I know you. You’ve tried every fad diet there is. You’ve counted points, calories, fat grams, drank meal replacement shakes, taken supplement pills, wrapped yourself, eaten less (gotta control those portions), or skipped meals altogether. You’ve tried the gym, yoga, P90X, 30DS, walking, or even training for road races. None of it works…long term. Sure maybe you lose a few pounds in the beginning but the weight eventually creeps right back to where you started and sometimes, although you don’t want to admit it, you gain back more weight. Defeated and frustrated you give up and (try to) convince yourself that this is your body, like it or not.
Why is this unfortunately the norm? Why do 95% of dieters regain all their lost weight in a 5 year span? I wrote an entire post as to why I hate the word diet and why diets don’t work. You can read that post here. I also wrote an entire post on figuring out your exercise mojo-finding the exercise that works for you and motivates you to keep doing it. You can read that post here. But what happens when you’ve already drank the Kool-Aid…you eat an unprocessed whole foods diet (most of the time) and you exercise regularly, but you still aren’t seeing the results you want? Well, to put it bluntly you are probably missing the most important & the most overlooked component.
Sleep: The Missing Link
You read that correctly, sleep is the missing link. I’m not sure when it became cool or in fashion to not sleep. I see people bragging about it online all the time; it’s ridiculous. Saying things like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is pretty much fore-shadowing because a consistent lack of sleep will actually shorten your life. In his book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival, T.S. Wiley states:
As a nation, we are sick because we don’t sleep. We are fat and diabetic because we don’t sleep. We are dying from cancer and heart disease because we don’t sleep. An avalanche of peer-reviewed scientific papers supports our conclusion that when we don’t sleep in sync with the seasonal variation in light exposure, we fundamentally alter a balance of nature that has been programmed into our physiology since Day One.
The biggest change we’ve lived through in the past 10,000 years actually occurred less than 70 years ago. The widespread use of the light bulb has wreaked havoc on our body. In 1910, the average adult was getting an average of 9-10 hours of sleep each night. Fast forward to today and the average adult is lucky to get 7, and most don’t even get that.
The circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock that is about a day in length. The circadian rhythm contains periods of dark and light; it’s a circulating flow of energy driven by light. Let’s say it’s the weekend and you are able to sleep until you feel like getting up; there is no alarm clock set. You start to wake up naturally on your own because your temperature begins to rise along with the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone and it should be higher in the day and lower at night. Melatonin, also known as the sleep hormone, should be higher at night and lower in the day. Melatonin causes a drop in our body temperature in order to slow our metabolic process and stave off hunger while we sleep. Stave off hunger-that means that you are not supposed to be hungry when melatonin is high and you are sleeping. Have you ever stayed up past your usual bedtime and then realize you are hungry again? The exposure to artificial light is suppressing melatonin production and causing an increase in cortisol. A lack of sleep is stressful to your body. Insulin is produced when your body senses sugar or stress. Stress is indicated by cortisol and cortisol is elevated when you are exposed to light. Therefore, staying up late and being over-exposed to artificial light causes your body to secrete insulin which causes you to crave sugar. Think about the types of foods that are typically eaten in the hours after dinner and before bed. A typical “midnight snack” doesn’t look like a garden salad or some broccoli now does it?
Melatonin is also an antioxidant which helps to control immunity while you sleep. This is one of the reasons why you are more susceptible to illness when you are sleep deprived. I don’t know about you but I can pretty much guarantee that I will get sick when I am not getting quality sleep. Exposure to light at night suppresses our melatonin production which causes us to crave sugar and suppresses our immune system. Our immune system is our defense against illness & disease. Having a compromised immune system is not good at all; it increases the likelihood of getting sick or just not feeling well. But melatonin suppression has far worse consequences than simply poor sleep: it has also been shown to increase the risk of cancer and possibly lead to cardio-metabolic consequences such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and heart disease. (source 1)
Are all lights created equal?
