It is 06.50h when my smartphone wakes me up for the first time… Actually it is right next to my mushed face as I fell asleep surfing on the net on it to researching why urbans like me have bad night sleeps. Some answers that I got I already explained HERE in part 1, you can also read there how important sleep is for our health, well-being and beauty and what lack of sleep does to us.
It’s finally around 7.30am that I get up & OMG!!! I feel so exhausted, dead tired as if I haven’t slept at all. But wait, I almost did not sleep all night long. My body feels stiff, my mind is empty and my mood is explosive. A look in the mirror & it only confirms what I have been fearing… I look like I feel. The only thing that can now boost my knocked-out self is a hot latte soya and the fact that I just notified that my morning meeting is canceled. Maybe the client was insomniac as well…
So… Time to stop insomnia! To feel & sleep better. To find a solution to take me out of these sleepless cycles. Turns out as per my research last night air pollution is one side of the sleepless coin. But air pollution was not the issue in my case. So what else besides indoor pollution could have been disturbing sleep for us urbans?
The nouveau pollution
Already over 100 years ago, Nobel Prize-winner Robert Koch said “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.”
While we always think air when talking of pollution, noise is also the other type of pollution that concerns us the most – as we saw in our UrbanMeisters study with over 400 Urbans from different part of the world. So what’s the connection between insomnia & noise.
Noise is all around you when you’re an urban: yelling car horns, annoying construction work, partying neighbors, chatting colleagues, … . In this crazy concert of urban noises we actually never here one thing at a time. Urban noise is so omnipresent that we often forget about the constant level that surrounds us & only realize noise when it gets super-loud around us. As UrbanMeisters found out in its research – the situation is only at its beginning and more study has to be done.
- Negative impact of noise: Noise can lead to increase in heart rate, blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, reduced productivity, accidents, progressive hearing loss… to name only a few. Noise is as bad as it also causes stress by increasing cortisol, adrenaline secretion. Experts agree that sound levels less than 70 dB does not produce hearing damage. According to WHO – the World Health Organization- exposure for more than 8 hours to sound levels in excess of 85 dB (a heavy truck traffic on a busy road) is potentially hazardous. Read more WHO guidelines here.
- Impact of noise on our sleep: According to neuro-scientist Seth S. Horowitz, our hearing has evolved as an alarm system, and it works even when we’re asleep. We get used to most background sounds of they do not flag up on our radar as bringing potential danger.
Environmental noise is one of the major causes of disturbed sleep. Much recent research has focused on noise from aircraft, roadways, and trains. It is known, for example, that continuous noise in excess of 30 dB disturbs sleep (Source). Read about some European studies that evaluated impact of noise here.
Noise makes it difficult for us to fall asleep. While we sleep, our brain continues to register and process sounds. So it disturbs our sleep causing us to wake, move around, alters sleep stages and depth. All of this we may not remember the next morning, depending on the stage of sleep we were in, the time and what we associate with the sounds.
Night time noise especially reduces the REM sleep, rapid eye movement sleep. This is one of the 5 phases during sleep. During REM sleep, your brain and body are energized. This is also the phase when you dream. REM is thought to be involved in the process of storing memories, learning, and balancing your mood, although the exact mechanisms are not well understood. Studies have shown that when people are deprived from REM sleep, they are not able to remember what they were taught before going to sleep. Lack of REM sleep has also been linked to certain health conditions, including migraines. Read here. Studies however show that by reducing indoor noise level, the amount of REM sleep can be increased (Source).
Apart from disturbing sleep itself, noise during sleep causes for example increased blood pressure, heart rate, blood vessels to narrow, respiration to change, increased cortisol secretion etc. This impacts our morning after with negative effects like fatigue, depressed mood and well-being, decreased performance and reaction time leading to accidents and worse.
The positive (yes!)
Are you one of those who sleeps better to the sound of TV? Yes it’s possible.
Studies have also shown while exposure to transport noise disturbed sleep in laboratory, experiments, it wasn’t the case in field studies, as we humans adapt to noise. Read more on this below on how you can use noise to sleep better.
Hm… But is this the reason I could’t sleep? My apartment was showing to a beautiful and quite backside court, the neighbors were quite… The only one snoring was my dog, my partner is a rather soft and occasional snorer. Oh yes!! Snoring. I read the other day that the Suisse Ears-Nose-Throat Specialist Rudolf Häusler thinks that snorring is a socio cultura phenomena and a result of the evolution, because « wild animals do not snore, pets do » (Source). But again, this could not be my issue, as far as noise was concerned our bedroom was a calm oasis.
