Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

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I was never one of those kids who was afraid of the dark. I loved the cloak of invisibility that it gave me. And while there is nothing I love more than a bright, sunny day, I have become pretty obsessed with darkness over the years – not in an ominous way (as in ‘going over to the dark side’), but in terms of the important role it plays in my wellness.

You really ought to stay in a hotel room with me, sometime, to fully understand my obsession with darkness. I travel with a roll of black gaffer tape, the better to ensure a good night’s sleep undisturbed by the cockpit’s-worth of blinking lights that many modern hotel rooms feature. My first task, on checking in (even before switching on the kettle and attacking the free shortbread), is to eliminate as many of those lights as possible with two neatly-snipped squares of gaffer tape. Message lights on phones. TV control lights. Aircon on/off lights. Charging electrical gadgets. And of course, the light ‘leaking’ through the edges of the curtains.

What I’ve discovered is that gaffer tape can also be lightly stuck to pretty much any wallpaper (well, I mightn’t try it on a gold hand-painted mural) without damaging it. So yes, I am that weird (maybe certifiable) creature who gaffer-tapes the edges of the curtains to the hotel room walls – the most extreme example of which was in a ‘presidential suite’ a hotel once upgraded me to when they’d lost my booking. Last done up in the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency, is my guess, it featured ‘shortie’ curtains that ran along the entire 10-metre window which I then taped every inch to the wall. Exactly what kind of bondage game housekeeping thought I’d been up to when the found the tape I’d peeled off in the morning and put it in the bin, I’ve no idea – but I did enjoy a really good night’s sleep. (Why don’t I just wear a sleep mask? Because – along with earplugs – I find them a bit claustrophobic. Fine on an aeroplane when there’s no alternative, but otherwise, a no-no for me.)

By now, you may well think I’m completely tonto. But in reality, light has a profound effect on sleep. I realise I’m an extreme example in terms of how even a small level of light affects me deeply, but it’s been scientifically observed that insufficient darkness throughout the night can lead to frequent, long periods of wakefulness. Of course, we’re increasingly aware of the impact of the blue light from our phones on sleep; I’ve written before about the fact that if I look at my phone (never mind computer) after about 8.30 pm, it’s the equivalent of drinking an espresso in terms of the effect on my slumber. But experts now agree that bedrooms should be as dark as possible – which includes (as we do at home) having blackout linings to curtains, and ensuring window coverings are fitted to avoid slivers of street light or early morning light from seeping in. (Ah, so that’s why the pelmet was invented…!)

According to Cheng Chi Lee, who studies circadian rhythms at University of Texas Medical School, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests we should seek out darkness for its surprising effects on health and behaviour. There’s one particularly fascinating study in which tamoxifen was used on cancer cells in mice. One control group was kept kept in cycles of 12 hours of light followed by 12 hours of complete darkness, while another the dark stage of the experiment was replaced with roughly the amount of light that might sneak under a hospital door. Even in such low levels, the cancer cells became resistant to the drug. And although this medical research was carried out on mice (and no, I’m not thrilled about that either), the scientists from Tulane University in New Orleans believe it could have implications for how cancer patients receive their treatment.

It’s well known that interfering with workers’ body clocks, meanwhile, can seriously impact on health. My hunch is that the winking lights in bedrooms and sleep environments will eventually be revealed to be more damaging than we currently understand. (But if you must have a clock with the time on? Make sure it has red digits, rather than blue or green; it’s been found to have the least impact on sleep.)

We were never built to live in such light environments as we enjoy now. For millions of years, people went to bed when it got dark and woke when it was light. Even now, when we’re lucky enough to find ourselves in nature, somewhere truly dark – and I support the Dark Skies movement, a campaign to eliminate light pollution – we feel connected to the universe in a way that feels truly primitive and (for me, at least) very, very grounding.

So while I’m eternally grateful to Thomas Edison for the invention of the light bulb – just miraculous, eh?! –it doesn’t surprise me at all to find that these unnatural, albeit low levels of night-time light may have impact on our wellbeing. If asked to make a list of our basic survival needs, food and water of course come top. Warmth, too. But I certainly know that darkness is essential for my quality of sleep, and my overall equilibrium. So if the Gaffer Tape Marketing Board is looking for a new ‘face’, I’m your woman.

Night, everyone. And lights out!

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