Unfortunately no, it is understood that blue wave light (short-wavelength) is the most melatonin suppressive. This blue light is emitted from electronics such as:
• Computer screens
• Cell Phones
But exposure to blue light at night is not the only thing that is messing with your melatonin. Overhead light and just normal levels of room lighting can have similar effects on melatonin production. Even one hour of moderately bright light exposure (1000 lux) was enough to decrease melatonin levels to that of daylight levels. (Source 2) Now 1000 lux is pretty bright. A well-lit office would be around 500 lux according to this chart: but melatonin suppression is intensity dependent; 2 hours at 500 lux would be the same as 1 hour at 1000 lux. This boils down to that average room lighting can have similar effects on melatonin as the blue light that is emitted from electronics.
What can you do?
Give your electronics a bed time-I tell my students that they should be completely done with all electronic devices 30 minutes to 1 hour before bed. If this seems unreasonable due to your schedule, then start out with 15 minutes and increase by 5 minutes until you can go the full hour. I go to bed around 8:30-8:45 on school nights because I get up at 4:30 to go to CrossFit. My rule is that my phone is turned off by 8pm. I definitely notice that I have a hard time falling asleep if I use my phone past 8. If an electronic bedtime is completely unreasonably based on your work schedule then you could try installing f.lux on your computer. It’s a program that you download (free for Windows) it makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day. And the best part of this program is that it automatically adjusts your screen based on your time zone so you don’t have to remember to do it. Pretty cool!
Or you could try blue light blocking sunglasses instead. These glasses are pretty cheap and can help reduce your exposure to all artificial light at night. If you wear glasses then these wrap-around ones would be for you.
We got rid of the TV in our bedroom about 2 years ago. Although I never watched it, Brent would come to bed and put it on for a bit before turning the lights out. I would inadvertently get into whatever reality show he put on and end up staying up past my bed time regularly. We now only have one TV and it’s in our family room in the basement. Brent still stays up to watch TV, but he does it downstairs and doesn’t disturb me 🙂
Use table lamps instead of overhead lights– By using table lamps or dimming overhead lights you greatly reduce the magnitude of artificial light exposure. Also swapping high watt light bulbs for lower watt bulbs will also help. Good news is this should save you some money on your electricity bill each month.
Keep a routine-Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every night to maintain your circadian rhythm. If you want to read more about circadian rhythm the Paleo Mom wrote a great post about it you can read here. Basically going to bed and waking up at extremely different times is confusing to your body and increases stress and makes it harder to fall asleep.
Sleep in a cave-Or at least as dark as a cave. Eliminate all sources of light in your bedroom. I have my students do this as a homework assignment. I tell them to go into their room and pretend they are going to bed. Then I tell them to look for every source of light and find a way to eliminate or reduce it. Things like shutting doors, closing blinds, getting light blocking curtains & shades (I have these), turning your alarm clock away from you, & covering the face of any LCD screen (like the time on a television) will help you to sleep better so you get more restorative sleep. You could also try wearing an eye mask to bed.
Limit alcohol consumption-Drinking alcohol too close to bedtime will decrease the quality of sleep later in night. Avoid drinking alcohol within 2-3 hours of bed. I wrote a post about alcohol and sleep that you can read here.
Limit caffeine & sugar– I think it’s pretty safe to say that consuming sugar and caffeine too close to bedtime isn’t a good idea. But remember that fruit is still sugar so if you are having a hard time falling asleep I would recommend eating fruit before dinner. Also drinking too much of anything right before bed isn’t a good idea because you may wake to use the bathroom thus interrupting your sleep.
Establish a stress-free bedtime routine-Read a book, meditate, stretch, have a cup of herbal tea, or rock out some sun salutations. The most important thing is to avoid stress before bed. The last thing you want is to get fired up with a post, a phone call, or an argument with your family right before heading to bed. (source 3)
I’ve implement all of these tips a while ago and I can honestly say that I sleep better as a result. Going to bed earlier gets me a little extra sleep in quantity, but it’s the quality of my sleep that has improved. I wake up feeling refreshed and usually wake up before my alarm goes off at 4:30. So the next time you find yourself unable to sleep at night, promise me you won’t update your social media status?! Let me know if you try any of these tips and they work for you.
Yours in Health,
Are all lights created equal?