We spend a third of our lives asleep and this greatly impacts on the two thirds we spend awake. But how exactly do we get a good night’s sleep and what role does light play in this?
Being asleep allows our brain to memorise and process useful information learned the previous day. It also allows the body to clear toxins and repair itself, helping us to function properly when awake.
Even short-term sleep deprivation significantly affects our wellbeing. You’ve probably noticed this if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep and the impact it has on the next couple of days. A recent study suggests that after 17-19 hours of staying awake, performance on cognitive tasks may be similar to having had too much to drink. The longest documented period without sleep (11 days) revealed serious cognitive and behavioural changes, problems with concentration and short term memory, paranoia and hallucinations.
But what effect does light have on your sleep quality?
Light sets the body’s circadian rhythm (sometimes referred to as a body clock) through special light sensors in the eye. Our eye detects the light and dark cycle of the day and adjusts the body’s circadian rhythm accordingly. Without any access to light, the body clock is greatly affected as it can’t determine the times of the day. One example of this is jetlag where the time zone in the country you’ve left is different to the one you arrive in. Travellers are often advised to expose themselves to light in a new time zone as this helps to reset the body clock to local time so the body knows when you should be sleeping.
In the past, most people in the world worked outside and were therefore exposed to the light change from day to night. In today’s world, many of us miss out on these environmental cues. Many scientists argue we have become a light deprived species and this has big consequences on our sleep quality, and physical and mental wellbeing. For example, many people spend eight hours (or more) in an office in front of a digital device emitting artificial light. One side-effect of this is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is a form of depression affecting 2-8% of Europeans, and is directly linked to a lack of sunlight exposure as the seasons change. You may have noticed this, if you are sitting in front of a computer screen all day without any breaks, you often feel much worse than if you’ve had regular breaks and a chance to get outside into daylight. Research has shown that by noon on a sunny day, natural light can be up to 250 times brighter than the light in an office.
What about nightshifts?
While many people in today’s digital world do not get enough light exposure, those on nightshifts suffer much worse. These people have to work at a time when their body clock is preparing them for sleep so performance ability and alertness is lower. Often people working nightshifts try to make up on sleep during the day but this is usually shorter and of poor quality. Also, when a nightshift worker leaves to go home after their shift, they are often exposed to bright natural light which sends signals to their body clock or circadian rhythm that they should be alert and awake.
This has a huge impact on their physical and mental health and wellbeing. It’s also not something you can get used to. In fact, 97% of nightshift workers don’t adapt to the demands of their working pattern, regardless of how many years they’ve been doing the pattern.
While many issues such as the effect of diet, smoking and exercise on our health are well documented and researched, it is argued that sleep problems are not as well-known meaning people are suffering without knowing how to solve these sleep problems. More research and awareness in the general public could help people make choices about prioritising their sleep and getting enough sunlight throughout the day. It could even influence the way policies are developed by governments, workplaces, and educational institutions.
One simple way of helping to balance out your circadian rhythm is by minimising light exposure (where possible) before you go to bed and trying to get as much morning light and daylight throughout the day as possible. You will soon notice the positive impacts these have on your sleep quality and your wellbeing.
While making these lifestyle improvements will undoubtedly benefit your sleep quality, the best (and most fail-safe) way of getting a good night’s sleep and improving your sleep quality is to make sure you’re sleeping on the right bed. But with so many different options available, how do you determine what makes each model different and how the differences will be beneficial? Our experts have a wealth of knowledge about sleep, and the features and benefits of different bed models.
To help you find the perfect bed for you, we’ve also developed our bed consultation service to ensure you find the right model, design and support system for you to achieve a restorative night’s sleep, every night. Each consultation is complimentary and lasts for 45 minutes.