When Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast last weekend, it caused widespread power outages throughout New England and much of Long Island. But the blackouts may have a silver lining: living by candlelight for about a week improved my sleeping habits.
When the power outage on my street in Nassau County, on Long Island — caused by a felled tree, according to the Long Island Power Authority — wasn't fixed after two days, I was pretty upset. But after reluctantly throwing out most of the food in my fridge, I realized that the situation wasn't all bad.
For example, not having the TV on in the background all evening allowed me to spend more time reading (with a flashlight, camp-style). And my apartment was suddenly, eerily quiet.
That silence, paired with living by candlelight every evening, made me much more aware of exactly when night was approaching. I began taking walks through my neighborhood at dusk in hopes of seeing electricity restored to some of the houses, but only saw dim candlelight glowing through windows and kids playing flashlight tag in the streets.
My own home, no matter how many dozens of candles I light, remains considerably darker than I'm used to, and by 9 p.m., I'm yawning up a storm.
Wired to respond
I can't turn to my computer for time-eating distractions or to check my email before bed. I can't make any long, non-emergency calls because I'm conserving my smartphone's battery, and there's only so much reading by flashlight that one can take, so I now fall asleep by 10 p.m., instead of my usual 11:30 p.m. or midnight.
"We are wired to respond to light and dark, so what you are experiencing is the removal of the effects of the electric light bulb and Internet," said Dr. David M. Rapoport, director of the Sleep Medicine Program at the New York University School of Medicine.
Sleep expert Karen Gamble, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist at the University of Alabama, agreed that my new early-to-bed routine is tied to the blackout. Although our circadian clocks are internal, and would continue to cycle even in constant lighting, they are also reset daily by lighting conditions, she explained.
"The timing of that light is critical," said Gamble, who has authored several studies on the circadian rhythm. "Light during the early night/evening will delay the circadian clock, resulting in a later wake up time, and light during the late night/early morning will advance the clock."
TV and Computers Interfere with Sleep
My habit of watching TV before bedtime may explain why I've always experienced bouts of insomnia and often have trouble staying asleep. Since the blackout, I've been dozing off as soon as my head hits the pillow and sleeping the whole night through. Usually, I need the air conditioner turned down to 70 degrees in order to comfortably fall asleep, but even the hot, humid, electricity-free summer nights haven't disturbed my sleep.
"When you rely on the geophysical light cycle, as now, your internal rhythms become much more in tune with the environment," said Shimon Amir, circadian rhythm researcher and director of the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology at Concordia University in Montreal.
"When there is no light at night, you restrict your social interactions, work and meals to normal hours; this helps ensure that your internal clocks are optimally tuned with each other and the environment."
Even if my electricity returns on Friday night, as LIPA predicts, I'd like to stick to my new circadian rhythm, and the sleep experts were happy to offer some advice.
"When lights come back, you can still keep this new schedule, and probably feel good, by simply blindfolding yourself when you go to bed, like they do on airplanes. It works. I tried it," Amir said.
As for my late-night TV habit, it turns out, TV screens and computer monitors produce a specific, bright, "blue" light that tells the brain to stay awake, delaying the body's production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wake cycles, Gamble said. So turning off the electronics at least an hour before bedtime tells the body that it's time to start prepping for sleep.