How I got a better night's sleep for $20

Sep 19

Written by:
9/19/2013 7:44 AM  RssIcon

I've been interested in astronomy ever since I was a kid. Looking up at the stars, wondering "What's out that?" and being completely fascinated by the space programs that took us to the Moon and low earth orbit, and finally getting my first "real" telescope in my early 20's, kicked off what eventually became this lifelong passion. Eyes on the Sky exists to devote part of its energy towards light pollution reduction, but it wasn't until I heard Dr. George Brainard speak at ALCon last year that I realized how important light at night - or should I say, lack of light at night is to sleep, and the spectrum of light with respect to melatonin.

The fact is, during the day, our eyes largely see light at blue wavelengths. Think about the color of the sky during the day:

That blue triggers our eyes to halt the production of melatonin from our pineal gland. It's partly why we "wake up" as the sky brightens. Now consider what color the sky is as the Sun goes down, and where we are on Earth moves towards darkness:

Longer wavelengths of light, right? Reds, oranges, pinks, yellows. Gorgeous, stunning views, and over time, not just human eyes, but animals AND plants have evolved to this circadian rhythm. But within the last 100-150 years - and particularly in the last 50 years in industrialized countries - humans have significantly altered this natural rhythm. We added lots and lots and lots of these:

The problem is, the messes with our naturally-occurring melatonin production. Our eyes are still seeing light in shorter wavelengths, particularly if we are using CFL or other fluorescent lighting that is not tinted to be towards longer wavelengths. Not only has this been linked to increased cancer rates, but it's also messing with our sleep

The solution

Though imperfect for now, I was reading about how we can minimize health risks and sleeplessness by wearing tinted sunglasses that block blue light. I thought I would experiment and see what happened if I did something similar.

Now, let me start out by saying, I am NOT a morning person. I'm not a fan of waking up early. And all this week, I have had to get up earlier because my boss is on vacation, so I got to go in early and turn on the lights and be there for customers. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I got up early - after having gone to bed around my normal time - and woke up TIRED. Did the usual stuff too - read at the computer, watched a bit of TV from bed, then turned it off before sleep.

Last night, I did something slightly different. I have these red-tinted astronomy goggles from Orion Telescopes. (I've read that amber tinted sunglasses are also appropriate. NOTE: I have no financial interest in Orion Telescopes or Amazon's products.) They are great for preserving that dark-adapted vision when observing faint, deep sky objects like galaxies or nebula at the telescope. But I used them about 45 minutes before going to bed last night. Still read at the computer. Still watched a bit of TV. But did all that - including brushing my teeth and such - with the red goggles on.

Yes, my kids thought I was weird, but that's nothing new anyway.

After all of that though - lights off, TV off - only THEN did I take off the goggles. I'm not sure I fell asleep any sooner. I think it took about the same amount of time as a typical night. But this morning, I woke up FEELING better. Though I still felt like I hadn't gotten enough sleep (it was only 11:30 at the earliest to 6:00 am alarm, so 6.5 hours of sleep), I didn't feel as TIRED as I did on Mon/Tue/Wed. 

Psychosomatic? Perhaps. One night isn't exactly much on which to base lasting results. But I'd like to try this experiment again over the next few days, wearing the goggles for some longer and shorter periods of time, and see how I feel in the morning. It can't hurt, right? And if I sleep better, that's a good thing, right? I'll post more about this in the future, cause if it works for me, it can't hurt for you to try either, can it?

Besides, we DO know that light at night is harmful. Even the World Health Organization classified night shift work as a "possible carcinogen." Ya think it might cause a few sleep-related problems too, given that humans haven't exactly had much time to adapt yet?

Now, what we could all do to reduce this problem even further is turn off more lights at night. And of course, you need not wear the ridiculous-looking red googles I wore - deep amber or other red-tinted sunglasses will do the same thing, effectively. But given how 9 million Americans take an artificial sleep aid - likely because we have also artificially lit up the night - isn't a natural cure for a naturally-evolved process the better way to go? 

And the best part about that? No weird side effects like crazy dreams or sleep-driving.

Try it. Tell me how it works for you. Use the prefix "dave" then address it to @eyesonthesky.com (helps avoid spammers that way). 


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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.