Getting good quality sleep and sleeping better overall is essential for our mental and physical well-being, as it helps us to recharge and restore our energy levels. But getting enough restful sleep can be challenging with increasing stress levels, longer work hours, and more distractions than ever.
Fortunately, you can take a few simple steps to improve your sleep quality and wake up refreshed and energized each morning. In this blog post, we will explore the importance of melatonin, blue light exposure in the evening time and REM (rapid eye movement) cycles in helping to promote better quality sleep.
Melatonin helps you sleep better. It is made in your body and enables you to feel sleepy. When it gets dark, your body produces more melatonin so you can sleep. Melatonin heavily influences circadian rhythms.
Blue light is electromagnetic radiation from digital screens such as televisions, smartphones, and other electronic devices. This type of light has shorter wavelengths, meaning it has higher energy levels than different types of light. This blue light can reduce melatonin production in the body and disrupt our natural sleep cycles. Studies have found a link between exposure to light at night, such as working the night shift, to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
A Harvard study shed some light on the possible connection between diabetes and obesity. The researchers put ten people on a schedule that gradually changed the timing of their circadian rhythms. Their blood sugar levels increased, throwing them into a prediabetic state, and leptin levels, a hormone that leaves people feeling full after a meal, also decreased.
Exposure to light suppresses the secretion of melatonin. Even dim light can interfere with your circadian rhythm and melatonin release. A mere eight lux—a brightness exceeded by most table lamps and about twice that of a night light—has an effect. Light at night is the key reason so many people don't get enough sleep. Poor sleep is linked to an increased risk for depression, as well as diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
REM sleep is a type of sleep characterized by quick, random eye movements and enhanced dreaming. This stage of sleep is the deepest and most restorative form of sleep. During REM sleep, your brain becomes active and releases higher neurotransmitters responsible for regulating mood.
Various factors, such as environmental noise, excessive movements, or stress, can disrupt REM sleep. External stimuli like heat, light, and noise—particularly loud or sudden noises—can also interrupt the REM cycle. Caffeine and alcohol can also lead to fragmented or shorter REM cycles. A study conducted by researchers at Brown University found that people who drank more than five alcoholic drinks per week had longer sleep latency, meaning they took longer to fall asleep. Alcohol consumption has also been found to decrease slow-wave sleep and reduce time spent in REM sleep.
Factors such as physical exercise and mental stimulation can also disrupt REM sleep. Physical activity releases adrenaline which stimulates the body, making it harder for you to relax and get to the deep relaxation needed for restorative sleep. Mental stimulation from late-night activities such as playing video games or watching TV can similarly affect your brain's ability to reach the deepest stages of sleep. Finally, medications such as antidepressants may interfere with REM sleep by affecting serotonin levels in the brain.
There are numerous ways to improve sleep quality and duration, but here are some simple tips you can start incorporating into your nightly routine to help promote better sleep:
1. Establish a sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up around the same time every day helps your body adjust to a regular rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up refreshed.
2. Avoid caffeine late in the day. Caffeine is a natural stimulant that can increase alertness and make it harder to relax, so try to avoid caffeinated beverages at least six hours before bedtime.
3. Limit screen time before bed. Looking at screens like phones or tablets late at night can disrupt melatonin production—a hormone responsible for helping you fall asleep faster—as the blue light from devices can confuse your body's natural circadian rhythms.
4. Exercise regularly but not too close to bedtime. Regular physical activity has been linked with improved sleep quality, but exercising too close to bedtime may have the opposite effect as it releases adrenaline which stimulates the body, making it harder for you to relax and get into a state of deep relaxation needed for restorative sleep.
5. Reduce stress and anxiety levels before bedtime. Stress hormones such as cortisol can interfere with REM sleep by activating your sympathetic nervous system, making it difficult for your brainwaves to slow down enough for a restful sleep without interruption from external stimuli or intrusive thoughts from everyday life events or worries about the future.
Calming activities such as yoga or meditation before hitting the sheets can help reduce stress levels and induce more profound relaxation associated with improved sleep quality and duration.
All the best,
Simon Brazier. Dip HN, NNCP