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nasa sleep research

Did you “sleep like a baby” last night? Chance are more likely that you slept like an astronaut.

And how does an astronaut sleep, you may ask?

Not very well.

But in a couple of years, those astronauts orbiting the earth every 90 minutes aboard the International Space Station (ISS) may be sleeping much better due to some new on-board LED lighting technology – an improvement in sleep research that will permit their “inner clocks,” which operate on what’s called “circadian rhythms,” to get back on schedule.

While the amazing, big-as-a-football-field ISS and these new “biologically corrected” LED lights are about as high tech as you can get, both work in accordance with principles of basic physics and the fundamental need of human beings for exposure to regular periods of light and dark, along with several hours of properly filtered light before turning in. So it’s no surprise that the ISS crew, who experience dawn arriving 16 times “daily” inside a world illuminated with fluorescent lighting, find it so difficult to get to sleep.

Even though the ISS scheduling allows for over eight hours of shut-eye every 24 hours – and the crew receives special training in relaxation techniques – sleeping pills are still the most commonly prescribed drug aboard the Space Station. And that sounds a lot like how things are back here on Earth.

A sleep research study issued this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed just how much we Earth-bound Americans share with those astronauts when it comes to sleep. Almost 9 million of us took a prescription sleeping drug according to the government research.

And that’s pretty scary news if you take into account another study in 2012 that found those who regularly take prescription sleep aids are five times more likely to die versus those who didn’t pop the drug — a risk that appears to extend even to patients who were prescribed less than 20 pills a year! Other side effects of these sedative hypnotics, as they are called, can include breathing problems, severe allergic reactions, confusion, and engaging in activities such as eating, driving and even talking on the phone, while still in a semi-sleep-like state, as well as worsening the sleep problems they were prescribed for in the first place.

So what’s an insomniac to do? Luckily all that “science” developed for NASA to improve the sleeping habits of the ISS crew is now available for us right here on Terra firma, and at a fraction of the cost and trouble it takes to get this “right light” into the Space Station.

“Once we got to a certain point with NASA, we started to realize there are a lot of people here on Earth that could use this as well,” said Robert Soler, director of research at Lighting Science, based in Satellite Beach, Fla. The company recently unleashed several consumer lighting products, which are now available, that have neatly packaged all that NASA research into some spiffy, energy-efficient, long-lasting LED light bulbs under the Definity Digital name.

“People on earth also don’t get the right kind of light,” Soler explained. “We spend 90 percent of our time indoors,” he noted, much like the ISS astronauts who are so far removed from the sun. Soler calls this a “twilight lifestyle,” with not enough daytime sunlight exposure and the wrong kind of light in the evening hours before bedtime – all of which make for less sleep, and when we do manage to nod off, bad quality sleep.

Why all ‘white light’ is not created equal

While the concept of “circadian rhythms,” which comprise the individual internal clock that people, plants, animals and even fungi all share, was first observed centuries ago (although the term “circadian” wasn’t coined until the 1950s), it wasn’t until a more recent discovery, one about how our eyes actually “see” light and what our brains do with this information, that everything came into, shall we say, focus.

The most interesting part about this new finding – a photoreceptor located in retinal cells called “melanopsin” – is that it is not there for vision, but rather for non-visual light cues. Basically it ‘programs’ our sleep cycle by telling our brains what time it is – should we be awake and alert, or getting ready for bed? These special cells are also very sensitive to “blue light,” a wavelength which, while beneficial during the day, can throw our internal clock off schedule and suppress the natural production of melatonin, which could very well be called a ‘miracle hormone’. Red-spectrum light, however, does just the opposite, and won’t interfere with melatonin production, which typically starts several hours before bedtime. And that means a good night’s sleep without popping all those pills.

So what does your home have in common with the ISS, and how is that keeping you from a refreshing respite in slumberland?

Both environments, as it turns out, use lighting that is unnatural and confusing to those newfound special light receptors in the retina. And that’s especially true if you have replaced your incandescent bulbs (the ones now being phased out) with those curly-shaped, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), which give off more of that sleep-stealing “blue” spectrum light.

And while the visual rods and cones in your eyes don’t perceive this hue as looking blue, those unique melanopsin cells do. The light coming from those CFLs and other fluorescent lamps may appears pure white, but it really isn’t. And that’s what halts melatonin production in its tracks.

This would be bad enough if all melatonin did was help you to get your zzz’s. But research is telling us that melatonin is also a potent antioxidant, vital to good health and the prevention of some serious diseases such as cancer, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

So how can we best keep that melatonin flowing on the regular schedule that nature intended? The solution devised by Lighting Science, for both astronauts and consumers, is the LED “Good Night” bulb, which gives off a nice, white light, but also filters out most of the “blue” that keeps us up at night. “If you diminish that blue spectrum, which is important to the circadian rhythm,” said Soler, “you can create the light/dark cycle that humans are hard-wired to optimally function in.”

The equally necessary “light” side of that equation can be achieved by getting at least an hour of sun exposure each day. Or, for those who must spend most of the daylight hours indoors at the office cube farm, Lighting Science also makes what it calls the Definity Digital “Awake and Alert” bulb. Giving off a pleasing white light, this bulb also utilizes all that NASA research by producing a blue enriched spectrum that’s designed to increase energy and promotes alertness.

This technology, according to Soler, is not a gimmick, but one based on sound biological principles. While “there are other companies that promote types of bulbs that have different colors that they say provide sleep or alertness,” he noted, “those don’t get to the core of the issue, which is the actual spectrum of light that is required.”

“People may think of the “Good Night” light as a light bulb, but really it’s a sleep solution that just happens to look and function like one.”

Sleep 101

Tips for getting back on track when it comes to sleeping well.

  • Cut out the coffee breaks after 3 p.m. Caffeine is said to have a “half life” of at least five hours, meaning that half the jolt is still in your system long after you enjoyed that likely overpriced cup of java.
  • Sleep in the dark. Turn off the night light, close the curtains tight and take all those fancy docks and devices that give off light out of the bedroom.
  • Likewise, boot the television out of your sleeping quarters. TVs emit “blue light” that interferes with the natural production of melatonin. Plus, scary or stimulating shows and movies do nothing beneficial for you when it comes to sleeping well.
  • Ipads, smart phones, computers and other tablets also give off blue light and should be not be used several hours before you’re ready to hit the sack. If you must use them, try adding a blue-blocking iPad filter.
  • Try to get at least an hour of sunshine daily. Light in the day helps you sleep better at night.
  • Check out the Definity Digital Good Night bulb. The bulb fits standard fixture bases and gives off a clean, white light perfect for all evening activities without the blue spectrum that interferes with melatonin production. It is best used, according to the company, as your light source several hours before you climb into bed.

Linda Bonvie

Linda Bonvie is an author and consumer advocate with over 20 years of experience researching and writing about food safety, health and environmental issues. She is the editor of FoodIdentityTheft.com, for which she writes twice weekly blogs, and is co-author of Chemical-Free Kids: How to Safeguard Your Child’s Diet and Environment (2003) and Chemical-Free Kids: the Organic Sequel (2008), as well as The Stevia Story: a tale of incredible sweetness and intrigue (1997). Articles she has co-authored with her brother Bill have been published in a number of top magazines and many major newspapers. One, an expose on the spraying of passengers on international flights with a toxic pesticide, which was published back in 1993, led to the requirement being dropped by a couple dozen countries after then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena became personally involved in the issue.

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