The Science Behind Sleep Masks

The Science Behind Sleep Masks

Can a simple sleep mask make a difference to your sleep? Science answers. This sleeping accessory is not just for fashion; attached to it are proven health benefits that would help one struggling snoozer ease into an easy slumber.

What is the worst place to sleep? Perhaps the hospital, where one cannot shake off that anxious feeling while being bedridden. From a distance, there’s the sound of doors opening, of footsteps tapping, of carts pushing. Lights open. Nurses come in to check your vital signs on a frequent basis. Doctors arrive with a solemn look on their face, talking in a serious voice which immediately ups your nervousness to a higher level.

Sleeplessness in hospitals is one of the causes of further complications, says ACP Member Peter Ubel in a personal post in The Atlantic. While staying in a hospital comes with a promise to remedy one of their illness, the experience does not come with quality sleep. Ubel further expounds this in an archived post in ACP Hospitalist.

Patient monitoring is vital but the noise, along with the switching of the room lights, make it difficult for patients to rest, just when they need it the most. This was tackled on a 2013 study by a group of internists at JAMA. Led by Jordan C. Yoder, the team concluded that vital signs, especially done during at night, add to the patient's clinical deterioration, such as higher blood pressure, sensitivity to pain and delirium.

In this experiment, the doctors used a scoring system called MEWS (Modified Early Warning Score) from a rate of 1 to 5. Vital sign monitoring was implemented between 11 PM to 6 AM. During these hours, ‘adverse events’ related to sleep disruption were listed – these are defined as cardiac arrests or intensive care unit transfers in the next 24 hours. The results show that even patients with low-risk medical requirements has increased MEWS score, and that adverse events were raised especially during at night.

Fateme Mashayekhi and a team of Kerman Medical University researchers did a similar study by delving in the subject of sleep quality of coronary care unit patients in Jiroft Hospital, Iran. Using Verran and Snyder-Halpern Sleep Scale, 60 patients were evaluated for three sleep sub-scales: disturbance, effectiveness and supplementation. However, a predefined number of the patients were given sleep masks. Those who had sleep masks have increased quality of sleep which stretched to 6 hours, thanks to increased REM and elevated melatonin levels.

Sleep, which composes one-third of human life, is an essential part of our restorative process. It balances our circadian rhythm and helps the body cope up from its daily wear. Sleep might be difficult outside homes and comfort zones, but one can find ways to get a good dozing off. The simplest thing to do is to use a sleep mask.

It's not the sleep mask that makes the magic, but what it triggers: melatonin. This hormone, produced by the pineal gland found inside the brain, controls the human wake and sleep cycle. It triggers sleep at night, or when it is dark. Melatonin production starts at 9 PM and peaks at 3 AM to 5 AM; it then stays elevated for at least 12 hours. Upon release, you feel drowsy, your body temperature lowers, and it preps your body to get its much-needed rest. But other than a sleeping aid, melatonin has other functions too. This hormone works an anti-oxidant, preventing damages to the brain, signs of aging, and even symptoms of cancer.

Melatonin is natural to the body, but some circumstances prevent us from producing it. One of the reasons: too much exposure to light. Light triggers a natural sense of wakefulness in the body, even when it is not time to wake up yet. Superchiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), found in the hypothalamus, is also a valuable factor to one’s biorhythm. These cells respond to light – and darkness – depending on what is transmitted through one’s optic nerves. During daytime, this part of the brain kickstarts other waking-up processes such as raising body temperature and producing hormones, such as cortisol – a stress hormone. When you’re exposed to sunlight, your SCN automatically keeps you awake.

But it’s not just sunlight that triggers your waking system. Artificial lights, especially those which emits blue wavelength (including your television screens, laptops and much-loved electronic gadgets), supress the body’s natural production of melatonin. This in turn disrupts the circadian rhythm which results to diminished physical, mental and emotional performance.

Less melatonin means less sleep. This can be a factor for mood swings, depression, and even cancer. Too much exposure to light – as others call “light pollution,” can also be detrimental to your immune system, induce weight gain and premature aging.

How to combat that? By minimizing light. Dimming your bedroom lights is a good option. If your area is exposed to street light, you can install blinds or curtains to seal out the artificial glow as much as possible.  The soft radiance of the distant ambient lights might keep you awake; take it a step further by closing the hallway lights when not in use.

Experts agree that a completely-blacked-out room is the best sleeping condition. This triggers a healthy production of melatonin, as well as other hormones that help the body recuperate during sleep. It also prevents the secretion of cortisol, helping you minimize stress as you close your eyes for a proper Zzz.

When a pitch-black room is not an option, here is when a sleep mask becomes your best companion. Pulling this soft, smooth fabric over your eyes gives you the similar feeling of a being in a completely dark room, blocking out the light that triggers your alertness. Avoid being exposed to unnecessary brightness and get the right dose of melatonin with the help of this sleep accessory. It’s not just made for style; it’s backed by science.