February 16, 2021
February 16, 2021
Sleep and sleep quality are receiving more attention than ever. And while it’s great to recognize and celebrate the importance of high quality rest, the trend reveals another truth—most people struggle to sleep well.
A quick glance at data from various sources confirms that suspicion and highlights it as a fairly common problem:
While the data is discouraging, it isn’t surprising. Given our high-paced, high-stress modern environment, sleep is more of an after thought than a daily priority.
The question then becomes: What can be done?
Although quality sleep is a full day effort, post-sunset is a critical time period that can make or break your sleep that night. It’s also a great place to start making small, high-reward changes.
Circadian Rhythms In The Modern World
First, let’s talk about why the period after sunset is so important.
Humans are guided by an internal clock we commonly call our circadian rhythm. But, unlike a typical mechanical clock that keeps time independently, our internal timekeepers are constantly looking to the external environment for guidance.
The most important cue for circadian timekeeping is the daily and seasonal fluctuations in light (or lack of it)—i.e. day and night. Photoreceptors in our eyes and skin receive signals from the light environment and communicate to the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN). The SCN is located in the hypothalamus and coordinates our physiologic response to the signals received. This includes critical hormonal, metabolic and energetic functions throughout the body (to dig deep into circadian biology, click here). Meal timing is another important cue for circadian function and when you eat can actually matter more than what you eat (click here to learn more).
Maintaining synchronization between our environment and internal function is important for creating optimal health. When we become desynchronized from our environment, our body loses its ability to initiate the correct biological functions. In the short term, this may look like fatigue, low energy, lack of mental clarity and poor mood. Over time, chronic desynchronization will always lead to more serious dysfunction and is a proven risk factor for any of the chronic diseases that are so prevalent today.
Unfortunately, the modern world has created a 24/7 lifestyle that works against our fundamental sleep biology. Stressful days leave us in a state of constant sympathetic nervous activation; late-night eating sends our guts into overdrive and confuses our bodies; and constant exposure to artificial light disrupts our circadian timing and ability to initiate the correct functions at the correct time. These cultural norms have created a universal state of chronic circadian disruption with sleep quality suffering as a result.
Why Is Post-Sunset So Important?
The period after sunset has been substantially transformed in a very short period of time.
For most of human history, we lived in unison with the light environment. There was no artificial light to disrupt our circadian clock and the temptations of technology were nonexistent. That meant that once the sun had set and darkness had descended, you could either go to sleep or…go to sleep! Options were limited.
But, this is simply no longer the case—we are constantly surrounded by artificial lighting and technology usage has become a normal part of passing time—especially once it’s dark out. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for terrible sleep.
So, how can you transform your post-sunset routine for high quality sleep? Keep reading to learn more!
1.) Block/Eliminate/ Reduce Artificial Light
It can’t be stated enough—artificial light is devastating to our circadian rhythm and thus, sleep quality.
The key player in restorative sleep is melatonin, which nature cleverly designed to work inversely with cortisol (the stress hormone).
Ideally melatonin levels will rise and fall in accordance with the diurnal patterns of day and night—this means that as the sun sets, levels should increase, peaking in the middle of night after several hours of darkness. As morning comes, levels will slowly decrease, with the lowest point coming after sunrise. This is when cortisol should kick in.
But, what happens when we eliminate darkness almost entirely, instead filling our nights with artificial light. You guessed it—we lose control of melatonin and become dominated by cortisol—sleep and recovery disaster.
The most effective way to combat this issue is simply to eliminate use of artificial light and technology once the sun has set. Without circadian disruption, quality sleep is more likely.
If this is not a realistic solution for you, there is another option—night time blue blocking glasses.
Glasses designed for nighttime use should block 100% of blue light—these glasses can often be recognized by their distinctive red tinted lenses. There are many options for blue blocking glasses, so do your research and be sure the pair you choose is effective, backed by testing and of high quality construction. Many companies are more than happy to share their testing and design facts with you if you reach out, so don’t hesitate to contact them directly.
