Are Your Body and Life in the Same Time Zone?By Phyllis Stein
January 29, 2012
Sometimes we cannot fall asleep because our internal sleep clock and our lives are not in alignment. Learn what you can do to solve this.
For many lucky people, sleep comes easily and naturally. I was never one of them. Although it got worse as I got older, I long ago noticed that tired and sleepy did not necessarily, or even usually, go together. The worst nights were when my husband and I would fight and I could not fall asleep at all. Even as, after years of Inner Bonding, I no longer kept myself awake worrying and obsessing about things I could not control, I still worried about not being able to fall asleep and then judged myself for that, thinking that if I could only stop worrying about it, I would surely fall asleep. Some people function well without sleep. I never could and a headache and general feeling that life was too hard were pretty much guaranteed. As I developed the chronic pain which led to my having hip replacement surgery, it got even worse, although I was proud of my creativity in learning to manage it.
Two things changed that, a lot. The first was that I tried Sam-E to reduce the pain of my hip arthritis (after reading about a positive study) and realized that when I took Sam-E in the morning, even if I did not get enough sleep, for the first time in my life, I COULD function. (I also learned that if I took it in the evening, it would keep me awake). That alone was huge and took a lot of pressure off. But the biggest thing I learned, thanks to my colleague Robert Thomas, a sleep researcher at Harvard, is that I was suffering from delayed sleep phase syndrome. In reality, it was not that I could not sleep, but that I could fall asleep perfectly well when I actually got sleepy (at 1 or 2 AM), even though I was physically exhausted and trying to get to sleep at 11. What a concept, that I could not fall asleep because I was out of phase with my sleep clock, not as a result of something I was not able to do! Not to worry, he told me. He had worked with thousands of people with delayed sleep phase and once they get their rhythm straightened out, they were fine. So I wanted to share what he told me to do with you, because if you are delayed, this will change your life!
I had written another column for this site about sleep (https://www.innerbonding.com/mobile/show-article/1776/eleven-questions-that-might-help-you-sleep-better.html), which overlaps this one a little bit, but that one focused more broadly on things that can help you sleep better. This one is just about understanding your body’s clock. You actually have a sleep clock which regulates what is called your sleep drive, or in plain English, how sleepy you are. The sleep clock, among other things, is regulated by the pineal gland, a part of your brain which secretes melatonin. When the melatonin peaks, you feel sleepy but it starts building up way before that. Going to bed is not what regulates your melatonin production and taking melatonin at bedtime does not usually do much, probably, because there is a lot of other stuff going on too or maybe that a brief pulse of melatonin is not enough. What regulates your sleep clock, basically, is light exposure and specifically exposure to blue light, because the parts of your retina that are connected to the pineal gland are most sensitive to this color. It all made sense before electricity.
I had worked with shifting my rhythm at the time I wrote the last column (2 years ago) and it helped but there was so much else going on that it was not my highest priority. I was doing okay, but I was also on pain meds. Now, long post surgery, I am not. Recently, my lab moved from the offsite location we had occupied for 11 years, back to the main medical school campus. We left the main campus because too many buildings had been torn down, and there was no space. The move was incredibly stressful, because of the number of decisions I had to make and the amount of stuff I had to sort thru as well as the fact that there were still other deadlines that I had to meet and that did not stop because of the move. Everyone who works for me was wonderful and helpful, but I wound up staying late, trying to get it all done. Without realizing it, I was shifting my sleep clock, staying in bright light, staring at a computer until 9 at night, before coming home and trying to get to bed at 11. I became less and less able to fall asleep. Even taking Ambien, I would not get sleepy until 2 AM!! Relaxation exercises did not do much either. A very bad cycle! I could NOT get enough sleep no matter how hard I tried, and I refused to see if taking more and more medication would help. I have never gotten myself into that space before, or maybe never with the simultaneous requirement that I function. I knew I had to take getting my body and my life into the same time zone completely seriously! So, if you are dealing with this issue, here are the recommendations.
A. Starting at the end of the day…
1. 1. Assuming you want to get to bed at around 11, avoid really bright light after 6 PM (defined as more than 1000 lux and I did get a light meter to find out what that was). If the light seems really bright, it probably is. If you cannot get away from the light, then sunglasses would work.
2. 2. Avoid blue light after 8 PM. I recently got yellow tinted blue blocker sunglasses that fit over my regular glasses and also fit over my computer glasses which are larger. Yellow ones let a lot of light thru, and I can even drive at night with them on. Much better than the half-blind blue blockers I had before!
3. 3. A major source of blue light is your computer screen (which you can sometimes turn down) and your TV. Need the blue blockers after 8!
4. 4. Take very low dose melatonin at 8 PM (300 micrograms, much less that you usually see at the store and available online).
5. 5. Reading in bed with a book or a Kindle and low light is fine (low is less than 50 lux which is not that dim) but reading on an IPAD will delay your sleep clock, unless you block the blue light. You already know not to read anything too interesting, but for those of us who might get into worrying about falling asleep, reading is a good way to relax, and I know when it gets hard to read, I am sleepy and I can turn off my (new) Kindle and fall asleep easily. That will not work if my body is in the wrong time zone but it is working now.
6. 6. I mentioned, in my other column, that you cannot expect to go from 100 to zero in 10 minutes. It helps to wind down for at least on hour. I actually do sometimes walk slowly on my treadmill while watching TV after 9 PM, but it is not aerobic exercise.
7. 7. Avoid caffeine. Find out what that means for you. For me, no coffee or chocolate after noon, but green tea in the late afternoon is okay. If I am caffeinated, even if my thoughts are not racing at all, the light inside my brain (called the reticular activating system) just does not turn off.
8. 8. A cold bedroom (with warm enough covers) really helps your sleep clock, not only at bedtime but during the night.
B. In the morning…
1. 1. Bright light!!! You can turn on every light in your bedroom if you can get it bright, or open the shades when you wake up, or use a “SAD” light, either blue or full spectrum for 15-30 minutes within an hour of waking up. Do not stare at it! It can be on your desk, at least 2 feet away, when you check your e-mail.
2. 2. If you want to start shifting your rhythm more, after you are stable, you can wake up a little earlier and use the morning light to teach your body it is time to wake up. Of course you can shift the timing at the other end too.
T This whole experiment, or the parts that seem right to you, is really worth trying. Give it 2 weeks. Sometimes, even without noticing it, with the help of modern lighting and electronics, we can be badly out of phase. What I notice, and others have too, is that it FEELS different to be in phase, during the day as well as at bedtime. It feels, of course,” in phase,” a certain harmony, but I would not have known that I was NOT in phase before. Just before I submitted this article, I realized that some of this may well apply to sleep issues with your children as well. I would love to hear if this is helpful to you!
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