It is almost impossible to avoid lights in 2020. Everywhere we look we see lights, on the street, in our cars, public transport and not to mention the bright fluro lights in the supermarket or our workplaces…. Many homes are even being fitted with sensor strip LED lighting just in case we can’t see where are going in the middle of the night, AND no to mention our phones and screens.
Blue light isn't alone
There is a lot of information flying around about the impact of blue light and sleep and the damaging effect from our phones and screens - however, we also need to take stock of all of the other lights we are being exposed to throughout the evening. From the time we leave work and catch public transport or get into our cars, we are driving through streets lit up like Christmas trees. We might then stop at the supermarket or take the kids to a well lit sports practice... All before we go home to our brightly lit homes.
So, what does all this light have to do with sleep?
Light is one of the most important external factors that can affect sleep. It does so both directly, by making it difficult for people to fall asleep, and indirectly, by influencing the timing of our internal clock and thereby affecting our preferred time to sleep.
Light affects our circadian rhythm (link to a blog), the body’s twenty-four hour sleep/wake cycle – and has been shown to affect things like brain wave patterns, hormone production, and cell regulation. The disruption to the circadian rhythm has also been linked to medical issues like depression, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Whilst research shows blue light therapy devices may help treat depression, and blue light bulbs have been shown to reduce fatigue and improve mood, performance, and sleep - this isn't the reality for most of our homes. Modern light bulbs and electronic devices, especially computer monitors, produce large amounts of blue light and can disrupt your internal clock if you’re exposed to them during the evening. When it gets dark, your pineal gland secretes the hormone melatonin, which tells your body to get tired and go to sleep. Blue light in the evening tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime, which inhibits the production of melatonin and reduces both the quantity and quality of your sleep.
So it makes sense that sleep had a very different look and feel during the Industrial Age, before artificial lights were around. Many people slept in two four-hour shifts sometimes awake for more than hour in the middle of the night. When artificial light is taken away, humans tend to revert back to this natural, two-shift sleep pattern.
On the bright side...
Whilst light can impact our sleep negatively, it's also a huge factor in improving our sleep - especially when it comes to natural sunlight.
Sunlight and darkness trigger the release of hormones in your brain. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of happy hormone, serotonin. Serotonin is associated with boosting mood and helping us feel calmer and more focused.
Here are 3 reasons you need morning sunlight to sleep better:
1. Bright light helps kick start your day
Morning light helps our body’s feel ready to jump out of bed by supporting an optimal circadian rhythm. Just as light can suppress melatonin, it can also increase cortisol. Cortisol and melatonin work in opposites. When one is high, the other is low. A big reason why you want to avoid blue light at night is because of its cortisol stimulating, melatonin suppressing effects. However, cortisol levels should be higher in the morning. We need this surge of cortisol to get out of bed and get into our day.
As important as light cycles are for our sleep, temperature cycles are just as powerful. Experts who studied the sleep habits of various tribes around the world found one common variable – temperature. Some tribes went to bed early with the sunset, some stayed up late, some got up during the night, others slept right through. However, all tribes went to bed as their environment started cooling and woke when the environment started warming.
This is another great reason to get outside in the morning – soak up those warming infrared rays (safely!) to help signal to the body that day has come.
3. Sunny Serotonin
Every morning, if your body, face and eyes are exposed to sunlight your body will increase its production of happy hormone, serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates everything from mood to sleep. Serotonin is also a precursor to melatonin. Melatonin is essential for deep, restorative sleep. Getting out into the morning sun ramps up production of serotonin and in turn, after 12 hours or so, this serotonin is then converted into melatonin – helping us sleep later that night. Seriously, who could need more proof that the mother earth has our back!
Artificial light is all around us and whilst it serves a purpose and helps us to be more connected, and ultimately more productive, it comes with a cost when it comes to sleep. This unnatural light can cause us to move further and further away from our natural sleep patterns. However, sunlight is the ultimate exception. Getting your morning hit of natural light is not only helpful, but essential to a good night's sleep.
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