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Get some sleep: Light – or lack of it – is key
November 15th, 2010
11:46 AM ET

Get some sleep: Light – or lack of it – is key

By the time Nancy arrived at the sleep center, she had been struggling for years to get a good night’s sleep.  Her problems began when she was laid off work, but even when she was back on a regular work schedule, she could not keep a normal sleep/wake rhythm.  It turns out that because she had trouble getting to sleep, she got in the habit of getting some work done on her laptop in bed and then she usually watches television or reads until it gets so late that she turns off the lights and tries to force herself to get to sleep.  Often she gets so frustrated she just gets up and makes herself a snack or does the laundry.

So what is typical in this story? I think that many aspects of Nancy’s story will ring true for anyone who has suffered from insomnia. One key feature stands out:  You cannot make yourself sleep and you should not try. The harder you “work” at trying to sleep, the more elusive those sweet dreams become. What you can do is try to relax.

Now, everyone knows that sleep specialists recommend removing the TV and computer from the bedroom because these things stimulate the mind and keep people from sleeping.  But we give this advice not only because it will help relax their minds but because it will also help relax their brains.  When you are watching TV at night or using the computer or walking around your house with all the lights on, you are stimulating that part of the brain that controls your sleep/wake cycle.

Light is the single strongest cue that tells your brain it is time to get up and feed the chickens — not what you want at 2 in the morning.  Because people don’t know what a powerful stimulant light is, then they don’t realize that most of the things they do late at night when they can’t sleep, like watching TV, using the computer, or reading with a bright light, all these things just keep them up later because light turns on the brain.

Think about the way insomnia suffers usually describe their problem:  “It’s just like someone flips the light switch in my brain and I am up all night.”  Metaphorically speaking, this is very close to the truth.  But the good news is, you might be able to turn off that internal light switch, if you turn off the external ones.

I recommend that people try to create a buffer zone between their hectic, daily lives and their sleep time. I encourage insomnia patients to try to set aside one to two hours before bedtime to do something calming to the mind and spirit, but also to the brain.  Listening to a Brahms lullaby might calm your mind but if you have every light on in the room, you are not calming your brain.  So turn the lights low and listen to soothing music or perhaps an audio book.  Just be sure that it is not so suspenseful that you stay awake to find out whodunit.   I tell my patients to listen to a book they know and love, perhaps one from childhood, because then they know what happens,  but also it might have a comforting effect if they associate it with happy times from the past. . . maybe a time when sleep came easy.

For people who suffer from insomnia, it is essential that they understand the powerful role that light could be playing in perpetuating their problem.   But for many people, it is often hard to carve out an hour or two  of relaxing time spent in dim light.  What I do in that case is recommend that they use special glasses that block blue spectrum light, because research has shown that light in that wavelength (450-490 nanometers) is the most potent stimulator of neurotransmitters that promote wakefulness.

Because insomnia is such a tough topic, I’ll be tackling it often as I blog about sleep for CNNHealth.  My goal is to explain some of the biggest issues with sleep and offer advice that’ll help you get better rest. Come back and see us on Mondays on The Chart.

Lisa Shives, M.D., is the founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Illinois. She’ll blog on Mondays on The Chart. Read more from her at Dr. Lisa Shives’ Sleep Better Blog.

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Filed under: Sleep

soundoff (141 Responses)
  1. Novel1

    If someone tried removing the tv from my bedroom I would shoot them. I've been an insomniac for close to 40 years. Been on Ambien since it was invented. I make it a practice to Tivo certain tv shows or movies I know very well and watch that before trying to sleep. Because I know the plots already, it's easier to relax and drift off. The light is soothing to me. I had a timer on the tv, so it turned off by itself (usually that woke me) so I leave it on now. I think an insomniac learns what works for them best. In fact, I have found that if I have a candle burning in the room, I sleep more soundly. Go figure.

