When Michelle Tam, the 40-year-old blogger behind Nom Nom Paleo, worked the night shift as a hospital pharmacist for over a decade, she pulled out all the stops to ensure she got adequate sleep. Bedtime was at 10:30 a.m., sharp. She banned electronics from her bedroom, installed blackout curtains to block daytime sunshine, wore a soft eye mask to prevent additional light sneaking in, and inserted earplugs to silence her rambunctious family. But her early morning slumber prep involved one other very unusual suspect.
“As soon as I got off work, I’d stick on these goofy goggles,” says Tam, referring to amber-colored glasses she bought online for roughly eight dollars in February 2013. Despite the dork factor, the plastic specs helped Tam fall asleep after checking email and responding to tweets before crawling under the covers.
Specs for Snoozing
How does this cheap eyewear influence sleep? Normally, the pineal gland in your brain begins producing melatonin, a hormone that helps you fall and stay asleep, when the sun goes down. But studies demonstrate that the blue light emitted from devices like smartphones, computers, tablets and TVs can disrupt this process. The tinted lenses block the light that tricks the body into thinking it is daytime.
“What we tell people is, stop anything with screens about an hour before bedtime,” says Safwan Badr, M.D., former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The blue light from the screens, he says, shift circadian rhythms twice as long as green light, which has a shorter wavelength.
A small study recently conducted at the University of Basel in Switzerland suggests that blue light-blocking glasses can restore our normal sense of sleepiness after exposure to screens at night. After playing with computers and other digital devices before bedtime for a week, 13 teen boys who wore tinted glasses at night reported feeling significantly sleepier than 13 boys who wore clear glasses. Saliva samples revealed that the boys with blue light blocking glasses had higher melatonin levels, too.
Screens Before Dreams
While no one has tracked the number of people who use safety glasses as sleep aides, they’re becoming quite popular in one specific profession.
“It’s like a peaceful knockout. You feel like the thing that was keeping you awake is gone.”
“It’s amazing how frequently you’ll see these in the programming world,” says Dan Schobel, a 33-year-old engineer at Twitter. He explains that wearing this product is a well-known method for “undoing some of the harm of staring at a computer screen” late into the night.
Two years ago Schobel first read about amber glasses on Paleo websites and later saw his brother, a programmer at Apple, start wearing them. Then, after another engineer popped a pair on at a hacker weekend he decided to try them out himself. For a year now, Schobel says he’s been wearing the specs after 9 p.m. if he thinks he’s going to be up late working. Usually he feels wired when he works at night on his laptop, and claims the glasses help him unwind. “It’s like a peaceful knockout. You feel like the thing that was keeping you awake is gone,” he says. The effect feels similar to taking over-the-counter melatonin supplements, he explains, but notes that for him, the pills don’t induce the same natural “worn-out drowsy” feeling that these frames do.
Even though Tam no longer works nights, she still wears her amber glasses for two hours before hitting the sack. Like many Americans, she needs to use her computer after dark for her job. Tam and her husband leave their electronics out of the bedroom to charge, but according to the National Sleep Foundation 2014 Poll, 89 percent of adults and 75 percent of children have at least one electronic device where they lay their heads at night.
Necessary Night Lights
“I think it’s kind of a fact of my life that I have to work on a computer and on my smartphone before bed to be productive,” says Tam, who catches up on blogging and social media in the evening after her children go to sleep. “I don’t know if it’s all placebo effect, but when I don’t wear [my glasses] it’s harder to fall asleep,” she says. “If I’m consistent about it, I start feeling sleepy when I’m supposed to feel sleepy.”
With at least 40 million Americans suffering from chronic, long-term sleep disorders and 20 million reporting occasional sleeping problems, getting shut-eye is nothing to yawn at. The National Institute of Health is spending the same amount of money on researching sleep as it does on researching food safety. And though it is well established that blue light inhibits melatonin production, American researchers have yet to investigate if tinted glasses or software like f.lux, which changes the colors on your electronic screens to reduce stimulating emissions, can be effective ways to fall asleep faster.
While they wait for science to shed more light on these glasses, Tam and Schobel will rest, assured.
Would you wear these glasses before bedtime? Tell us what you think in the comments below.