I can’t sleep.
Night after night, I either can’t get to sleep or can’t stay asleep. The only member of the household who feels good about this is Emma, who takes being a nocturnal feline seriously and appreciates company while she’s busy being a cat. Our other cat, an Abyssinian named Gabriel, is zonked out by midnight and doesn’t stir until the alarm goes off, if then.
I want to be more like Gabriel and less like Emma.
It’s not that I can’t sleep at all. Put me in a darkened movie theater and I will promptly fall asleep, regardless of how much I want to see the film. I fall asleep during my favorite TV shows. If I stopped typing right now and closed my eyes, I know I would fall asleep at the computer.
What I can’t do is sleep reliably when and where I’m supposed to. Before you rush to suggest counting sheep, drinking milk, etc., let me tell you that I’ve tried everything. I still can’t sleep.
I’m determined to fix this, and I’m attacking the problem the way I approach most situations that need to be changed: I’m researching the heck out of it.
One comforting thing I’ve discovered – although I realize it shouldn’t please me – is that I am far from alone. We have an epidemic of insomnia in the U.S. An estimated 23 percent of workers suffer from it, and the economic toll in lost productivity is in the billions.
What causes it? According to the National Institutes of Health, we are afflicted with two distinct varieties of sleeplessness: secondary, due to medical problems, medications, and other physical causes; and primary, due to – who knows? I think I have the “who knows?” variety, which means the prospect of relief is not good.
But wait. The February issue of Psychology Today reports on new research into the role that light plays in human wake/sleep cycles. Not just any light, but blue light, part of the visible spectrum of solar rays. During the day, blue light suppresses the release of melatonin, the hormone that puts us to sleep after the sun goes down. If we don’t get enough sun during the day, our natural circadian rhythm is disrupted. The artificial light in the home and workplace is no substitute for natural light.
In short, if you don’t get outdoors in the natural light for at least part of the day, you may not be able to sleep when you go to bed. Furthermore, light rays emitted by TV sets mimic blue light, so if you watch television late at night before retiring, your body will be confused about what time it is.
Epidemiologist Ronald Kessler of Harvard Medical School recommends that employers who want to increase productivity provide workers with a sunshine break every day. That goes for those of us who work at home too. Facing a big window while we work can help. (I face a wall while I’m writing, with the window behind me.) While we’re soaking up the sun’s rays, we should take our sunglasses off, because they can block blue light.
Help is available from another quarter: the light boxes and lamps made for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of cyclical depression caused by lack of sunlight, also work for insomniacs. I’ve just ordered a blue light lamp for my desk. I’ve also promised myself that I will get more natural light, not just during warm weather when I love being outdoors, but during the short, cold days of winter as well.
I look forward to getting a good night’s sleep soon. Emma, you’re on your own.