by Mike Harnett, President Solaris Fatigue Management
I’m staring daggers at my coffeemaker impatiently drumming my fingers against my chipped mug, swearing at it to hurry up.
Today, I need to jumpstart my brain. I’m on edge. Sleep didn’t come easy after watching the late night news, something I normally and deliberately avoid. I tossed and turned, worried about COVID, and racism, and riots, and the economy, and a second coming of the toilet paper famine.
I’m hoping the coffee will make me feel less… murdery.
Brew now in hand, I step outside and pace around the yard. It’s no surprise that stress is taking a toll on us. Stress typically turns off when the stressors disappear. But what makes our current situation unique is that the stress isn’t going away, and there’s no timeline for when it will.
The truth is, we may never experience a return to normal as we knew it pre-2020.
SLEEPLESSNESS COMES FIRST, THEN STRESS
In the past, stress, depression and mental health disorders were viewed as a cause of insomnias and other sleep disorders. Only recently has science revealed that it’s actually the opposite. In fact, the less sleep, the higher the risk for mental health issues such as depression, schizophrenia, low impulse control and suicidal thoughts.1
So, in order to maintain a healthy mind, we need healthy sleep. Most of us now recognize that adults require at least 7-9 hours of quality sleep to repair the brain and body from the stressors of the day.2
More specifically, it’s during the latter part of our sleep period that we spend most of our time in REM sleep. This is the critical period for our brain to recharge both our cognitive abilities and emotional tolerances. If we can’t fall asleep, or cut our sleep short, or wake up throughout the night, you will be lacking the tools to deal with the next challenge 2020 throws at us.
Therein lies the conundrum. A lack of sleep escalates our stress, and the more stress, the more cortisol and adrenaline are dumped into our system, escalating our sleeplessness. A vicious cycle erupts.
And that’s why I step outside. To break the cycle!
How does stepping outside help? It’s simple really.
Yup… that’s the key to managing all this toxic plume swirling around us. Well, it’s one of the keys. A really big key. The biggest key.
Here’s the science. As humans, our sleep-wake cycle is controlled by the amount and timing of light exposure. Sunlight is the single most powerful synchronizer we have, regulating our mood, energy levels, and sleep abilities by making sure our body rhythms work in harmony with each other, not against each other.
When we go out into the bright sunlight, it converts certain foods that contain tryptophan into serotonin. How much is produced is directly related to the amount of tryptophan in your diet and the amount of bright sunlight you’re exposed to in the day. The brighter the sunshine and the longer you’re exposed to it, the more serotonin produced.
Serotonin is known as one of our “happiness” hormones, giving us sensations of joy and pleasure, and basically making us nice people to be around. We’re kinder, communicate better (without swearing) and are less likely to over-react when the kids paint the dog.
Sunshine = increased stress tolerance and better mood – Check!
But that’s not all it does. When the sun starts to set, the brain reaches into our serotonin stores and converts it to melatonin. Melatonin is our natural sleep hormone, helping us to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Low serotonin means low melatonin.
Sunshine = better and more sleep – Check!
What can we do to improve our sleep
So, to help us cope with pandemics, protests, and people in general, we need to do two things.
1. Eat a diet rich in tryptophan.
Tryptophan is especially high in proteins (such as quinoa and nuts – as well as fish, meat, eggs, and dairy) and we need sufficient quantities to produce serotonin.
You can also get it as a nutritional supplement if you’re worried you’re not getting enough – I’m looking at you vegans!
2. Get outside.
The morning sun is preferable as it synchronizes our body rhythms to a daytime schedule. On a cloudless day, depending on the time of year, it can range from 10,000 to 50,000 lux of light!
Even on a cloudy day, the lux levels outside are significantly higher than in your house or office which sit around 300 – 500 lux of light. So pull on those rain boots and strut outside for an hour or so.
In wintertime, especially for us pasty-faced Canadians, we have less light exposure, which explains why depression levels are so much higher during that time of year. There are all kinds of lightboxes that you can buy to help you get the light fix you need. Just be sure to get one that replicates at least 10,000 lux of light.
Unfortunately, working at night or having an erratic sleep schedule can further disrupt serotonin production and subsequently, melatonin levels. Here’s where many of our frontline workers are at elevated risk. The low serotonin levels can result in sleep disorders such as insomnia, in addition to increases in mood swings, anger levels, and even addictive behaviours.3
Read Dr. Joti’s article on improving sleep for shift workers.
Using a lightbox can provide significant benefits to these workers when walking in the sunshine isn’t an option.
While some may think that buying synthetic melatonin is the answer, they are a complex hormone that, if taken in the wrong amount, or not timed correctly, can create significant health consequences. Our melatonin requirements vary wildly from person to person and even day to day. Recent research illustrates the many risks associated with it and why we should limit its use.4
Read Dr. Joti’s article on the implications of taking sleep medication like melatonin. Or check out MyWorkplaceHealth’s Sleep Resources page for all our resources on improving sleep.
Sunshine helps us develop our body’s natural defences against stress by improving sleep. Since your brain can’t repair itself while you’re sitting on the couch watching The Real Housewives of Moose Jaw, go outside and catch some rays.
Mike Harnett is a fatigue management expert with MyWorkplaceHealth. She utilizes a human factors approach to mitigating fatigue-related risk in the workplace. With the goal of optimizing worker health and safety while enhancing organizational performance, Mike offers risk assessment, education and training options, and program development that reflects current evidence-based science. Check out her full bio here and reach out through our contact page to book a workplace consultation.
1Brooks, Megan. (2014, June 2). Suicide More Likely After Midnight. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/826054
2National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times | Sleep Foundation. (2020). Retrieved 29 July 2020, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-recommends-new-sleep-times
3 Pirola, Carlos J. (2007). Serotonin and Serotonin Transporter Gene Variant in Rotating Shift Workers. Sleep. Aug. 2007
4 Cipolla-Neto, José; Gaspar do Amaral, Fernanda. (2018). Melatonin as a Hormone: New Physiological and Clinical Insights, Endocrine Reviews, Volume 39, Issue 6, December 2018, Pages 990–1028.