    November 15, 2010 at 22:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. JjBrahms

    I instantly turned off my night stand light and dimmed my laptop screen a bit while reading this article. I'm going to try your advice! I'm hopeful! Thanks, Lisa.

    November 15, 2010 at 22:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. deb

    i installed a freeware app called f.lux (available at http://www.stereopsis.com/flux/) a few months ago. it automatically adjusts the color balance of your computer monitor according to the time of day. i'm always staring at a computer monitor at night but now i find i can fall asleep much easier as a result of this application. it's easy to install and once it's installed you can forget it...no manual adjustments necessary.

    November 15, 2010 at 22:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Willowspring

    When I get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, I use a small flashlight that has one LED bulb and I cover it with my fingers so only a sliver of light shines on the floor, just enough to keep me from stubbing my toe or running into a door.

    November 15, 2010 at 22:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Jean

    This is a very helpful article but what do you suggest to people who are living in dormitories in college? There are a lot distracting factors that might keep someone from sleeping such as students who are up at 2AM partying and they're drunk. Or, if you're rooming with someone, your roommate might be up past midnight working on a paper and the light from their laptop is keeping you awake.

    November 15, 2010 at 22:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Mico

    THere is nothing like a couple of Oxicotins to go to sleep. There is no blue light in no nanometer frequency that would disturb that!

    November 15, 2010 at 22:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. anon

    melatonin will ALSO greatly help, agree with poster who mentioned this. I believe people are messing up their normal melatonin hormone signals as they get older, stimulated by lifes problems and activities like tv, laptops. this along with diet can help greatly

    November 15, 2010 at 23:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. John P.

    Pretty obvious to me that this story is about a single person... Ha! try being married and pulling this off...
    I cannot read at my bed, wife wants the room dark! I cannot get up and do laundry, cant make noise etc.... PLEASE!
    just find someone and be miserable with their house laws.. Pretty soon you will find yourself sleepy.

    November 15, 2010 at 23:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mto

      You married the wrong person!! HA. She sounds like my ex. I'd say wanna swap, but he already found someone else.

      November 16, 2010 at 03:46 | Report abuse |
  9. Really?!

    Did my tax dollars fund this study? Turn out the lights if you want to sleep. Duh.

    November 15, 2010 at 23:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Mico

    Next scientific study will prove that water is wet!

    November 15, 2010 at 23:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Allen

    I have been having trouble sleeping for a long time, but its hard to take this article seriously. 2 hours of dim light, doing something relaxing? I don't have 2 hours to spare. I get home from school, I study, I work, I get home again at 11pm, hit the hay and just toss and turn for hours, then wake up again at 6 or 7 am depending on the day to start over. On weekends I'm either working more or looking for more work.

    This article would best serve some yuppie who actually has oodles of free time. The rest of us either get to pop pills or if you can't afford it just push through.

    November 15, 2010 at 23:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sue

      You know, your comment doesn't make sense. You say that you don't have time to try the 2-hour-dim-light-before bed method. Yet you also say that you crash just after 11 and "toss and turn" until 6 or 7am. So, what if you tried the dim light idea from 11pm-1am and then were able to sleep soundly until 6 or 7am - wouldn't that be an improvement? What if just an hour of dim light unwinding was enough to improve your sleep quality? Why not try it? This study is about how the biology of sleep works - not a guarantee that everyone can get the benefits without a lifestyle change. It's information, it's useful to know. If you can't arrange your life to try it at the moment, that's a bummer, but it's still good information to know and maybe sometime in the future you'll be able to make use of it.

      November 15, 2010 at 23:40 | Report abuse |
  12. swimmer23

    If you have an actual sleep problem turing off the lights will do nothing. LEGALIZE CANNABIS in 2012!!! It's the least addictive and dangerous sleep aid out there.

