Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Forbes: How To Reset Your Inner Clock To Get Quality Sleep
by Susan Adams, Forbes staff
We get lots of books sent to us here on the Forbes leadership team. My colleague Fred Allen and I were especially intrigued by a new volume that professes to have an elixir for insomnia, depression, fatigue and other sleep-related problems. I’m a lifelong insomniac and Fred says he tends to get sleepy every night directly after dinner. We wondered if this book might have solutions for our endless struggles.
The book is called Chronotherapy: Resetting Your Inner Clock To Boost Mood, Alertness, and Quality Sleep, and it’s written by two Ph.D.s, Michael Terman, the director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center, and Ian McMahan, of the City University of New York. According to Terman and McMahan, humans have a great deal of sensitivity to the timing and brightness of light exposure. Those mechanisms frequently get knocked out of whack by travel and long, stressful workdays subject to artificial light.
The focus of the book: our human circadian clock, the neurological mechanism that signals the brain’s pineal gland to produce the hormone melatonin, which helps us sleep. With the wrong lighting pattern, say the authors, the pineal gland turns off or produces melatonin at times of day when we want to be awake and alert, rather than sleepy. Jet lag is the classic example of the circadian clock getting booted sideways. Night shift workers also must struggle with a discombobulated circadian clock. The authors also point out that legions of office workers spend most of the day indoors, where light levels are a fraction of daylight intensity. Then at night, we flood our systems with light from TVs and computer screens. Even after we turn off the lights, artificial light from outside can pour in and disturb our rhythms.
The authors also explain how development and age affect circadian rhythms. Puberty causes changes, prompting teens to become sleepy at midnight or 1 a.m., and wakeful at 9 or 10 a.m. Elderly people often become drowsy by 8 p.m., and then find themselves wide awake at 3 a.m. That’s because our circadian clocks weaken as we age, and the pineal gland produces less melatonin.
The authors’ breakthrough message: Once we understand how our circadian rhythm affects our lives, we can control some environmental factors and cure ourselves of insomnia, fatigue and depression. Of course the easiest way to overcome the challenges to our circadian rhythms is to move to a sunny, tropical spot, preferably next to a beach or waterfall. But few of us can afford to do that.
Instead, the authors lay out a therapy regimen. The core of the therapy involves a light box that gives off 10,000 “lux,” the same amount of light you would get if you were walking on the beach 40 minutes after sunrise. The authors recommend that people suffering from sleep problems subject themselves to the light box for a period of time just after they wake. For most people whose circadian rhythms are off, sitting in front of the light box for 30 minutes, ten minutes after waking, will do the trick. For owls, who have trouble getting to sleep until well after midnight, the authors recommend setting an alarm for 7 a.m. and then sitting in front of the light box for a half hour, ten minutes after getting up. Owls should also take care to keep lights low at the end of the day, and to stay away from bright computer screens or television exposure shortly before bed.
The takeaway from this book is that bright light, especially daylight, can be especially energizing. People who are lucky enough to be able to take a 30-minute walk on the beach soon after rising will reap benefits. It’s also a good idea to head out into the sunlight at any time during the day, say the authors.
One other interesting note: The authors say that popular over-the-counter melatonin tablets are no good as sleep aides. The usual drugstore dose of 0.5, 1 or 3 milligrams, puts a much higher level of the hormone into the bloodstream than the body would ever produce, they write. But the authors like melatonin as a tool to set the circadian clock, and they have developed their own low-dose, controlled release tablet that, together with light therapy, works well, they say.
As for jet lag, the authors have a rather complicated prescription, but the core of it, like the prescriptions in the rest of the book, is to subject yourself to bright light for at least a half hour shortly after you wake up. If you can get outside and bask in natural light, then that’s even better.
For more on sleep, The Wall Street Journal ran an excellent piece last weekend by former Forbes writer David K. Randall, now a senior reporter at Reuters, who has written a comprehensive book about the subject, called Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep. Randall covers the circadian rhythm question and much more.