Anybody who has an elderly relative in their family is probably familiar with the early bird syndrome…. Those same folks who arrive at local restaurants for the discount dinners served between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. are also likely to go to sleep at 7:00 p.m. and awaken for the day at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. And they’re none too happy about it.
This is more than just a part of aging. It’s called “early awakening” insomnia, and it causes tremendous unhappiness for those who suffer through it. Now a group of researchers from the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) have initiated a study into the phenomena.
According to Mariana Figueiro, director of the light and health program at RPI, the problem can impact many people but becomes much more common with age, and researchers at her program have been trying to come up with a solution. So right now, senior citizens who have volunteered to be part of a study are outfitting themselves with a lightweight flashing mask that directs a flash of blue light every thirty seconds. The idea behind the study is that a specific spectrum of blue light will help the seniors’ reset their body clock, making them produce melatonin and allowing the to stay awake and wake up in the morning at hours that more closely approximate the time frames that they followed when they were younger.
The study is funded by a $3 million research grant provided by the National Institutes of Health, and according to Figueroa it is targeting the “very, very early birds.” Though some have addressed the problem by taking sleeping pills, others have resigned themselves to this disruptive pattern, and their health has suffered without them realizing it. So Figueroa has recruited volunteers ages 65 and older to participate in an examination of the usefulness of the mask. The idea is that those who wear the mask and who are exposed to the light flash end up generating more melatonin, the natural hormone that provides a signal to the body to become drowsy and go to sleep. Melatonin is available as a supplement, but is though to be more effective when generated naturally.
The testing has gone on for more than a year, and initial reports have provided promising results. Volunteers are being provided with an incentive of $700 to endure wearing the mask for 14 days, as well as for the inconvenience of having the data about their sleep patterns downloaded and for having to submit to saliva tests to determine their melatonin levels. They also agree to wearing a device for another four weeks to analyze and track the exposure they are getting to light and to measure the level of their daytime activity.
Though the study originated at Renssalaer, it is slated for a move to the University of North of Carolina for further assessment. The study has drawn the attention of the professionals from Philips Respironics, a company that has developed monitors for sleep apnea. Though there has been no specific feedback, it is thought that Philips may be interested in the future potential of light therapy for those suffering from early awakening insomnia.
The studies that have been done so far have been extremely encouraging in terms of offering hope for the future for those suffering from the early morning awakenings. Melatonin production as been shown to increase later in the evening as compared to the levels before the flashing light exposure, and people have reported that they have been able to stay awake longer and sleep longer through the course of the night, awakening at more socially acceptable times. Figueiro was quoted as saying, “We have some people who cannot stay awake after 6 p.m. and are up at 3 in the morning. After a week we are seeing a shift in rising melatonin levels from a half hour to forty five minutes later in the evening.” It is the hope of the researchers involved in the study that they will be able to extend the time spent sleeping by the full three hours that they are exposing them to the flashing blue lights.
The role of melatonin in the human sleep cycle has drawn a great deal of attention as more and more is learned about what it is that makes us get drowsy in the evenings and become alert in the mornings. The production of melatonin is a process that begins with our vision, with light entering the eye and stimulating a nerve that travels from the retina to the hypothalamus, which is a part of the brain that plays an integral role in our sleeping/waking pattern. When signals are sent out to the body telling it to raise or lower levels of hormones, increase or decrease body temperature as well as how to control other bodily functions, sleep is impacted. People are made to either feel alert or drowsy in response to the level of melatonin that is present within their body.
Melatonin is specifically produced in a gland known as the pineal gland. This is a tiny area within the brain that is smaller than a pea but that is responsible for a great deal of human well being. When everything is operating normally, the pineal gland becomes active at approximately 9:00 p.m. and tells the body to produce the hormone melatonin. The rising levels make the body go to sleep, and when the levels diminish the body becomes alert. The drop-off of melatonin level is often in response to the eyes detecting sunlight. At the same time body temperature raises and cortisol is generated.
Many industries are already utilizing sunlight and manipulating melatonin in order to manipulate the amount of milk that cows are producing or to increase the egg production of chickens. It is hoped that when the same theory is applied to humans it will provide relief for those suffering from disruptive sleep patterns.