    November 15, 2010 at 23:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Lstrm

    I live in Alaska. During the winter, it is dark early and dark when we get up. During the summer, however, it is light enough to do yard work all night long. How does this impact sleep? Northern Insomniac

    November 16, 2010 at 00:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Doug Steel

    "research has shown that light in that wavelength (450-490 nanometers) is the most potent stimulator of neurotransmitters that promote wakefulness" – could you please provide the literature reference for that work? I'd like to see the original data. Thanks!!

    November 16, 2010 at 02:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • David

      Heh Doug, do your own frigging research. 30 seconds after Googleing "450-490 nanometers neurotransmitters", I get volumes of scientific research. Do some analysis, summarize for us, genius, and post your results.

      November 16, 2010 at 04:58 | Report abuse |
    • rbnlegend

      Doug, you are sitting in front of the most powerful research tool in human history. If you can't figure out how to get research on the subject, then having someone tell you the title of a paper won't do you any good. Use the tools you have.

      November 16, 2010 at 07:11 | Report abuse |
  15. Allen Siverson

    When I have trouble sleeping, I go to my computer and play Bookworm. It's free and knocks me out in 5-10 minutes.

    November 16, 2010 at 02:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. wann2know

    This article is doing the job for me. I'm going to bed, good night.

    November 16, 2010 at 03:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Delilah

    I work 3rd shift and like Greg, I sleep in the full sun. It warms me and just the sun beating on my face reminds me of laying on a beautiful beach. Im not a Doc, but do work in a hospital and have for 15 years. I love sleeping during the day, with all the curtains open. I am a total night person, as far as work and always have been.

    November 16, 2010 at 05:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Rafael Candelaria

    I work nights and sleep during the day, what I did was paint my Bedroom a very dark brown color and put window tint (the ones you put on autos) on them, I also covered the window with a black curtain. The result is that I sleep soundly and sometimes when I wake up, think that it is midnight when it is actually 3 pm.

    November 16, 2010 at 05:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. mother of four

    It took a few years to work out a system that helps me to sleep and I think that personal element is missing from this article. I tried it everyone else's way–music, dark room, sleeping pills, melatonin, deep breathing, etc. I love to read (am passionate about it, I guess), so if I pick up a book, I'm not going to put it down until I'm done or I have to be some place.

    In my case, sleeping with the TV on (lights off) does work. But it's the same television series (ten years' worth of scifi episodes on DVDs back up to a computer hard drive and wired to my TV). No commercials, nothing novel. The volume is set so I can only just hear the dialogue. I fall asleep watching "old friends" combat unseen evil. Because of this, most nights I sleep well now.

    My point is, sleep is an individual issue. While these are some good guidelines, and one size does not fit all.

    November 16, 2010 at 07:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Bill

    My wife and I are expecting. She's having a hard time sleeping a full night. Everyone says "better get used to it" but that is NOT what you want to hear when you're sleep deprived. Can you shed some light (or lack thereof) on catching sleep when you're pregnant?
    Thank you.

    November 16, 2010 at 07:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Jake

    I'm a night worker with irregular hours, sometimes I work 6 pm – 3 am, sometimes I work 4pm – 9am.

    Much of this sleep hygiene is simply doctors making up completely impractical things rather than prescribe sleeping pills. Driving while sleepy is as dangerous as driving drunk, doctors should take the complaints of night workers seriously, instead you get nonsense like this of turn off the lights and turn off the tv. No one says what to do when you go months without getting more than 4 hours of sleep a night, sleep studies tell you nothing, and the doctor rather than prescriping something that works starts talking about junk like meditation and yoga. Doctors will give shift workers pills to keep them wake, but nothing that really works to help people sleep. Most of the time now a days, I' resorting to Niquill and the like. Works a heck of a lot better than the sleep hygiene nonsense for real insomnia.

    November 16, 2010 at 07:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. 100yearswar

    I prefer a little cannabis a couple hours before bed. Followed by playing some classic guitar, listening to some kings of convenience, or reading a chapter or two of a nice story.... I'm out all night, getting to my stage 3 REM sleep cycle. Wake up feeling soooo fresh. Cannabis allows your mind to break away from the stresses of a long day and fully put the mind into the music (whether playing or listening) or book. Once it starts to wear off, sleepville.

