Earth Day provides us a good opportunity to contemplate how the quality of our physical environment can influence the quality of our health.
After all, the toxins in our landscapes (both manufactured and natural) can have a negative impact on processes like pregnancy, injury rehabilitation, recovery from infection or illness, even the way we think and feel as we move through our daily lives.
Certainly, these environmental concerns can affect sleep health. If we’re made sick by tainted water or soil, that will certainly disrupt sleep. So will air pollution make it difficult for many to breathe at night.
Until recently, pollution was thought to reference only those contaminants that affect the natural landscape, such as water, air, and soil pollution.
These are definitely areas for concern. But so many of us live at least half our lives in manmade, interior landscapes. This includes not only working, eating, playing, and gathering, but sleeping.
Inside these spaces, pollution caused by excessive light and noise is increasingly problematic and can be described as precursors to second-hand sleep problems. Even psychic or virtual pollution, a byproduct of the digital world we experience via social media and the Internet, is a serious threat to our health.
Good sleep hygiene practices include the conscious effort to tone down or turn off handheld electronics. Research repeatedly shows that using electronic devices at night (without filters) puts us all at risk for insomnia.
Some research even suggests that extended nighttime exposure to blue spectrum light (the gremlin that’s causing all the sleeplessness) could even pose negative epigenetic consequences for our offspring.
When our eyes are exposed to blue spectrum light after sundown, the pineal gland in the brain, which receives its sleep-wake inducing cues from light signals delivered by the eyes, will halt its release of melatonin, the “sleep hormone,” into the bloodstream.
We cannot achieve sleep without melatonin, and if we experience shortages in melatonin on a regular basis, our circadian rhythms and sleep architecture experience disruptions that provide fertile territory for the development of chronic illnesses, including cancer.
Other kinds of light pollution to consider include:
- Bright LED light bulbs used in household lamps and nightlights, unless they are labeled “blue-blocking,” “filtered for blue light,” or “soft” (as opposed to “bright”)
- Appliance power lights
- Alarm clock lights
- External sources of bright light, such as high-intensity LED streetlights, motion sensor lights, or neon lighting
How to thwart light pollution for better sleep
- For interior lights, swap out bright LED bulbs for soft white or yellow or pink bulbs, which do not emit blue or green spectrum light
- Wear an eye mask to bed
- For exterior illuminations that creep into your bedroom, light blocking drapes or shades are a great solution (they can also help during heat waves to keep your sleeping spaces cooler during the day by blocking solar rays)
- Move your smartphone into your bathroom to charge it
- Get rid of your backlit alarm clock if you find yourself checking it all night long
- Finally, if those bright appliance or device power or charging lights bother you, turn them away from your line of sight, or place black tape over them
Noise, by itself, isn’t always a problem. Some people prefer sleeping to a “noise machine” (emitting sounds that are described as “white” or “pink” noise).
The partners of CPAP users often say they sleep better hearing the sound of their loved one’s machine hissing softly in the background.
Those with tinnitus prefer some noise at bedtime as well, if only to mask their own ringing ears.
Typical ambient noise in or around one’s household (the sounds of people walking upstairs, appliance noises, low conversation, water rushing through pipes, ticking clocks, nature sounds, laundry racket, lawn mowers, barking dogs, crying babies, and the sounds coming from electronics) are something some of us tolerate just fine because these are familiar, ordinary sounds that our brains adapt to.
But if these sounds are less familiar, they can be burdensome (in example, your barking dog may not bother you, but it might bother your neighbors).
Nature sounds can be just as off-putting as urban sounds: coyotes howl, owls hoot, sea lions bark, and toads croak... sometimes loudly!
City people might find crickets or frogs at night extremely loud, while country folk may lose sleep over the sounds of cars passing by booming heavy bass music from their interiors.
Experiences with noise pollution at night may be unique to each individual, but the overall impact is a shared one: poor health caused by sleep disruption.
Other sounds associated with modern life that can disrupt sleep include:
- Air traffic (commercial jets, growlers, fighter planes, emergency or media helicopters)
- Water traffic (have you ever heard the roar an aircraft carrier makes? Or what about the buzz of jet-skis, the tinny whine of a submarine passing by, or the toots of horns from cruise ships or ferry boats?)
- Commuter traffic (trains, heavy automobile traffic, delivery and commercial shipping trucks, railroad crossing bells, growing motorcycles, train whistles, car horns)
- Construction and industrial site noise (jackhammers, earth-moving equipment, electric tools, idling vehicles, machinery sounds, shift whistles)
- And woe to the person who ends up in the hospital following a serious injury or illness; these can be some of the loudest places for people trying to achieve healing sleep
How to fix problems with noise pollution
- Demand enforcement of noise ordinances
- Wear simple earplugs
- Try out ambient noise machine options (this can include soft music, frequency tones, or nature sounds on a nearby stereo)
- Noiseproof the home
- Use wearable sleep headphones, which cancel out exterior noise or pipe in quiet, sleep-conducive sounds (or both)
What about psychic (virtual) pollution?
The increase of our use of computers, visits to the Internet, and exchanges in social media has substantially contributed to our culture of sleeplessness. This kind of "pollution" is related more to issues tied to anxiety, social stigma, politics, and expression of one’s personal values.
Participating in robust discussions in virtual forums can be satisfying for some, while for others, these can be exhausting and frustrating experiences difficult to recover from.
Nonstop media exposure creates a kind of “psychic noise” which makes it difficult to focus and maintain a balanced mood during the day; at night, it can result in “racing thoughts” or other signs of anxiety that lead to sleeplessness, which leads to even more problems with focus and mood swings.
Another source of virtual pollution: high-sensory media. The sounds and sights found in video games, television programming, movies, podcasts, and YouTube videos—even when the content is positive, uplifting, heartfelt, and amusing—create a steady stream of media-amplified excitement that can make shutting off the brain difficult at night.
How to survive virtual pollution
- Take social media vacations (even one day away can lift one’s spirits)
- Assign yourself a predetermined time slot for enjoying social media, and limit your engagement to that time slot only
- Don’t engage with others more interested in creating drama than solving problems
- Go outside (and leave your electronics at home) for at least half an hour a day
- Practice yoga, meditation and/or breathing exercises (each of these clarifies focus, quiets your internal noise pollution, and helps you reset your attention and mood)
- Block and report people in social media who harass you
- Avoid all media in the hour prior to bedtime, focusing on bedtime rituals like light reading, a warm bath, stretching, or a cup of herbal tea instead
- Don’t check email or social media at bedtime; wait until after you’ve had a nice breakfast and your morning coffee after a good night of sleep
Paying attention to your sleep environment and the presence of these toxic intruders can lead to some great sleep hygiene solutions. Why not celebrate Earth Day every year by cleaning up your sleep ecosystem?