Science in Action: Sunlight and Sleep (more background)

An early section of Wide Awake (2006), Alan Berliner’s documentary about his life-long insomnia — he can’t fall asleep until 3 or 4 am — lists common folk remedies:

BERLINER Over the years I’ve tried to cry myself to sleep, to drink myself to sleep, aroma therapy, changing mattresses, changing pillows, lavender beads, massage therapy, white noise, meditation, counting sheep, melatonin, Valerian root, acupuncture, acupressure, chamomile tea, warm milk, hypnosis even, yoga, homeopathic medicines, marijuana, lots of sex, hot baths, herbal teas, biofeedback.
SISTER Okay, nothing worked.

Conspicuously absent: sunlight. At the end of the movie, however:

DOCTOR We have to reset your [internal] clock. Since you’re such a night owl, I’d like to move your sleep cycle earlier by having you get light exposure in the morning. When you wake up, throw on some clothes and go outdoors for an hour. I really want light to get into your eyes ’cause that’s what going to move your rhythm so you can fall asleep earlier.
ANOTHER DOCTOR Light is one of the most powerful cues for your internal clock to know what time it is. You see light and it tells you: be active during the day, sleep at night.

But the treatment they settle on is sleep deprivation: “I’d like you to spend just 6.5 hours in bed,” says a doctor. “Give you less time in bed than you want. . . . 2:30 to 9:00 am would be a reasonable way to go.” “You are going to be dysfunctional,” Berliner is warned. The film ends: “Now that I know what I have to do, the question is: Can I do it?”

This is a good summary of what people believe about how to cure insomnia. Sunshine is absent from the folk remedies you are likely hear. When doctors mention it, they emphasize early-morning sunlight.

Until recently, I too thought that sunlight exposure was important in the morning, but not during the rest of the day. Every morning I exercised on a treadmill with sunlight-spectrum light shining on me for an hour; I thought that was enough. Now I am adding to that sunlight later in the day — in the afternoon, for instance — and finding that it helps.

4 Replies to “Science in Action: Sunlight and Sleep (more background)”

  1. Seth told me in 1997 that my biggest problem was going to bed at 3:30 in the morning. I didn’t really change that until December 2003, when I resolved to change my circadian rhythms. I followed some advice from Dement, the Stanford sleep specialist. He suggested, as did Seth, getting sunlight earlier in the day. He also suggested taking a small amount of melatonin, just when it started getting dark, and avoiding sunlight later in the day. I found that the melatonin had the biggest effect; I took about a millogram or less. It tended to make me feel yucky in the morning, but it did make it easier to get up earlier. By Christmas day I was getting up around 8:30 rather than noon. And something extraordinary occurred. I always went for years on Christmas with my girlfriend to her best friend’s house 40 miles away, where her family would be present. We’d spend the day together and go to a Chinese restaurant in the evening. For years, on Christmas day, I always got depressed and felt bad by the end of the day, even though I was around people I liked and cared about. But this time, there was no bad mood; I felt fine. It was amazing, as if I had some protection against all those boring negative feelings. Changing my sleep/wake cycle began a turning point towards enjoying life more…. I began to take pleasure in sleep itself, in the way my body would be gripped by a delicious tiredness that pulled me into bed and how I began to wake up with energy and fun on my mind…

  2. I’ve been reading about sleep problems. I’ve always been a night owl. It was always hard to get to sleep and hard to wake. TM helped the falling asleep part but I still woke up not rested. I do wake up better with sunlight.

    My doc thinks I have restless leg syndrome. It seems to fit but Mirapex and Requip didn’t work. At first I thought it was a way to sell another drug. The diagnosis does fit though.

    Has any of your research shed any light (no pun intended) on this syndrome?

  3. My research suggests that our bodies are designed to spend each day standing far more than most people do. A good amount is 8 hours/day, my research suggests. You might try doing that. It’s hard the day or so but then it gets easy.

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