Living by candlelight makes for more restful sleep, couple finds

Caroline Young and Michael Hoad tried their lights-out-after-sunset experiment for a month. It didn’t take long to see benefits.
Caroline Young and Michael Hoad tried their lights-out-after-sunset experiment for a month. It didn’t take long to see benefits.
Published Dec. 26, 2013

We sometimes disagree about why we did it: for romance, or for sleep? But living a month by candlelight actually improved both.

Our ground rules: From one full moon to the next, after the sun set we didn't allow ourselves to turn on electric lights or electronic screens. Yes, we used stoves, fans, air conditioning (we started this in September, after all). Just not lights.

The first observation came quickly. Living by candles and lanterns creates mindfulness. We couldn't flick a switch — we had to think about moving around the house, how to eat, how to read. And yes, how to use candles in the bathroom. Our evenings became deliberate.

Second observation: Dinners are beautiful by candlelight. Everyone looks better. Everyone feels calm. Setting the table with lamps and candelabras becomes fun.

We learned to use old-fashioned glass holders. In contrast, today's candles are made for ambience. We liked the old glass-protected tapers. It takes that naked flame to read by, but it has to be protected from fans, breezes or air conditioning. The old holders do that. One favorite candle holder is a large science beaker — strong glass, big handle, cute spout. By the way, books can be read by candlelight. Glossy magazines, unfortunately, reflect too much glare.

One scary lesson: No matter how romantic your candlelit dinner, before bed someone must walk around the house and ensure all the flames are out. It's easy to leave one burning.

The most important lesson, however, took several weeks. We started to go to bed earlier. Without the seduction of computer screens, televisions, chores, whatever, our minds slowed down. It didn't happen immediately — it took at least two weeks before it was easier to just curl up.

That's when we started experiencing the traditional and relaxing human pattern of two sleeps. A second sleep pattern was common for our ancestors in days when 8 p.m. was bedtime. They would arise, talk, pray. They made more children. It's a good rhythm, and over the month we eased into enjoying time in the mid-night.

You can write books on the anxious sleep patterns of working Americans. For us, candlelight reduced the fuss, the excitement, the stimulation of electronics and brightness. Quite simply: After about two weeks, soft light cured anxious sleep.

It's easy to understand anxious sleep. You play on the computer until almost midnight, set the alarm for 6 a.m. and then panic if you wake up at 2 a.m. knowing you'll spend the next day tired. Oh — and there's that problem at work to solve. That's a recipe for anxious sleep.

But as we started to sleep earlier, waking up around 1 a.m. was simply pleasurable. We'd already had at least four hours, and we'd get another four before the alarm struck. We started to look forward to a mid-night break. We read, we chatted, we even took the dog for a walk to enjoy the moon.

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Why a month? We wanted to pay secular homage to various religious traditions of mindfulness — Lent, Ramadan, the "days of awe" of Yom Kippur, and others. And since moonlight became more important, we started on the harvest moon and held a candle party with friends and neighbors on the hunter's moon to end our month.

Frustrations struck. It really is harder to do chores — to pack for a trip, to finish bills, to get leftover work done. We know electricity is a wonderful luxury. Some people still live without it, and one of us (Michael) was 5 years old before he lived in a house with it.

But the American pattern of anxious sleep, of extending work into evenings at home, isn't possible without electric light. Once electric lights and screens come on at night, the modern American work lifestyle takes over.

Curing anxious sleep can't be done overnight. Although we know poor sleep makes all illness worse, it's hard to make the lifestyle change. Like diet and exercise, knowing isn't enough. Our experience meant devising our own strategy to make the entire night pleasurable. And we know that as with all behavior changes, friends help. We did this as partners. It's easy to cheat when you're alone.

The month is long over. We aren't sleeping as well now that we've returned to electric light, but the advantages in terms of getting things done, especially for the holidays, are significant.

We'll probably still have weekend nights by candlelight. There's no question a lovingly made dinner is better served by a warm glow.

But most importantly, we won't forget that lovely pattern of two sleeps. Like all lifestyle changes, it takes time to develop the pattern. But when it works, it's hard to give up.

Our daughter, away at college, got the last thought. She posted this on Facebook: "My weirdo parents doing super cool stuff. It's like a mix between how the other half lives, how we used to live, and a total lifestyle change. Why y'all do this when I leave?"

Michael Hoad is a communication strategist and Caroline Young is a nurse practitioner in women's health. They live, by candlelight and electric light, in Tampa.