For those of you who identify with noise as sleep killer, here’s some advice:
1. Ear plugs 🙂
2. Sound can also have positive effects on sleep. This positive avatar is called White noise. White noise is actually adding more noise in your bedroom which you will find odd now. It blends the external sounds into the overall background noise, so your brain pays less attention to it. For the brain it is not the volume that keeps it awake, but the context. That’s why it’s possible for some people to fall asleep in the middle of a noisy nightclub and explains why a distant dog barking can wake one up. To listen to examples of white noise & read more, click here on SleepJunkies.
Some critics say that you can become dependent on white noise, making it difficult to sleep without it. However there are no scientific studies proving that and the current research gives only positive results for white noise.
Special mention: Currently on Kickstarter, there’s a project called « Snooz » – an ultra portable white noise machine. Snooz produces the sound of a fan, but without the moving & cold air. Have a closer look here with this video. Visit their website HERE.
3. If you want try it out without investing in a white noise machine, you can check out HERE, mix and download your own custom sleep sound track.
Sleep apps? While there are also quite a couple of apps to be used on your smartphone, but we do not recommend this. This is our perfect transition to the next point.
The not-so-bright side of pollution
And there it was… The missing puzzle that connects all. A super recent study that was just published a couple of days ago. I finally understood why I was sleepless in Paris. The big take away of the study was:
Light pollution is excessive and obtrusive artificial light. It not only waste energy, but has adverse health effects.
People who live in neighborhoods that are lit up at night with neon signs, streetlights, etc. are more likely to report sleep problems. Read here. Even though scientists still need further to dig into the study and it doesn’t prove cause-and-effect, the experts align that intense outdoor illumination in the evening interferes with quality of sleep.
George Brainard, a professor of neurology at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, confirms « The health effects of light pollution have not been as well defined for humans as for wildlife, although a compelling amount of epidemiologic evidence points to a consistent association between exposure to indoor artificial nighttime light and health problems such as breast cancer. » (Source)
Shedding light on the effects on sleep
We are dependent on natural body cycles called circadian rhythms and the production of melatonin – regulated by light and dark (e.g. day and night).
If exposed to light while sleeping, melatonin production can be suppressed. This can lead to sleep disorders and other health problems such as increased headaches, fatigue, stress, obesity and anxiety. And ties are being found to a couple of types of cancer, notably breast cancer. The expert Brainard advices: “The darker the sleep environment, the better.”
Now you will say, well just shut the light out and get good curtains and that is it. Actually no, in my case it was not the outdoor light that was disturbing. While I have been searching on my smartphone why I was insomniac, my smartphone actually was the one causing the insomnia.
Smart device screens emit bright blue light. Blue light is used to have the screens bright as the sun. But at night, our brain gets confused thinking it is the sun and this interferes with the production of melatonin. While all lights can suppress melatonin production, blue light does it the most (Source). In a study at Harvard it was proven that blue light suppresses melatonin 2x as long as the green light. No melatonin – no sleep. Here is a great summary chart:
Impact of light on sleep: Source
- Use dim red lights for night lights. Red light has the least power to shift circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin.
- Avoid looking at bright screens beginning two to three hours before bed. The UrbanMeisters team started using F.lux This app makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day. So in the evening your screen uses less blue light so you can sleep afterwards. Unfortunately it’s quite complicated to install it on the iPhone and iPad as Apple would not allow flux to develop an app as they would need to access information Apple does not want to give (you can join and sign the petition some users initiated to get Apple going). If you are a good techie you may be able to do it nevertheless, there is a guide how to do. For your desktop you can simply download it HERE.
- If you work a night shift or use a lot of electronic devices at night, consider wearing blue-blocking glasses.
- Expose yourself to lots of bright light during the day. This will boost your ability to sleep at night by balancing melatonin production.
So for me it is a happy end, I found the reason and I bet that almost all of you have a quick look on their smartphones to set the alarm clock before sleeping or to check what happened today in Social media, or watch a film on your computer, … So declaring your bedroom a tech free zone is such an easy advice (and we also told you in our previous article on dangers of radiation here) and with a big positive impact on the quality of sleep and your general health and well being. So keep this in mind when you have the next time your smartphone in your hand before shutting down the lights. Zzzzzzzzzzzz