Call it writer’s insomnia: You’re on a roll, writing for hours, late into the night. Finally, exhausted but accomplished, you save your work, back it up, switch off the computer, and fall into bed.
And then you stare at the darkness for an hour or more before finally nodding off. It’s so frustrating! You’re exhausted, so why can’t you go to sleep? Is your story too exciting? Are your characters too insistent?
Maybe. Or maybe it’s the blue light shining out of your computer screen and straight into your eyes.
Several recent scientific studies have demonstrated a connection between blue artificial light and insomnia. Early forms of artificial light — candles, campfires, and oil lamps — emit wavelengths only in the red, orange, and yellow parts of the spectrum. Sunlight contains the full range of visible wavelengths, from the longest (red) through the shortest (violet). Until the invention of gaslight a couple of centuries ago, the only regular source of blue wavelengths was sunlight. This was such a reliable signal that the human body uses blue light to know when it’s time to stay awake. Blue light suppresses melatonin, the hormone that tells you to go to sleep.
Which brings us back to your computer screen, throwing blue light at your eyes and possibly keeping you awake until you’ve been in the dark long enough to produce the melatonin you need to fall asleep.
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution you can try, and it does not involve swallowing any sleeping pills, like diphenhydramine or melatonin supplements. You just have to be willing to look like a total dork for a couple of hours before you go to bed.
I’m talking about amber-tinted glasses. These filter out blue wavelengths of light, letting only reds, yellows, and oranges reach your retinas, and allowing your body to produce melatonin naturally.
My husband bought me a pair of these about six months ago, when I routinely couldn’t fall asleep or stay asleep, even though I was exhausted. He isn’t affected by light as much as I am, but he got himself a pair too. The results have been amazing. I put them on anywhere from an hour to two hours before I plan to go to bed. Then I read, write, use the computer, check my phone, watch television—anything that I would usually do in the evening. When I go to bed, I remove the glasses (both pairs) after I switch off the light. Most nights, I go right to sleep and stay asleep until it’s time to get up. Even when I get fewer than seven or eight hours of sleep, I wake up reasonably well refreshed. My husband, who has no trouble sleeping anytime, anywhere, discovered that he is more likely to remember his dreams after wearing his amber glasses before bedtime—evidence of higher-quality REM sleep.
So give them a try. They’re amazingly affordable (see links below). And if you’re still lying awake after a late-night writing session? Well, maybe you should blame your characters.
Sources and Further Reading:
Amber-Tinted Glasses: Should You Wear Them? Readers.com Blog, February 14, 2014
Blue light has a dark side Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Medical School
Can Orange Glasses Help You Sleep Better? New York Times Well Blog, April 7, 2015
Can wearing orange-tinted glasses before bed help you sleep? Only one way to find out… The Conversation, April 27, 2015
How Light Affects Our Sleep Mark’s Daily Apple: Primal Living in a Modern World, March 2010.
Apps and Amber Glasses
Amber-tinted glasses, black frame: Uvex Skyper Safety Eyewear, SCT-Orange
Amber-tinted glasses, orange frame: Uvex Ultra-spec 2000 Safety Eyewear, SCT-Orange These are the ones I’m wearing in the picture.
f.lux®, free app that automatically adjusts the light your devices emit based on time of day. Does not change room lights, however.
Twilight for Android, another app that automatically adjusts light from devices based on time of day.
Amber lenses to block blue light and improve sleep: a randomized trial. Chronobiology International: 23 Dec 2009
Blue Blocker Glasses as a Countermeasure for Alerting Effects of Evening Light-Emitting Diode Screen Exposure in Male Teenagers. Adolescent Health: January 2015.
Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), January 27, 2015.
The impact of light from computer monitors on melatonin levels in college students. Neuroendocrinology Letters, 2011; 32(2):158-63
Books (on night and light, not amber glasses)
At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch: Historian presents evidence that humans used to sleep, not in one eight-hour stretch, but in two four-hour chunks with a period of wakefulness between.
Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox: From oil lamps to LEDs, how artificial light has shaped society.