One of my Christmas presents this year was a Lumie alarm clock. It is now mid/late January and I've used it for the last 19 days without fail. Going to sleep with the 'sunset' and waking up to the 'sunrise' setting. I have to say, it is really much more pleasant than a normal alarm going off and the heart palpitations that can bring.
The 'Lumie Bodyclock' range claims to use natural light (bit of a misnomer as its a light bulb but I'll expand on this later) to allow the body a gradual change in circadian rhythm in bleak contrast to the regular lights off and blaring siren approach most of us are used to. It aims to protect what is commonly becoming known as 'sleep hygiene'.
The overriding principle behind it is that as humans we are evolved to sleep when it is dark and wake when it is light. This would make life pretty different for us in the modern world and going against it can be problematic. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is described on the Lumie website as "severe symptoms such as sleep problems, withdrawal, overeating, depression, anxiety and lethargy." You can imagine that training when feeling those symptoms is not ideal, not easy and often not very productive.
It's not a case of me having those symptoms, but I definitely find it harder during the winter months to wake up raring to go. I also get home late most evenings and have been overstimulated with screens and artificial light way beyond 8/9pm. When I try to switch off and go to sleep at ~10pm it could be 10sec before I'm asleep, or it could be an hour. Given that I train hard 4+ days a week and work fairly unsociable hours (6am starts are not unheard of, and 9pm finishes are regular) I feel like sleep needs to be optimised if I'm going to stay healthy and keep making progress in the gym.
When I talk to clients and colleagues this seems to be a really common problem. There have been several podcasts on sleep recently highlighting the need for natural light, limiting exposure to blue light from screens and creating routine in your bedtime habits. Here are some things to try to improve your sleep without resorting to pills:
Your room should be pitch black
Your bedroom should be cooler than the other rooms in your house
You should aim to keep the same bedtime and same waking time each day
Limit your exposure to blue light (computer and phone screens) late in the day
Epsom salt baths, stretching, meditation and reading can all help to relax you pre-bed
Cortisol - the enemy of getting to sleep - is required to wake up at the right time. The stress hormone and associated side effects of being chronically elevated have a huge knock on affect to sleep patterns and development of SAD. Stress management is often the first step in improving sleep and consequently improving mood, cognition and performance.
I highly recommend a light that works this way if you have trouble waking up and feeling like you actually want to get out of bed in the winter.
You may already know that your hormones are largely controlled by a 24hr biorhythm which when disrupted has implications beyond feeling tired. The neurones of the brain, central nervous system and many other cells in the body are repaired or replaced during different phases of sleep. A recent podcast interview with Dr Kirk Parsley discussed the role of different hormones during or after sleep and how they are affected. To paraphrase the key messages of the discussion:
Chronically high cortisol due to physical or emotional stress results in chronic fatigue and disrupted sleep.
Knock on effects include lowered testosterone, insulin resistance and even altered thyroid function - none of which are helpful for performance and staying in shape.
Sleep can be affected by minerals such as magnesium which can become depleted in athletes with poor diets.
Memory and learning are negatively effected by lack of sleep - certain pathways in the brain are enhanced or repaired during sleep which directly influences memory and learning motor patterns. This is obviously hugely important for new and young athletes.
We've known how important sleep is for centuries and still to this day use restricting sleep as a punishment or torture method. It makes no sense to do that to yourself on a daily basis. Optimising sleep is the first step in optimising performance.