Loadshedding and Sleeping Better: The Lighter Side of Darkness
I loathe the term “loadshedding”. It is pure doublespeak – a feeble attempt to make it sound like there is too much of something, when, in fact, there is too little. I think the old, tried-and-trusted terms “power failure” and “blackout” are more honest (and accurate).
Loadshedding might be one of the most unpopular burdens ever to be suffered by South Africans. It completely disrupts simple things like cooking, washing, lighting and negotiating traffic. We are hopelessly dependent on electricity.
I would be hard-pressed to say something positive about loadshedding. And yet, in a strange, roundabout way, it did serve me very well – once. That does sound unlikely, even as I type it, but this is what happened:
After an exhausting day at work, I finally sank into the couch to enjoy the movie I had lined up. Ninety minutes of pure escapism was just what I needed. After the opening sequence, things ground to a halt.
Because I didn’t spend the afternoon glued to my digital devices, I did not get the news: stage 4 loadshedding had kicked in. It came just after the rickety sub-station in the area was fixed when it blew up for the umpteenth time. The week before, the electricity supply was erratic. We had been without electricity the previous night, had another interruption of about 8 hours, and were heading for another 4 – 5 hours or more.
Apart from general feelings of doom and malaise (“here we go again…”), it wasn’t a train smash. I had eaten, I didn’t need a bath yet, and I had several backup light sources to choose from.
When the urge to wring someone’s neck had subsided, I made my way up the stairs using the torch on my phone. Normally, due to sky glow from outside, I can do this without needing a torch. From the windows upstairs I could see that the surrounding suburbs’ electricity was also switched off. It was noticeably darker. Even those irritating floodlights from across the valley (that can melt your retinas from 700 metres away) were off. Glancing upwards, I could see more stars. The scene looked strangely peaceful.
OId School Illumination
So what could I do? Not much, I thought. All the battery-driven devices and their power banks were already low on power, and gadget paralysis was imminent. Even my self-illuminated e-reader was switching itself off. So I grabbed some candles, fished out an oil lantern and proceeded to read a book – an actual, physical book, printed on paper. After an hour or so, I felt sleepy enough to call it a night and went to sleep.
The next morning I woke up a bit earlier than I usually do and felt refreshed and well-rested. My friends at Eskom had switched on the electricity supply sometime during the night, and I had slept right through the accompanying noises. As a light sleeper, I found it quite impressive. When loadshedding happened again at night, I did the same thing. I noticed that I went to bed more than an hour earlier and slept for longer at a time. Thanks to loadshedding, combined with low-tech lighting and -entertainment, I was sleeping better.
So why was I sleeping better?
A chemical called melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland, governs our sleep process. The secretion of melatonin is mostly light-dependent. When light intensity increases, melatonin secretion decreases, and vice versa. When there is too much light in your bedroom at night, you will struggle to fall- and stay asleep, as it will impair normal melatonin secretion. In total darkness, melatonin secretion is maximised. This has a positive effect on both the quantity and quality of our sleep.
We then fall asleep more easily and are less likely to wake up often. It thus enables us to get more deep sleep. During deep sleep, our cardiovascular and nervous systems slow down, and our bodies are awash in growth hormone, repairing and preventing physical damage. If you want to sleep soundly, darkness is your friend.
2. Reduced exposure to blue light
It is not only light intensity that influences melatonin secretion. The colour temperature of light also plays an important role. We measure colour temperature in Kelvin (K). Colours in the red to yellow spectrum have a lower K reading and appear warmer. Light in the blue-ish spectrum has a higher colour temperature and resultant K reading. Think of the difference in colours between a sunset and a cloudless mid-day sky.
When we are exposed to blue light, our endocrine systems suppress melatonin secretion. This happens for a reason: we are supposed to be wide awake during the day when blue light is in abundance. This photo-biochemical process works the same way in reverse. When we are exposed to light with a low K reading, our pineal glands secrete more melatonin. The process eases us into – and out of the day.
Light My Fire
Humans have been using fires, including lamps and candles, for thousands of years. Many of us still reach for these light sources during power outages, like I did (and still do). We associate their warm light with relaxation, cosiness and intimacy. (A romantic dinner by fluorescent light doesn’t sound very appealing, does it?) Like the old incandescent light bulbs, they emit low-K light, exactly what we need to feel sleepy at the appropriate time.
LED-based lighting has become the norm, an economically sound choice. It provides very bright light with humble power demands. Unfortunately, the light falls mostly in the blue spectrum, unless it is specifically adjustable. The screens on our digital devices also radiate mostly blue-ish light, hence the warnings against screentime before bedtime.
When I had to forego LED screens and -lights due to loadshedding, it reduced my exposure to light with a high K reading. Melatonin levels increased. I slept soundly.
After the noticeable improvement in my sleep, I started using candlelight more often and avoided digital screens after dark. Not always – I would still watch a movie if I wanted to – but maybe half the time. I began looking forward to the quiet, candle-lit time at night. Additionally, I fell asleep and woke up earlier, without trying to.
I found this very surprising and did some research. In an interesting experiment, writer Linda Geddes lived without artificial light for weeks, using only candles as illumination. The experiment contained lots of small details, for example, measuring her melatonin levels every hour. Geddes also included extra exposure to bright daylight in the experiment. The results corresponded with what I was experiencing. As she concludes: ”It’s ridiculously simple. But spending more time outdoors during the daytime and dimming the lights in the evening really could be a recipe for better sleep and health.”
Other research I came across further confirmed my experience. A study led by integrative physiology professor Kenneth Wright of Boulder University in the USA found that we are able to reset our circadian clocks in as little as a weekend. Participants in the experiment had to go camping, without any artificial lighting like headlamps or torches, while the control group stayed at home. Among the campers, who were exposed to lots of natural light and complete darkness, the onset of melatonin secretion happened 1.4 hours earlier – around sunset. Perfectly in line with the natural 24-hour light / dark cycle.
What Had I Done?
I realised that, because of power outages at night, I had unwittingly adjusted my circadian clock to be more in synch with the natural light / dark cycle. As a result, I was reaping the benefits – sleeping better, for longer, and feeling more alert during my waking hours. Furthermore, it was remarkably easy, like swimming downstream. I didn’t have to do much.
Have you been sleeping more soundly during loadshedding? Tell us about it in the comments section below.