With the weather finally starting to make a change for the warmer and longer days of spring, many readers write in this time of year because they notice that with the longer days they have better sleep habits.
One gentleman asked a while back why it is that he feels so much better and can sleep better at night if he starts his day spending just 15 minutes outside on his porch swing just sitting in the bright morning sun.
What he noticed is something that scientists and sleep doctors have known for a long time…that pronounced periods of time spent exposed to bright light (real or artificial) contributes to better, more restorative sleep.
As the reader mentioned above asked, why is this do you suppose?
The main reason is that in order to experience the proper sleep cycles and for the optimum amount of time, several things must fall into place such as opportunity, environment, and body chemistry.
We have a good deal of control over much of these elements, such as minimizing stress, having a peaceful environment in which to sleep, and regulating our pre-sleep behavior to optimize the success of getting to sleep and staying asleep.
However, other than eating right and eliminating the anti-sleep toxins such as caffeine and alcohol, it can be tricky trying to control the inner-workings of the glands in the brain that are the gatekeepers to restful sleep.
Melatonin is a hormone that is critical in regulating the body’s sleep and wake cycles. The production of this hormone by the pineal gland is affected by light, which is why its levels peak during the night.
It’s kind of a collection of chain links in the production of melatonin, and it starts in the eyes. Light reaching the retina is passed along the nerves to the hypothalamus, then on to the pineal gland. This impulse is what causes the production of serotonin.
This is why the sunlight on our reader’s face seemed to have so many benefits. It naturally stimulates the production of a very critical chemical that the body needs for peaceful function.
Serotonin, as many people familiar with depression disorders are acutely familiar with now, is responsible for mood, muscle recovery, sleep patterns, and other processes. This hormone is then converted to melatonin in the body.
The dance between these two chemicals is seen as a day/night partnership.
As serotonin is used during the day, melatonin is created slowly until evening time, and the melatonin starts its work. Melatonin works by making you feel drowsy and it gently sooths your body into a natural sleep cycle.
When there is an imbalance or a problem with one or both hormones, you see the problems with sleep disorders such as insomnia.
Problems can be as a result of something we do or don’t do, which is a controllable environmental issue. Examples of this would be like I mentioned above…consuming too much caffeine, drinking alcohol before bed, and even smoking. All these behaviors introduce chemicals into the body that compete with melatonin.
Problems can be also attributed to what we can’t control, such as the aging process. Even the healthiest living people will see a reduction in the amount of melatonin their bodies will produce. This is a natural deficiency that occurs with many seniors.
Likewise, not getting proper sleep can affect how well glands in the body function, such as with the pineal gland not producing enough serotonin. Thus the cycle begins to turn in a different direction and the dance of hormones becomes more of a mosh pit.
Phototherapy, as it is also called, has been used for many years to treat a variety of conditions, and has a tremendous body of evidence to support its use in treating the insomnia and depression that occurs as a result of these deficiencies.
It is administered first thing in the natural waking cycle, which, for most is first thing in the morning. However, as with those who do shift work or are stuck on a submarine for months at a time, it can be administered at any time as long as it’s the same time each 24-hour cycle to simulate the normal wake/sleep patterns of most people.
This stimulates the natural production of serotonin, which leads to a natural use and conversion to melatonin. Once the body has been treated in this way for even just a few days, it has shown to be very effective at improving the restful nature of a disrupted sleep pattern.
Therapy can range from a few minutes in a tanning bed (not recommended due to UV dangers) to portable lights that sit on the desktop to just a simple break in the morning on a porch swing.
Desk top lights range in the $150-$300 range but are widely available on the Internet and are safer than UV-A and UV-B-packed tanning beds and sunshine. They can also be used any time of year and the weather doesn’t matter…just plug it in and sit for a few minutes.
However, sunlight is a little more on the “free” side and while it depends largely upon the season and also whether or not you are having clouds and rain, it can be tremendously beneficial in stimulating the serotonin and also valuable vitamin D.