A simple tip to help us sleep better is sleeping in as dark a room as possible. Preferably pitch black, although this may take some adjusting to. I have just been on a Z-health course in Copenhagen and stayed in a pretty apartment in the suburbs. I was on an early flight, so when I got myself sorted out, I decided to have a bit of a snooze. At that point, I realised that the curtains in the bedroom were thin and beige, so when shut, the light level dropped only a tiny bit. After the snooze, I further realised my bedroom faced roughly SE, and so dawn would happen right in my face.
I dolefully trundled off to find the local chemist to buy an eye mask. Eye mask duly purchased, dinner eaten, I faced my first night. Well, I went to bed about 10 pm local time, and it was so light in the bedroom, I could read my book without a light on. Sighing deeply, I put the eye mask on and began battle with staying asleep. It was quite, quite dreadful. Where I was staying was up a hill looking over Copenhagen, so the street lights meant it never got dark outside. And the eye mask blotted out some of the light, but not all. After an epic few hours of bumpy sleep, the sun came up and blasted its way into my bedroom. I shot awake, sat bolt upright, feeling sure I’d overslept. To add to my woes, my travel alarm needed a new battery and was telling me it was 2am – which was utterly impossible! Well, I won’t bore on about the rest of the night. But I did not start the course feeling as if my brain were ready to absorb lots of lovely new information.
And so it went on. Five nights of grappling with slippery sleep. Every morning, when it was dawn and the sun up, my body and brain were utterly convinced it was time to be up and about. By the time I got back to my home, I actually felt mildly insane on top of exhausted.
Now I do realise that we get used to our living conditions and that many profess to like sleeping in light rooms. But there is no way that this is a natural way to sleep. The electric light came into use in the late 1800s. In our 2 million year history, this is incredibly recently. Before electric lights, when it went dark, it was really dark, especially inside – be it cave, shelter or house. In his book The Home, Bill Bryson has a very interesting chapter on the electric light and I vividly remember him saying that the Georgian’s put their furniture and chairs against the walls – so people didn’t trip over them when it was dark. Yes, they had candles, but candle power is feeble, smelly for most people1 and dangerous. Now, apart from helping us sleep better, there is another compelling theory to sleep in the dark.
One of the theories as to why we are getting fatter is due to light. In the summer months, due to the light, we sleep less and do more. At this time of year, there is plenty of food and we ate copiously to get fat for the lean winter months – during which we slept long hours and got thin. Now, with the constant availability of light, the theory is that our brain is fooled into thinking it constant summer, so time to be eating, having fun and not sleeping. This leads to exhaustion and over eating and great fatness. And if this theory is doubted, then have a look at the average girth of shift workers; certainly the taxi driver who picked me up for my early flight bore this out. A lovely man but there was an awful lot of him to like.
So a simple tip to get better sleep is sleep in the dark. Curtains can be lined with black out lining, which is cheap. Or simple black out blinds may work. It depends upon what works with the various window frames. I’m not sure I recommend eye masks – even though this is the cheapest option. In the end I had to use two once the sun came up. And having 2 sets of elastic running around the head adds another dimension of difficulty to the poor brain’s efforts to shut down enough to sleep. Much as I enjoyed the course, I am heartily glad to be back in my dark bedroom and sleeping well again.
- Those nice beeswax candles are expensive now, and in the olden days,were for the rich only. The rest of us had to do with candles made out of tallow at best. And, another point raised years ago in New Scientist, said that farm animals were originally raised for their fat to be used in candles as opposed to their meat, meaning that farm animals are bred to be fatty, a strong argument to eat as much wild meat as possible. But I digress. [↩]