circadian

The Human Condition: Is The Light Bulb Killing Us?

Just in the lifespans of our grandparents and great grandparents, life has changed completely. Its not just televisions, internet, cell phones and other electronics. The arrival of electric power had a dramatic effect on human life. We extended our waking day. For some of us it enables us to stay awake as late at night as we want. And many of us do want to stay up at night. It would not have been practical to stay awake at night without lights. Now, of  course lighted gadgets make it even easier. In those dark days without artificial light, insomniacs would still be counting stars, singing and telling each other stories, if it were not for the light bulb.

As we have made progress, and seemingly made great strides in improving the human condition, we have also come across a great hurdle. Our bodies are not designed the way we are trying to use them. Try using a truck as a sports car or vice versa. You get the idea.

The human body, by design, functions on a day/night cycle. The presence of light during the day and the absence of it at night is designed to set up a series of chemical reactions that depend on these signals. It is called the circadian rhythm. How is it supposed to cope with a never ending presence of light then?

The system by its design allows the body to maintain its functions during the night by synchronizing it with the onset of sleep. Sleep allows us to rest, recharge, manage the immune system, maintain metabolism including body weight, appetite, blood pressure and blood sugar levels, process our thoughts, consolidate and process memories and performs countless other functions.

When, by extending our daylight hours through the use of technology, we constantly tellour bodies that days are consistently long, we interfere with the ability of the body to allow us sufficient sleep. Short sleep equals disruption in all those functions listed above and more.

So now, with us trying to do more, more, more, with our bodies and minds, with less sleep, less consolidated memory, abnormal blood sugar and blood pressure controls, weaker immune systems that are poorly modulated, increased appetite, and feeling tired, is it fair to complain that we have a generation of overweight people; that diabetes, hypertension and heart disease occur earlier in life; that we have more allergies and immune system problems; that the businesses of energy drinks and coffee are booming; that we use billions of dollars worth of sleeping pills, antidepressants and anxiety medicines?

By not understanding how our bodies are designed to function, and not following the rhythms of nature, are we not killing ourselves?

Later Addition:

On September 10, 2012, the New York Times published a blog article about light exposure and sleep. A link to the article is copied here:

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/10/really-using-a-computer-before-bed-can-disrupt-sleep/?smid=pl-share

Really? Using a Computer Before Bed Can Disrupt Sleep
A recent study showed that exposure to light from tablets significantly lowered levels of the hormone melatonin, which plays a role in the sleep cycle.

The Magic of Melatonin! (Requires a Magic Wand)

People looking for over the counter sleep aids often find melatonin along side other supplements. Since it is easily available, considered a supplement and not a medicine, there is plenty of incentive to at least try it. There are dozens of melatonin products on the market, freely available at supermarkets, pharmacies, health food stores and online. People take it in increasing doses (I have known people to take as much as 15 mg in one night), combine it with Benadryl products or alcohol, with various vitamins and in combination with various herbal preparations. It may make you briefly drowsy. It may seem to help you fall asleep for a few days. Unfortunately, that's about it. So what about the magic?

The magic wand you need to unleash the powerful magic of melatonin is to know the science behind what the substance is and how it works, and most importantly what it works for. Melatonin works fantastically well for people with "delayed sleep phase syndrome", a medical term describing the inability to fall asleep at a socially acceptable time and wake up at a socially acceptable time in order to be productive. It is a very common sleep problem often misdiagnosed as insomnia. It is more common in adolescents, and in creative people, musicians and artists; and often runs in families.

These people are fully capable of getting sufficient sleep but end up not getting enough because they don't get sleepy until later in the night and have to wake up early to go to school or work. If they could sleep in every day and work started later in the day they would be fine.

If melatonin is taken in the smallest amount available, it works best. Take more and you will likely be groggy when you wake up. It should be taken no earlier than 8 hours after naturally waking up, and about an hour before intended bed time. The product has to come from a reliable manufacturer since no one is effectively regulating the quality of the product.

Most of all, if you expose yourself to bright sources of light after taking melatonin you will cancel out its effects. These bright sources include all kinds of handheld and electronic device screens that emit light. Its effect will also be reduced if you activate your mind, get busy thinking, worrying or performing mental tasks.

Lots of caveats, true. But the potion's magic has the potential to change countless lives, provided it is used properly, with wisdom and knowledge. It is typically inexpensive and works much better than sleeping pills, for the person with "delayed sleep phase". For everyone else, unless your sleep physician specifically recommended it, you are probably wasting your money.