The short answer: Blame the shortage on Thomas A. Edison, but we need to turn off the lights and get more sleep, 8-9 hours, in the dark.
Deficiencies are one irony of modern life. The Industrial Revolution provides everything money can buy, in fabulous quantities. Yet we live with debilitating deficiencies—usually undetected—generally unknown to the ancients. It’s more correct to say insufficiencies, which are less severe than deficiencies. Deficiencies have near-term consequences; insufficiencies take longer. Vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets in a relatively short time; an insufficiency of vitamin D requires a longer time to show its effect (osteoporosis, for example). Chronic insufficiency is a risk factor for the chronic diseases. Here are ten common insufficiencies (with links to past posts) that harm your health, starting with diet:
- Peace (freedom from excessive stress)
- Order (the converse of chaos)
- Sleep, the subject of this post
Blame It On Edison
Every invention of man has innate potential for both good and bad.
Consider the lightbulb. In 1910, before electrification of our cities, the average American got 9-10 hours of sleep in the dark—a little more in winter when the nights were long, less in the summer. Now the day has no logical end. Modern man, consequently, averages less than 7 hours of sleep year around. Worse, it’s become a virtue to get too little sleep. Think of these laudatory phrases: “Burning the midnight oil,” or “pulling an all-nighter,” (to work through the night).
There are two other effects of the lightbulb: First, we’ve lost the seasonal rhythm of sleeping more during the long winter nights. Second, due to light pollution, true darkness no longer exists for many. Ever get up in the night and count the status lights on your electronic devices? Does a streetlight, or neighbor’s porch light, shine into your window all night? What about the nightlights that teach our young to fear the dark?
In their book Lights Out authors T.S. Wiley and Bent Formby, PhD, make the argument that modern sleep habits are unhealthy, contributing to these problems:
- Hormone deficiency, particularly melatonin (more on this below),
- Overweight and type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Impaired judgment, including risky behavior by teens
It’s About Melatonin
Briefly, melatonin rules the night and dopamine owns the day.
Melatonin is a master hormone essential to health and is produced while we sleep, most effectively in the dark. Scientists are still discovering melatonin’s functions, which include the regulation of circadian (daily) rhythm, sleep, energy balance, reproduction, and body weight. Melatonin is our most potent antioxidant, plays a key role in immune system health, is protective against addictions, and regulates leptin, the hormone that controls appetite. (Babies, in the first three months, produce melatonin around the clock, thus seem to have their days and nights mixed.)
We have a third eye, the pineal gland, linked to our retinas. The nightly fall of darkness stimulates the pineal to produce melatonin. Production peaks at about 3.5 hours of sleep, which then drives the production of other hormones. Basically, a healthy balance of hormones requires adequate sleep, 8-9 hours depending on the season, in the dark. The more light in the bedroom, the lower the production of melatonin.
Melatonin deficiency drives compensating habits that over time ravage our health. These include addictive habits such as caffeine drinks, smoking, drinking, and the use of drugs; constant snacking, especially of sugary foods; and a reliance on high-calorie processsed foods rich in calories but deficient in nutrients.
Bottom line: The growth of unhealthy foods over the last century isn’t just because of billions spent on advertising. We are vulnerable because the advent of electricity and cheap light has separated us from traditional sleeping patterns. If we are to eat better, we must sleep better.
It’s known that too little sleep drives sugary snacking, a cause of overweight. But there is also a benefit of sleep when losing weight. A 2010 University of Chicago study of dieters found that those who got the least sleep (5.5 hours) lost more non-fat body tissue (mainly muscle) and those who got the most sleep (8.5 hours) were most effective at reducing excess fat. A prior post, argued that a diet of whole foods combined with exercise was more effective at losing weight than dieting. To improve weight loss, get plenty of sleep.
Snoring, of which you're usually unaware, disturbs your sleep, but it's also bad for the sleep of your spouse. (Spouses, out of kindness, may be reluctant to mention a snoring problem. From a health standpoint, it’s better if the snoring spouse knows, and is reminded.) Snoring can progress to the condition called sleep apnea, a series of oxygen-deprived awakenings during the night, of which most are unaware. Remedies for snoring include the following:
- If you’re overweight, the first step is to achieve a healthy weight.
- No eating for two hours before bedtime. (In addition, avoid alcohol, caffeine, or dairy and soy products at dinner.)
- Sleep on your side—the tongue and jaw relax when sleeping on your back and exaggerate snoring. One remedy is to tape a tennis ball to the back of your pajamas, forcing you to sleep on your side. If this is difficult, talk to your doctor about a dental appliance that keeps your jaw in position while sleeping. If you snore while on your side, you have a more serious condition and should see a specialist.
- Strengthen your throat muscles. All aerobic exercise helps, but you also can join a choir (singing strengthens the throat muscles, as does shouting at the kids), learn to play the didgeridoo (an aboriginal Australian instrument which uniquely strengthens throat muscles), or try the exercises noted here.
- If all else fails, a doctor may consider the CPAP breathing device, or perhaps surgery.
Healthy Change: There’s wisdom in that old saying “Early to bed . . .”. There are health problems from getting too much sleep, though this is not a big problem in America.
See this report from the National Sleep Foundation for tips on getting better sleep.
Please comment on your sleep experience. How much sleep do you need? Have you experienced health issues related to longterm insufficient sleep? What was your solution?
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.
More on sleeping well: I asked a retired Duke professor who specialized in sleep disorders to add his thoughts to the post "Blessed Sleep." Here is what he suggested:
1. Teenagers are especially sensitive to light when sleeping and may thus release insufficient melatonin. Very important for teens to sleep in the dark.
2. Blue light drives the circadian rhythm and should be avoided at night. Even a small amount, for example if your alarm clock has blue numbers, can disrupt the cycle of sleeping and awakening.
3. Napping is good for many people, especially if they don't sleep well. Take a nap about 8 hours after arising; sleep at least 15 minutes but not longer than 45 minutes (as this allows you to dip into "slow wave sleep" which causes grogginess when awakening).
4. Eight hours of sleep is good for most; nine hours is too much for many. This can vary during the year—the body adapts well to sleeping more in winter and less in summer.