The Best Sleep Products to Block Out Light
At 10:30 p.m. on June 21, the first pitch of the Midnight Sun game in Fairbanks is thrown out by the pitcher for the Alaska Goldpanners. The game ends around 1:30 a.m. the following morning, but at no point does artificial light flood the field. The summer solstice marks the longest point in Alaska’s midnight sun phase, when most of the state sees about 22 hours of daylight. The remaining hours are still light enough to play baseball without extra lighting.
Living in an area that experiences the midnight sun can be great for late-night activities, but as great as it is for fun, it can be just as terrible when it comes to sleep. Sleep is pivotal to most bodily functions—from energy levels to mood regulation to cognitive ability to immune response—and without restorative sleep, enjoying any of the 24 hours of daylight can feel impossible.
Shift workers, those who work through the night and sleep during the day, are also faced with this same problem. Settling into deep sleep and staying asleep can be a lot more difficult when it’s bright outside. On the other hand, waking up during the dark and gloomy winter months can feel almost impossible.
Whether it’s the midnight sun, shift work that gives you a bedtime of noon or trying to wake up in the dreariness of January’s 7 a.m. darkness, natural light (or lack thereof) plays a huge role in how rested we feel.
To uncover how to get restorative sleep when the light outside isn’t ideal, we checked in with two sleep experts. Below, they offer tips on routines and products that can help navigate junk sleep.
How Natural Light Impacts Sleep
Sleep neurologist and Mattress Firm sleep adviser Dr. Chris Winter mentions that Alaska’s midnight sun has some incredible benefits, like the opportunity to attend a baseball game that ends in the early morning hours. “It’s awesome because you can go out for dinner and still get a hike in after dinner if you want to because it’s still so light out.” But once you’re done with your day and crawl into bed, the light becomes an enemy, and here’s why.
Winter explains that our bodies wake and sleep on the circadian rhythm, a cycle that’s about 24 hours long and is heavily dependent on natural light exposure, impacting our body’s production of melatonin. “One of the biggest determinants of melatonin is light, so when we’re separated from light or we’re getting an unusual light impulse like constant daylight or a constant screen in front of our face, that interferes with the melatonin axis in our body,” he says.
Prepare for a small anatomy lesson to get to the bottom of this: Winter says that cells in the retina of the eye determine light and send a signal to a part of the brain (the suprachiasmatic nucleus, to be precise) that then signals the pineal gland to make melatonin, a hormone that our bodies use as a timing mechanism for sleep.
“If you’re in an environment that’s constantly lit, or you’re in an environment that’s preventing you from creating melatonin, it’s very disruptive to put an average individual there,” Winter says. “In general, we function so much better when there are predictable light and dark cycles.”
How to Get Good Sleep When It’s Light Outside
Fighting Mother Nature’s light and dark cycles can take some effort, but the payoff of getting better sleep is worth it. Sonny Carriles is a Mattress Firm Sleep Expert® based in the Seattle area. Having moved to the area from New Orleans, during his first summer in Seattle, the after-9 p.m. sunsets came as a surprise. To make sure the body’s able to produce melatonin, his first recommendation is to ensure you’re sleeping in a dark room, made possible with blackout curtains.
“This is the same advice I give to shift workers,” he says. “You have to make sure that you get blackout curtains because you have to prevent that light from entering your eyes.”
A bonus of many blackout curtains is the thermal properties that help keep warm air out in the summer and cold at bay in the winter.
If blackout curtains aren’t an option, Carriles says a sleep mask is your new best friend. Think of a sleep mask as mini, portable blackout curtains for the eyes, which can be especially useful for shift workers or when traveling since they’re more compact than a set of curtains.
Once the light has dimmed to accommodate sleep, it’s time to get cozy. No matter how bright or dark a room is, sleeping on an uncomfortable or lumpy mattress is a recipe for a restless night. Your sleep style (side, back, stomach or combo) plays a role in determining which mattress will lead to the best night’s sleep.
Carriles’ personal favorite, and the mattress he sleeps on, is the Tempur-Pedic LUXEbreeze°. The mattress comes in a soft or firm version, and one of its standout features is PureCool+ Phase Change Material that works to absorb excess heat, leading to a comfortable temperature throughout the night. As important as it is to block out the light, sleeping in a cool environment is just as important, Carriles says. He’s also a big fan of cooling Tencel sheets like the PureCare Elements Premium TENCEL™ Sheet Set.
If you’re looking for the ultimate comfort system to help you sleep when it’s still light out, Carriles recommends adding an adjustable base. These mattress bases elevate the head section or both the head and feet areas.
Not only does this help reduce snoring, alleviate acid reflux and relieve pressure points, some models—like the Mattress Firm 900 Adjustable Base—come with underbed LED lighting. As Carriles can attest, this lighting system helps with getting back into bed without bonking into the closet door. “If you have blackout curtains and you’ve done the work to make your bedroom dark, the last thing you want to do is turn on a light to get to the bathroom,” he says.
Create a Schedule Based on Time, Rather Than Outside Light
In addition to having a comfortable mattress in a cool and dark bedroom, sleep hygiene and routines become extra important when you’re trying to sleep during daytime. Winter suggests having dinner indoors and lowering the thermostat in the evening to help mimic what would happen if it was naturally getting dark, signaling to the body that bedtime is approaching.
“Some people think temperature drops affect our sleep just as much as light drops. We’re just not exposed to them as much because of the way we climate control our environment,” Carriles says. Dimming the lights or closing blinds to simulate sunset could work well. “It really hinges on environmental light and the way you can control it.”
How to Wake Up When It’s Still Dark Outside
Those who live in the land of the midnight sun are also posed with a challenge come winter. In Fairbanks in the middle of December, the sun doesn’t rise until almost 11 a.m. In Carriles’ hometown of Seattle, sunrise is at almost 8 a.m.
These late sunrises mean many of us are getting out of bed when it’s still dark and cold, and the sky is often gloomy when it does get light out. None of these elements are part of the recipe for an energetic and invigorating morning, regardless of how well you slept the night before. Winter says, “The darkness is extremely problematic because we’re looking for the sun to mark the beginning of our day.”
When the sun isn’t around for the beginning of the day, sleep hygiene is essential. Winter recommends focusing on getting exercise each day, and Carriles agrees that movement, paired with getting enough vitamin D, is important. Both sleep experts also mention how helpful lights that simulate natural sunlight can be. Carriles also says he starts his day by drinking a big glass of water to jump-start the waking-up process on gloomy Seattle mornings. He also sleeps on an adjustable base, which can help you get out of bed by raising the head to a seated position.
While we can’t control the natural light, we can control how much enters our sleep environment. Adding in sleep hygiene elements like simulating sunset or sunrise can also work well to make sure our schedules stay in sync.