Protecting Your Sleep During the Coronavirus Outbreak

As the dozens of emails in our inbox from every single company we’ve ever interacted with keep reminding us, these are unprecedented/uncertain/trying times. Seriously though, we are living through a global pandemic – an enduring worldwide crisis and natural disaster – and everything about what normal life used to look like has been upended. We’re simultaneously going through this together, yet isolated as we shelter in place, and each of us are experiencing unique challenges as we make the best of the cards we have been dealt. Perhaps you may benefit from taking a moment right now to give yourself patience and grace, to be okay with operating in survival mode, and to compassionately reorient yourself to self-care.

Naturally, I want to talk about self-care in the form of sleep.

Two main features of our shared experience during these times seem to be: 1) heightened stress/anxiety (about the virus, about loved ones getting sick, about economic impacts) and 2) a disruption to our normal routines (work, daily schedules, family life, recreation). Both increased stress/anxiety and disrupted routine can trigger acute, or short-term, problems with sleep, regardless of whether you have a history of sleep problems. Indeed, #cantsleep has been trending worldwide,1 and I’ve been hearing from my clients, coworkers, and friends that their sleep has taken a nose-dive recently.

Unfortunately, this comes at a time when getting good sleep is especially important for our health and well-being. Particularly relevant, sleep is linked to boosting the immune system, which reduces the risk of infection and helps to fight sickness more effectively. Also, sleep helps to better regulate mood and mental health – critical during this time when we are socially isolated, more stressed, and less able to engage in our normal coping activities. I want to encourage you to approach your sleep as an essential form of self-care to help you through these times.

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Boosting Your Melatonin (With This One Weird and Completely Legal Trick)

Not uncommonly I get asked about taking melatonin supplements, and I find that quite a few of my clients are taking melatonin currently or have in the past. And it’s not hard to see why it’s so widespread. You can get it without a prescription, it’s marketed as natural and safe, and it’s available in flavored teas, gummies and smoothies. There’s even liquid melatonin that comes with an eyedropper for convenient use with infants(!!). Walk down the “sleep” aisle at your local drugstore and you’ll see all of these and more.

Misunderstood and mis-taken

The only problem: melatonin is not really a sleep aid. It doesn’t make you sleepy. The majority of people taking melatonin are doing it all wrong. They tend to take it at the wrong time (right before bed), their dosing is too large (the smallest dose usually available, 1 mg, is still 4-5 times what the body produces), and they expect melatonin to induce sleepiness (it doesn’t). On the other hand, I have heard some physicians refer to it as a pretty effective placebo, and they’ll go along with patients who are convinced they need it to sleep. I guess I can’t argue with that.

Melatonin is not a sleeping pill, but rather, a “darkness signaling” hormone that operates as part of the body’s circadian rhythms. When the ambient light levels decrease in the evening – signaling that the sun is setting – special photoreceptors in the eye relay that information to the brain’s circadian control center (called the suprachiasmatic nucleus) which broadcasts that message to the whole brain by causing a tiny gland (the pineal gland) to release the hormone melatonin. As a result, various circadian processes know that it’s the right part of the 24 hour cycle to do things like: wind down, lower body temperature, reduce the alerting signals, etc. The actual feeling of sleepiness is caused by the homeostatic sleep drive that has built up during the day.

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Here’s Why Your Smartphone Should Stay Out of Your Bed

By now, you probably have already read somewhere or been told by someone that it’s not good to be using your phone in your bed. Perhaps you’ve even tried cutting back on your in-bed screen time, but haven’t noticed much difference or found it too hard. After all, your phone is your bedside alarm clock… as well as your ebook reader, and your anti-boredom device, and your social network portal, and your emergency communications system… It’s no wonder that people have such a difficult time unplugging from it, even in bed. So exactly how bad is it? And, do you really need to give it up?

“Blue” light is disruptive to sleep

There’s now wide scientific consensus that the type of light emitted from our digital devices (smartphones, tablets, computers, etc.) is particularly disruptive to our body’s regulation of sleep, and it has to do with light wavelengths and your circadian rhythm. Up until the advent of electricity, humans have relied on the sun’s schedule to sleep and rise, and we now know that our bodies are biologically attuned to sunlight to keep our circadian rhythms aligned with the earth’s day and night cycle. With the invention of electricity and artificial lighting, we have effectively been able to extend the daylight hours, causing disruption to the circadian rhythm.

In fact, research in recent years has found the exact mechanism that gets disrupted – the secretion of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, gets suppressed with light exposure and causes the onset of sleepiness to become delayed. This effect is most pronounced for light with shorter wavelengths, which means light on the blue end of the spectrum. And that, it turns out, is exactly the type of light emitted by our digital devices: smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs, and other LCD screens. Thus the brighter the screen and the closer to bedtime your use is, the more likely it is to disrupt your sleep that night as well as your circadian rhythm in the longer term.

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