Time to Reset Your Body Clock

Mondays are always the hardest days to get up and get moving for the week ahead, but add Daylight Savings Time to the day and your sleep cycle, mood, productivity and even creativity can be greatly affected.

Architecture and design students are notorious for burning the midnight oil, and pulling the occasional all-nighter is a rite of passage.  To stave off sleep, students commonly drink caffeinated beverages, consume sugary and salty snacks from vending machines, and pump upbeat music through their earbuds.  While most of the campus is blanketed in darkness, studio lights shine like a beacon.  Eventually, deadlines pass and these adrenaline-fueled, sleepless nights catch up with students. Groggy and bleary eyed, students retreat to their dorm rooms, draw the blinds, and pull the sheets over their heads, no matter the hour of the day.

Like college students, nightshift workers, new parents, and jet-lagged travelers understand what it feels like when the body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm, is out of sync with the light cycle of a 24-hour day.  Nowadays, even people who keep a more regulated schedule succumb to this disconnect.  That’s because we spend most of our waking hours indoors shielded from sunlight and postpone bedtime long after sunset with the mere flick of a light switch. 

50-70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders or deprivation

Overriding the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle may have serious health consequences.  For one, we don’t sleep as well or as much.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 50–70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders or deprivation; on average, Americans sleep about 20% less than a century ago. (1)  With 71% of Americans not getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night, Dr. James Maas, sleep expert and best-selling author of Power Sleep and Sleep for Success, decries, “We’ve become walking zombies.”  Maas offers this quick five-question quiz to test whether you are getting enough sleep. (2)

  1. Does a heavy meal, low dose of alcohol, warm room or boring meeting make you drowsy?
  2. Do you fall asleep within 5 minutes of getting into bed?
  3. Do you need an alarm clock to wake up?
  4. Do you sleep extra hours on the weekends?
  5. Are you sleepy right now?

Answer yes to any two or more of these questions, and Dr. Mass would consider you significantly sleep deprived.  Sleep deprivation makes you less productive and creative, more forgetful, and prone to make mistakes, but also places you at a greater risk of heart attacks, strokes, Type II diabetes, obesity, and cancer.  In fact, one of the best predictors of longevity is the quality and quantity of your sleep. (3)

So how can we reset our body clocks for better sleep?

For a quick fix, go camping.  Researchers from the University of Colorado have found that sleep patterns shift after a week of camping with only sunlight during the day and campfires at night.  In the absence of artificial light, people go to bed at least an hour earlier and rise an hour earlier in the morning, as their internal clocks recalibrate with the natural light and dark cycles of the day. (4)

The eye perceives red, green, and blue wavelengths of light, but it is blue light that has the greatest influence on our circadian rhythm.  At sunrise, high concentrations of blue light occur naturally and signal the brain that it is morning and to be alert.  At sunset, the predominance of red and green wavelengths signal that it is time to sleep.  But Americans spend most of their time indoors in artificially lit environments, rich with blue light, and we stare at laptops, tablets, and smartphones that beam blue light into our eyes at all hours of the day.

In the article, The Light Therapeutic, author Rosie Blau explains, "we bombard our internal clock with mixed messages: our gloomy morning sends a weak signal to be alert; our over-bright evening shouts at our brain to rise and shine. We also lessen the contrast between light and dark that our circadian system relies on to work well.  All of which makes us more prone to insomnia or disturbed sleep in some way." (5)  Blau offers these 12 tips to manage blue light exposure for a better night's sleep:

  1. Get up and go to bed at the same time every day, even at weekends
  2. Open your curtains each morning and embrace the day, not your privacy
  3. Spend time outside by day and take the whole family with you, young and old
  4. Don’t draw the blind
  5. Try to work by a window—a room with a view isn’t just a good novel
  6. Play video games by day, not at night
  7. Buy an extra desk lamp
  8. Have a romantic dinner with the lights dimmed
  9. Don’t use your computer or tablet for two hours before bedtime
  10. Install f.lux software on your computer. It’s a free program that cuts blue glare later in the day
  11. Make your bedroom dark or sleep in a face mask
  12. Turn off the light half an hour earlier. It could save your life

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Prescription Sleep Aid Use Among Adults: United States, 2005–2010.
  2. Maas, James. Sleep for Success.
  3. Shurkin, J.N. (2013, Aug. 2). Trouble Sleeping? Go CampingScientific America.
  4. Maas, James. Sleep for Success.
  5. Blau, R. (2014, May/Jun). The Light TherapeuticThe Economist.
 

Designing Life Indoors is an ongoing series of white papers exploring how the built environment impacts health and wellbeing.  Contact Liz at lguidone@camainc.com to learn more.