We’re coming to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week; and sleep is one of the prime contributors towards mental health – especially in these days of pandemic, so let’s take a look at sleep hygiene.
The modern world seems to be seeing an “epidemic” of insomnia, with its knock on effects throughout the body as our hormone levels are thrown out of balance by so many aspects of life (mood, mental state, appetite and digestion…). It is often a condition of dysevolution. Essentially, we’re running a modern, well lit, interconnected lifestyle software on hunter-gather / subsistence farmer hardware. Homo Sapiens have existed for approximately 7,500 generations, farming started 500 generations ago, the electric light 5 generations ago, and about 1.5 generations since lit screens were invited into the bedroom.
We are evolved for a dusk which takes about 25-45 minutes from bright white-blue, through yellows, oranges and reds, into darkness. Our hormone levels, particularly cortisol and melatonin take their cues from habit, and habitat; and require about 25-35 minutes to switch across; cortisol waking us up, melatonin making us sleepy.
An evening routine for our ancestors would have seen the sky dim and change colour, being replaced by soft firelight, voices would naturally lower. We can assume they’d snuggle together under furs/blankets for a time before lying down to sleep – just like we do when we camp out. They are receiving plenty of cues for ever less interaction, ever dulling sounds and light levels. Even 120 years ago most internal heating and lighting was in the form of flame from the fireplace, candles or gaslights; with ever fewer people to interact with as the day got later.
These days, of course, we have white-blue LED lighting, LED TV, phone and tablet screens with loudspeakers and exciting action – constantly demanding our attention. Dusk happens when WE want it to, literally at the flick of a switch.
If you have difficulty getting to sleep (or if your partner does, and you want to help) – then mimic a natural dusk as well as you can. Create a habit that sees a gradual dampening of light, sound and mental effort – one that takes somewhere around 30-40 minutes. The bedroom should be a shrine to rest, used only for the 3 S’s – Sleep, Sickness and Sex (famously sleep inducing). At the same time each night (give or take a few minutes) switch all screens off, and make a hot drink (caffeine free – ideally something soporific like chocolate or chamomile). Set the night-time temperature to cool-but-comfortable. Change the upstairs lightbulbs to a softer yellow, (get a professional to) install a dimmer switch. Replace the bedside LED light with an orange-red salt lamp. Switch off the wifi, and ban anything with white-blue light from the bedroom, interact only with each other not the wider world (or the clock). Soft background noise is fine – especially if peaceful and predictable (low music, natural soundscapes etc)https://www.pinterest.co.uk/backinaction0174/blog-posts/sleep-hygiene/. Read a book made from paper, or an audiobook – or change the tablet’s settings to a golden text against a black background. Maybe try some calming essential oils in a diffuser, or a drop of CBD under your tongue.
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