    November 16, 2010 at 07:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Jake

    Yeah, pot users have hours and hours to wind down at night being stoned. What about those people who work and have kids. 60 hours + a week plus duties around the house, these's no time to smoke joints like some high school kid. Pots the answer for those who don't have responsibilities. If i had time to get wasted every night, I wouldn't have issues insomnia.

    November 16, 2010 at 07:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • 100yearswar

      I guess you just like being an insomniac. come home from work, take care of your sh*t, make dinner, pay bills, play with kids, put them to sleep, and then have a quick smoke. If your up all night, or day in your case, then might as well try it... its better than taking shots of Nyquil anyway and doesn't take any more time than that mate.

      November 16, 2010 at 07:44 | Report abuse |
    • 100yearswar

      also getting wasted (i assume you mean alcohol) won't let your brain go into REM (that's where you actually restore energy to the body) however pot will. I also find it hard to believe your doctor won't give you a script for a sleeping pill since they are salesmen for big business drug companies.

      November 16, 2010 at 07:50 | Report abuse |
  24. Jake

    I got 5 hours to sleep max, if it don't fall asleep, then it's pop a provilgil and go on with the day.

    I say forget legalizing pot. It's stinky and makes you binge on junk food. Legalize benzos. Americans would be far more rested if you could get the good stuff.

    November 16, 2010 at 08:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Maria

    After struggling for years trying to get our son to sleep doing everything the sleep experts have suggested: no tv, no computer, bedtime routines, lights out, medications, stories on tape etc. MDs, PhDs at loss of how to help us. We found out by accident that TV induces sleep in my boy. Now he falls asleep beautifully after watching TV for half an hour. We've stuck with this for more than a year now and it still works. Yeah for TV.

    November 16, 2010 at 08:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Richard L. Hansler

    Dr. George Brainard of Thomas Jefferson University completed a five year experiment in 2001 in which he discovered that melatonin suppression caused by exposure to light was due to sensors in the eye different from the rods and cones that produce vision. These newly discovered sensors respond most strongly to blue light. In 2005 Dr. Kayumov at the Unversity of Toronto found that wearing glasses that blockied blue light allowed test subjects to continue producing melatonin during the night even when in a brightly lighted environment. Glasses that block blue light and light bulbs that do not produce it were developed at John Carroll University. They have been available for the past five years from http://www.lowbluelights.com. Thousands of people have found they hel them sleep.There is a money-back guarantee if they don't help. Richard L. Hansler PhD 216 397 1657

    November 16, 2010 at 09:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Sandy

    I find one of the best sleep aids is listening to Garrison Keillor's monologues of News from Lake Woebegone on a Prairie Home Companion. It's not because they're boring, because they're not. Ironically, they're interesting enough that I also use them to help keep us awake on long car trips, when we focus on the story. But he has this low voice that is exceptionally soothing. I have the monologues on my MP3 player and leave the volume low, just to the point where I can hear him tell me a story in the dark. Perfection.

    November 16, 2010 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Doctor Liptsvitch

    I find as a busy psychiatrist working on my blog that keeping all the lights off in my patient's rooms and locking the door is the best way to get them to sleep. Also I use horse tranquilizers.
    http://psychoexperiments.wordpress.com

    November 16, 2010 at 13:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Sandi Butler

