Why spring is not such a great time of year for sleep

1 June, 2011

Why spring is not such a great time of year for sleep and what you can do about it.

“For sleep, one needs endless depths of blackness to sink into; daylight is too shallow, it will not cover one.”  Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Spring has finally sprung, and another long, cold, dark winter is drawing to a close.  Daffodils, cherry blossom and hawthorn add to the colour and freshness of the season.  It is a time of renewal, optimism and rebirth: it is the time for birds to mend their nests from last season and tenderly rear their chicks.  It is the time for lambing and for many flowering plants to bloom.

It is a beautiful time of year, but for many insomniacs, it can also bring its own challenges.  During spring, the axis of the Earth is increasing its tilt towards the sun, resulting in a rapid extension of daylight hours in the northern hemisphere.

No longer do our sleeping hours correspond to periods of complete darkness.  For many of us, we are now woken by the morning sun and the chirping of birdsong.  And we quite possibly turn in before the last rays of the evening have sunk below the horizon.

We may be tempted to make the most of the longer days by going to bed later or waking up earlier, especially if one is a farmer.  In fact, we are quite probably hard-wired to make the most of daylight hours.  From an evolutionary perspective, we can use the longer daylight hours to be more productive within our evolutionary niche.

It is safer for animals to stay out of harm’s way when it is too dark to see our predators coming for us.  Conversely, it is essential for the survival of our ancestors that they were out foraging for food before their competitors.  “The early bird catches the worm”.

Anyway, we don’t decide to get up earlier in spring and summer.  We are coerced into doing so by a complex pattern of environmental cues.  But even if it is not by choice, it is likely that we do not get as much sleep in spring as we did in winter, and it is quite possible that we may not be getting enough.

Light signals the brain’s biological clock that it’s time to wake up. Blue light (from morning daylight) imposes the single greatest impact on our sleep cycle.  Our sleep becomes more fragmented when we’re exposed to blue light.  Even small amounts of blue light during sleep suppress the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that sets our body’s internal clock and helps us sleep long enough to replenish physical and mental stores.

However, there are several things you can do to reduce the effects of light pollution in the bedroom.  Do as much as you can to shield yourself.  Most of these fixes are inexpensive and simple to use.

If light filters in through the window, consider replacing your curtains with new ones made with blackout material.  They can be particularly effective during the summer when dawn comes early and darkness falls much later.  As an alternative, install blackout blinds in addition to your curtains.

Buy a sleep mask or eye pillow.  There is a fantastic range available in all colours, sizes and degrees of luxury.  Make sure they are completely lightproof, have adjustable straps and are comfortable.  It is important to ensure there is no pressure on your eyes, as this may cause blurred vision for a while when you remove them.

If possible, use natural fabrics, especially if you have sensitive skin.  Some makes come filled with natural sleep enhancers such as hops, lavender, camomile or passionflower.  You can even make your own, but I particularly like Bucky eye masks, which are washable, breathable, and are fitted with a handy pocket to keep your earplugs safe and clean.   See www.sleepstar.co.uk and www.bucky.com.

Check out my follow up post “Why spring is not such a good time for sleep and what you can do about it PART DEUX”.




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