Melatonin, Sleep, Blue Light, Screen Time…
I hope the title of this blog post has grabbed your attention. The issue surrounding sleep quality is gaining traction in the press at the moment, and for good reason. With numerous articles in national newspapers about “Sleep Divorces,” how damaging our phones, laptops, tables and TVs are to our health and the terrifying “blue light” scenario; I really wanted to tackle this one.
Sleep is sacred to me for one single reason - it’s when all the deep healing in our bodies occurs, and as someone that’s been through one hell of a healing journey myself, the quality of that sleep is absoloutley crucial.
Trouble is, I’m a terrible sleeper. I’m not as bad no as I used to (mid chronic illness I would wake up every day feeling like I hadn’t even slept), and as I’ve come out of being super stressed physically and mentally my sleep has also improved. But there are certain things I’ve done recently, like getting blue blocking glasses, that have also really helped!
Firstly, let’s clear up what Melatonin actually is. Melatonin is a neurotransmitter secreted from the Pineal gland in the brain. It has many functions within the body but most notably it signals to the brain once dusk has fallen that it’s time to go to sleep because it’s dark outside. In this way melatonin helps regulate the timing of sleep but has little influence on the generation of sleep itself, a common misconception.
Blue light suppresses melatonin production.
I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all begun to scare monger somewhat surrounding this blue light issue. It’s important to remember that sunlight contains blue light and that the blue fragment is just one particular frequency among many others, red for example. We need the blue light during the day time as it helps us stay alert and awake, and it’s also incredibly healing (n.b I always recommend long walks in nature in the morning to my patients in clinic), but problems arise when we sit at home in the evening watching TV right before going to bed and what are we doing at the same time as watching TV? Checking Instagram during the ad breaks (I know, I am guilty of this as well…#millenial). So that’s 2x the amount of blue light already, couple that with overhead lights or lamps in the room and you’re basically being bombarded from all angles with signals that the body reads as “stay awake! There’s a lot of daylight around!” - Not what you want right before bed.
Now you might be thinking that you watch TV last thing at night, check your phone and then drop off to sleep easily and sleep well, so why should you care about this Melatonin disruption? Well the answer is because making us feel sleepy isn’t the only function of Melatonin in the body. For example, it regulates our sex hormones Testosterone and Progesterone and antagonises Oestrogen. So a low libido might not just be down to stress or a hectic lifestyle, it could actually be too much screen time! As with most things in health and medicine, there’s always a myriad of things going on at once and it’s never as easy or as simple as you may think.
A study in 2001 involving 78,000 nurses that typically work at least one night shift a week showed a 50% reduction in Melatonin production and as an associated risk factor, an increase in the risk of breast cancer. Many similar studies have been carried out since.
Melatonin is also good for the immune system, especially in cases of autoimmune diseases such as arthritis. You know how elderly people that have arthritis move to a hot country to retire? More sunlight equals more vitamin D, which means more melatonin and therefore more regulation of your immune system. It can also help Irritable Bowel Disease as it’s known to help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
Proper Melatonin regulation can be beneficial in treating anxiety and depression as well. This is because serotonin, which is made in our gut and makes us feel happy, is the precursor (so that means it comes one step before in the production line) to Melatonin.
So what can you do to help yourself?
There are a few companies these days selling snazzy glasses that claim to block out the blue light from our screens. These can be really helpful and definitely grab yourself a pair and wear them to watch TV at night. However don’t be fooled, they are not completely blue light blocking no matter what they say – if you can still see the colour blue then blue light is getting in. the best type to get actually have red lenses - yes, you’ll look like a teenager from the 90s but who cares, health is more important.
Avoiding screen time directly before bed is probably your safest option, read a book before you fall asleep rather than your Instagram feed.
Invest in some red salt light lamps and use these to illuminate your house in the evenings instead of your LED bulbs. There are also numerous health benefits to red light therapy.
Eat foods for supper that are naturally high in tryptophan. If you’re an omnivore then turkey is a great source, but for those that live life the plant based way then sour cherry juice is good too.