For a complete guide to blue blocking glasses, click here!
2.) Avoid Flickering Lights
One area many people neglect to consider is flicker. Think of it simply as the pulsing of light over a period of time. Flicker can range from a small change in a light’s brightness to fully turning on/off repeatedly. These changes are often imperceptible, but not always.
Why does flicker occur?
This may seem like a design flaw, but it is actually incorporated into many lights intentionally to save energy. But, the cost for your health is significant.
Flicker is an unnatural stimulus and is a silent stressor as a result—bad news for sleep!
It’s important to note that although blue light and flicker may come from the same source, strategies for mitigating/eliminating differ greatly—this means wearing your blue-light blocking glasses will not help in this area. Instead, turn off harsh LED lights that are most susceptible to generating flicker. You can also switch them out for low flicker bulbs as well!
3.) Watch The Sunset
Our circadian timekeeper is constantly looking to the light environment for cues—this means that getting outside to watch the sunset is a critical message.
Rain or shine, be sure to make a dose of natural light exposure around sunset a daily priority. Use an app (your weather app is the most accessible) to get an understanding of when the sun is going to set and set an alarm if necessary. Even if you don’t have a clear view of the setting sun, simply being outside is extremely powerful.
Pro Tip: Use the sunset as a reminder to begin reducing artificial light and winding down for the night.
4.) Choose Red Light
If you need light, try to make it red.
Visible red light occurs between 625–760 nm (3). Infrared light, which is non-visible and perceived as heat, is found roughly after 760nm on the electromagnetic spectrum and divided into three different bands—IR-A (760–1400 nm), IR-B (1400–3000 nm), and IR-C (3000 nm–1 mm).
Red light is unique for a number of reasons. Not only has it been shown to be the least disruptive wavelength to our circadian rhythm, it also offers distinct healing benefits like reduced inflammation.
Similar to blue-light blocking glasses there are an abundance of red lights available in different shapes, sizes and frequencies. Do your research as not all are created equally! In fact, one of the most important areas to consider is actually flicker. Many red lights utilize LED bulbs, without mitigating the effects of flicker—unfortunately that means you may be inadvertently creating a separate issue. Look deeply into flicker as well as the spectrum used and be sure there are no junk light wavelengths (blue light) present.
5.) No Food After Sunset
This is another big one!
Our bodies were designed to be the most metabolically active during daytime. Nighttime, on the other hand, is reserved for rest and repair.
Eating late sends the wrong signal to our body, indicating it is time to utilize/produce energy and sending our gut into overdrive. Simultaneously, it disrupts the critical repair processes that help our bodies recover from daily wear-and-tear.
Chronic desynchronization and lack of cellular repair over time will inevitably result in dysfunction.
Consciously time your last meal to allow a gap of at least three hours before going to bed and make sure to leave the snacks behind. You will find you sleep better and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day.
7.) Make Post-Sunset Low Stress
There’s no doubt, life can be super stressful. But we should do everything possible to avoid activating the stress response after the sun has set.
Try to adopt practices like meditation, journaling or reading to finish your day instead of using technology, staring at screens or even working. Treat the time between sunset and bedtime as sacred and solely dedicated to you. Don’t settle or give in—quality sleep is well worth the sacrifice.
If you struggle to get high quality sleep, your post-sunset routine is a great time place to focus on initially.
Start small and adopt practices that you know you can keep. As you create lasting habits, continue to build and challenge yourself with more difficult changes. Remember—consistency is key to success.
Pro-Tip: Using a tracking device like the Oura Ring is a great way to get feedback on the actions you take and maintain accountability. Do your research and consider investing in a wearable that makes sense to you!
If you’ve mastered your post-sunset routine and still feel as though there is room for improvement, consider your morning routine and how it impacts your sleep quality. For more information in that area, check out our blog “The Power of the Sunrise.”