Light Therapy Improves My Sleep, My Mood, and My Sensitivity to Caffeine

This weekend, I decided not to go to a movie because it wouldn’t get out until after 9:30 PM. This has me feeling very old, although it’s not an accurate assessment of the situation. It isn’t because I don’t want to be out after dark. The real problem is it will mean getting to bed late, and these days, one of my highest priorities is making sure I get enough sleep.

I experienced real insomnia for the first time at the age of 30, and ever since, I have been a bad sleeper, never getting a truly restful night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause depression and I’ve spent the last decade fighting to overcome depression and improve my health. In the last few years, I’ve focused on doing whatever I can to improve my sleeping conditions.

Dogs make sleeping look so EASY.
Dogs make sleeping look so EASY.

The list of things I do to help me sleep is a long one. Even though we have dark curtains on the bedroom windows, I wear an eye mask. I also wear ear plugs. Our bedroom is chilly because it’s over the garage, so I pre-heat my bed with microwaved rice bags and wear a knit cap if I’m really cold. I make an effort to exercise at least every other day and I follow a paleo diet pretty closely. I take melatonin and minerals as well. Each of these things has helped some, which is why I am still doing them.

The crazy thing is: all of this still wasn’t enough. I was waking multiple times a night and feeling groggy in the morning. I had restless nights that left me feeling like I hadn’t slept at all. Then someone suggested I try light therapy, and I found out what it feels like to sleep well.

Maybe I won't have to nap any more!
Maybe I won’t have to nap any more!

I started using a full-spectrum therapy light a few weeks ago. I’ve experienced a great improvement in my overall energy as well as in the quality of my sleep. The new me gets sleepy around nine. Some nights I turn out the lights without reading first, which is unheard of. In the past, relaxing by reading was a necessary part of my bedtime routine. Even more remarkable, I wake up without an alarm and I feel good. I have never been a morning person and thought I could never be one. Light therapy has made dramatic changes in my energy and mood.

(For those who want to know more, this is the lamp I’m using and here is an interesting post about light therapy and some of the lamps available. I use the low setting for 15 minutes on sunny days and 30 minutes on gray ones, and noticed the difference in just a few days.)

The lamp that's changed my life. (Go figure.)
The lamp that’s changed my life. (Go figure.)

One week after starting my light therapy, insomnia struck. I was awake for most of the night, the same kind of awake I am in the morning: alert with no trace of tiredness. It was unsettling. Despite my years of poor sleeping, I’d never had insomnia like this. I drank camomile tea, read, and knit, and finally slept for a few hours. The following day was miserable. I had a headache and felt ill. I spent the day watching movies and knitting. By evening I was feeling better and I slept well that night. The next day I was closer to my new normal.

Had I overdone it with the lamp? I’d been warned that too much can push you from depressed to manic. But my insomnia didn’t really feel like a manic state. I could feel my heart racing, but otherwise I was fairly calm. There were several possible triggers for the insomnia, so I decided to wait and see if I could figure out which one was the true culprit. In the meantime, I’d be sure to keep the lamp use to a minimum, just in case.

This week I discovered caffeine was the cause. I had another night of insomnia, not quite as bad as the first, and the common factor was a snack I ate. My treat consisted of a small piece of baker’s chocolate mixed with dried fruit and nuts. Before I started light therapy, I could tolerate this little bit of caffeine. In fact, I had no reaction to it at all. My seasonal lethargy was so great that the caffeine didn’t have any noticeable effect on me. But coupled with the light therapy, the caffeine pushed me into severe insomnia. The second time, I had my snack at 10 AM and was up until 2. Thank God for calming herbal teas or it might have been a night with no sleep at all.

My whole health journey seems to go like this. Add something that helps. Take away something that hurts. The weirdest part is when things that don’t seem like they should have any affect do. Where I live in Colorado, we get lots of sunlight. I can’t believe that I need even more to get my sleep cycle working properly, but apparently I do. In the same vein, my tiny bit of chocolate with its tiny dose of caffeine was just fine for a while. But it isn’t any more, so I will have to let it go.

I hate having to be militant about my sleep habits, but it’s worth it. My life continues to improve as my health and energy improve. Today I can do more than I could three weeks ago, and I know it’s because of the benefits I am getting from sleeping through the night. I have mornings where I am the one who is cheery and upbeat, something my husband and I are both still adjusting to. Getting enough sleep is proving key to my health. I can wait to see the movie next weekend. I think I’ll go to a matinee.

Author: Kit Dunsmore

Kit is a writer and an artist who adores living in Colorado. Whether she's hiking in the mountains or walking the prairies, she's always watching the wildlife in order to learn more about the natural world.

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