The 10 Best Sleep Masks
This wiki has been updated 22 times since it was first published in February of 2015. There's nothing worse than not getting a good night's rest. Not only does it throw off your whole day, it's also bad for your health. If you've been counting an endless supply of sheep before any shut-eye happens, or struggle to fall asleep when on the night shift, consider trying one of these sleep masks. They block out light without causing discomfort, making it easier to drift off to dreamland. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki. Skip to the best sleep mask on Amazon.
How Sleep Masks Changed Sleep Itself
There is one way in which the human body has not adapted itself: the human body needs sleep.
Air conditioning could trick the body's natural responses to temperature.
The human body has adapted over thousands of years to be in perfect balance with the natural world. The industrial era changed that. The invention of the light bulb meant a room could be filled with daylight in the middle of night. Air conditioning could trick the body's natural responses to temperature. Processed foods entered the diet, altering the way the body digests and relates to food. The industrial era comprises such a small amount of human history that it is hard to believe our bodies have already adapted to meet the needs of industrialized society.
There is one way in which the human body has not adapted itself: the human body needs sleep. As our ancestors did not have the luxury of an alarm clock, the natural cycles of the earth were sufficient to tell the time. When the sun was out, the world was active. Naturally, so were early humans. When darkness fell and the world went quiet, the body slowed down and desired sleep. These natural light cues came to affect functions of the brain, and they still do.
In the modern era, the night is often anything but dark. Lights cast from televisions, computers, phones, and tablets all emit very blue tones. To the brain, this indicates that it is day. This confusion can cause problems when trying to sleep. In fact, research has found a greater number of sleep disturbances in people who were exposed to this blue light before or during the sleep cycle.
The sleep mask provides the perfect solution. Blue lights from televisions, computers, even alarm clocks are blocked out with a proper sleep mask. This keeps the body as close to its natural circadian rhythms as possible.
The Circadian Rhythms And Sleep
The human brain actually contains a biological clock. It is known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or simply the SCN. The structure itself is actually a pair of tiny brain structures containing around 20,000 neurons. The SCN rests in the hypothalamus, right where the optic nerves cross. As such, the functions of the SCN are directly affected by the eyes.
The sensation usually fades as the SCN readjusts to its new light cues.
Any light that reaches the retina of the eye creates signals that travel along the optic nerve, coming into contact with the SCN. Signals from the SCN then travel to a number of different areas in the brain. In the pineal gland, the SCN sends signals to stop the production of melatonin as light hits the retina. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for making people drowsy. The SCN also uses this light to govern multiple functions of the shift between being asleep and awake. Functions such as urine creation in the kidneys, hormone secretion in the endocrine system, and changes in blood pressure and temperature in the circulatory system are all influenced by signals from the SCN.
The sensation of jet lag is actually a disruption of the circadian rhythms of the body. The body of a traveler flying from Los Angeles to London will think it has lost eight hours of time each day. This makes the traveler feel tired in the mornings, while wide awake at night. The sensation usually fades as the SCN readjusts to its new light cues.
People who sleep with lights in the room may actually disrupt the circadian rhythms and throw the body out of balance. Many people turn to sleep masks as a way to block out unwanted light and allow the brain to get back on track.
The Importance Of REM Sleep
In the average 8-hour sleep period, around two hours is spent in the rapid eye movement stage. Despite the limited time spent in REM, reaching this stage is vital. REM sleep is the most restorative part of the body's sleep cycle. During the REM stage, the body's muscles relax significantly and the eyes move rapidly in their sockets. The brain and body get energized during the REM stage of sleep, while the mind wanders into dreams. The purpose of this dreaming is uncertain, though some have theorized that dreams serve to help the sleeper sort out memories, stress, or subconscious messages.
In the average 8-hour sleep period, around two hours is spent in the rapid eye movement stage.
The role of the REM sleep stage itself is unclear. Researchers theorize that REM is involved in the process of learning, storing memories, and balancing the mood. As the REM cycle begins, different signals are sent to the cerebral cortex in the brain, the area responsible for such things as organizing information, thinking, and learning.
Signals are then sent to the spine to shut off motor functions. This seems to play a role in keeping the sleeper safe. The lack of motor function is especially useful while lucid dreaming, as a movement in the body could easily jar the dreamer awake.
If a sleeper is running through a forest in the dream world, and they run into a wall in the real world, we would consider them a sleepwalker. In reality, the signal from the brain to the spine to turn off these motor functions is disabled, causing this abnormal motor control while dreaming. REM sleep also stimulates the areas of the brain responsible for learning. This would easily explain why young children spend more time in the REM stages of sleep than adults.
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