read last night.

I like reading about the world, and recent research bears out that we retain information better if we sleep shortly after learning something new. Sleep apparently helps consolidate memory. So you not only learn something, but you retain it better than you otherwise would.

That said, there are certain things you might not want to read unless you like having nightmares. Like, for example, political material. Sweet dreams.

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