    I just posted about my many yrs fighting all kinds of illnesses! Now I read this about sleep disorders. I have been fighting one now 4 over 8 yrs! I have one of the best sleep specialists in the country, but after my first time in the Sleep Lab,he actually had 2 come up and talk 2 me early, as once I do go 2 sleep-At that time I had been awake 4 about 6 days and nights, never closing my eyes-he told me I went out-straight from wide awake 2 Stage IV, passing any REM sleep, then my EEG slowed to almost non-existent brain waves! Then he said in his entire career, he had NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE WHAT HAPPENS 2 ME! He actually teared up as he told me. I was not surprised, as I had been having these issues so long, I made the remark 2 my Mom that this must B what a coma patient feels like, as when I finally do come to, I have 2 B very careful, as it takes me about 18-20 hrs to become oriented 2 tine and place! I also have serious sleepwalking issues when I am down-I NEVER HAVE ANY MEMORY of what I do-I just find the damage afterward/ My record 4 being awake without closing my eyes was 12 days and nights. Last year I had 2 B hospitalized 3 times back to back from severe injuries received sleepwalking! Then I saw a program on one of the either Discovery or Learning Channel that said some people R born predisposed to these disorders! I learned from that-since I had been a sleepwalker, non-sleeper- since as early as 4th grade! What is the background on this disorder? I have been told a million things 2 try, but none worj! Don't people think I have tried it ALL? I was doing somewhat better until my PTSD really kicked in again. Now my days start around midnight, up ak night, though it does not mean I sleep in the day! I am just 2 exhaustf 2 do anything! I no longer have ANY WARNING B4 I GO OUT! I have not had a yawn reflex in over 4 yrs now. Any suggestions?

    November 16, 2010 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Sean Folkson

    guys, I know it might seem kind of silly, but try wearing a good eye-mask. once you get used to it, it's a great solution.

    November 16, 2010 at 14:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Jeff

    I just drink till I pass out.. works everytime... 🙂

    November 16, 2010 at 14:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. retiredDOC

    Dr. Shives is a REAL DOCTOR.....https://www.idfpr.com/dpr/licenselookup/results.asp

    Dr. LISA J SHIVES M.D. License Number 036107292 ACTIVE EVANSTON, IL 06/28/2002 07/31/2011 N

    Her medical school is one of the best in the country...........and probably one of the hardest ones to get in to....
    SHE is a person patients SHOULD be listening too.

    thank you Dr. Shives for taking the time to answer questions.....

    November 16, 2010 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • retiredDOC

      Dr Shives M.D.

      I hope you can get the chance to address the topics of OTC sleep aids especially the "food supplements" issue which was being discussed on a page earlier.Patient are under the impression that these supplements such as valerian root and kava kava are safe because they come from the earth.Patients do not understand that most of the over the counter sleep aids contain diphenhydramine which is benadryl.The very same benadryl that is for allergy. Patients need to be careful not to duplicate therapy if they take tylenol/acetaminophen P.M. and tylenol products during the day..

      My old opinion-->>>Benadryl or diphenhydramine is safe to use unless you are a male with an enlarged prostate.Valerian root is okay but it does interact with some medications.Kava Kava should be avoided because there have been reports of hepatic injury.Melatonin is also safe to use. Melatonin and diphenhydramine are probably the safest but should not be taken every night.The old exercise and do not eat late at night remedy is what works best hopefully the insomnia is transient...

      November 16, 2010 at 15:58 | Report abuse |
  33. Jo

    I didn't find this article very useful. I have sleep apnea, but can't afford a CPAP machine. I am most times in dim/no light with the exception of the TV. If I don't have something to distract me, I wind up focusing on the horrible physical pain I'm in. The pain, it appears, may be a result of lack of oxygen during sleep after all these years (diagnosed with sleep apnea in 1997) – my neurological system is damaged. I can only have a CPAP machine if I can afford a monthly co-payment, which I cannot. My adrenal system is toast, hence my sleep cycle is different every week, sometimes I sleep at night, sometimes during the day. There are a lot more reasons people don't get a good night's sleep. Trying to make people believe relaxing at night in low light is going to solve most of people's problems seems naive to me. I expected more from a sleep expert, especially with all the sleep problems and the resultant physical problems from lack of sleep I deal with as someone with CFS, Fibromyalgia and sleep apnea.

    January 2, 2011 at 23:25 | Report abuse | Reply
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