Can’t sleep.. again? Mind running at a million miles when you’re laying in bed.. again? Waking up at 3am wide awake? There’s nothing worse – especially if you just don’t know why. These sleep saboteurs contribute to difficulties sleeping and insomnia, impaired productivity, and poor mental health. Before change comes awareness, so out of all the things that can ruin your sleep, as an expert, i’m humbled to bring you the top three.
The first reason you can’t sleep: blue light
Light, especially blue light, is our primary zeitgeber, the main factor controlling the circadian rhythm and therefore, melatonin levels.If there is one single reason you have sleeping problems, this is probably it.
When we are exposed to blue light, melatonin production is impaired, which leaves us feeling alert and awake even if it’s late.
Concerningly, even lights on low can be problematic. A 2019 study published in the journal PNAS showed melatonin synthesis can be impaired by 50 per cent by a dim interior light.
Sources of blue light include devices (see below), as well as ceiling lights.
Devices contribute to difficulty sleeping too
We’ve heard it all before, but devices are bad… really, really bad for our sleep. A 2012 study published in BMJ Open found the following:
- Using a phone in the last hour before bed increases your likelihood of taking over an hour to fall asleep, by 48 per cent, and using a computer in this timeframe increases this likelihood to 52 per cent.
- Similarly, using a phone in the last hour before bed increases the likelihood of losing two or more hours of sleep by 35 per cent, and using a computer in this timeframe increases this likelihood to 53 per cent.
Though you may think your phone’s ‘night mode’ is saving your sleep, it’s not quite true. A 2018 study by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York found that ‘night mode’ only lessened the negative effect of blue light on melatonin levels by four per cent.
However, the problems don’t stop at laptops and phones, TV also causes problems. The study mentioned above found that those who watched television before bed were the most likely, of all tech users, to report night-time wakings.
Finally, using e-readers like kindles? Unfortunately, also an issue.
A 2018 study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that e-readers can suppress melatonin levels by 55 per cent. This contributes to difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep, alongside unrefreshing sleep
The best way to overcome this?
Using a goodnight phone alarm, as advised in my bedtime routine. When this goes off, put all devices (phone included) out of the bedroom. If you currently need it as an alarm, get a traditional alarm clock.
Third reason you can’t sleep is stress
When stressed, our nervous system moves into ‘alarm’ phase, also known as fight or flight mode. When this happens, stimulating hormones adrenaline and cortisol increase, leaving you extra alert. This often results in an inability to switch off at night.
Historically, this system allowed our species to survive. If stressed by a predator, this extra alertness meant we could run away or fight with greater tenacity. However, in modern times, this system doesn’t serve us so well. Chronic stressors, such as excessive work often don’t resolve, so we stay hyper-alert at night.
Note that stress causes particular difficulties through the night. This is evident at 3am, as this is the time when stress hormone cortisol usually rises, as directed by the circadian rhythm. If your cortisol levels are too high – because you’re too stressed – when this happens, you’re likely to wake up.
The best way to overcome this?
Practicing daily stress relieving activities, such as meditation, movement and mindfulness. Second, having a regular therapist or coach, and taking periodic breaks – at least once a quarter – to properly disconnect from stress, and get back to your best self.