With work and family responsibilities, life challenges and the world going through, shall we say, a bit of a rough patch, it’s easy to see why some people are finding it challenging to fall asleep, stay down for a solid 7 – 8 hours and wake fully refreshed. Though there may be countless factors chipping away at our sleep, one of the most overlooked is how we manage our exposure to light. The wrong type of light at the wrong time can trigger sleep hormones when you need to be alert, and vice versa, putting you woefully out of circadian sync. To help get your sleep and wake habits back on an even keel, whether you’re a lark or a night owl, let’s shed some light on the subject:
Light, on time.
Unlike our ancient ancestors, we creatures of the modern age are exposed to light, much of it artificial, at all hours. Convenient as that may be, all that on-demand light does have its downsides. The main one? It’s impact on circadian rhythms, aka your biological clock, specifically, how that artificial light interferes with the production and the release of the hormone melatonin which regulates the sleep/wake cycle. Under normal circumstances, melatonin levels start to rise in the evenings to help prepare your body to fall and stay asleep, then tails off as the sun starts to rise. Now, I’m not suggesting you end your day when the sun sets, but I do recommend managing your light exposure wisely, particularly if sleep is a struggle for you. Moreover, habitual, long-term melatonin suppression comes at a price far higher than just feeling tired – it also increases cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease risk.
Light up your days, tone down your nights.
You may have heard about the dangers of blue light, but the fact of the matter is, you actually need it. It’s great for boosting daytime alertness, attention and mood. One of the biggest blue light sources? The sun! And when you’re outdoors during the day, that’s when you’ll likely be getting your biggest dose. Other sources of blue light, however, like the man-made version glowing from smartphones, tablets, computer screens and energy-saving lightbulbs are more problematic, particularly at night. Even though that man-made blue light is nowhere near as bright as sunlight, it seems to be more disruptive after sundown, in effect, becoming more effective at tricking our bodies into thinking they should be alert, delaying the release of melatonin, making sleep all the more elusive.
Don’t let your home suppress melatonin.
In addition to your electronic devices, the lights in your home may also be working against you, suppressing your night-time melatonin production. For example, a study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that room light had a profound suppressive effect on melatonin levels “and shortens the body’s internal representation of night duration.” Meaning that chronic exposure to run-of-the-mill indoor light late at night disrupts the release of melatonin and the sleep that’s supposed to follow. In other words, if you’ve got every room in the house lit up like Yankee Stadium every night, chances are good you’ll be waiting quite a while to fall into the arms of Morpheus – and potentially damaging your health to boot.
Take back your nights.
Though any kind of light can have a melatonin-suppressing effect, blue light at night packs more of a punch, so the smart money is on minimizing your exposure post-sundown. That doesn’t mean however, that you have to spend your nights reading by virtually blue-light free candlelight. Instead, take things down a notch, and give your home — and your screen-time habits – a refresh that will make good rest, and ultimately, good health, easier to come by. Here are a few ways to do it:
Get your blue-light blast early.
There are any number of reasons to get out during the day, and one of them is to expose yourself to alertness boosting blue light – so be sure to step out in the morning or take a walk at lunchtime when the sun is high. And if that’s not possible, try sit at a window for an hour or two. This will help regulate your rhythms to produce more melatonin at night and boost your ability to sleep at night. It is also somewhat protective of the blue light from screens at night. So the more natural light you get during the day, the better you will sleep and the more leeway you have with screens at night.
Balance the bright.
If you work in a traditional office, you probably spend at least 8 hours a day in florescent lighting, because, well, after all, it’s one cheap way for the boss to keep you alert while you’re there. Once you’re home however, lighting it up like an operating theater isn’t necessary, so take down the blue light a few notches by ditching fluorescents and adding lamps with lower wattage bulbs instead. Better yet, trade fluorescents and LED bulbs for blue-light-free light bulbs, which don’t emit waves from the blue (and green spectrum). You’ll still be able to go about your business but with less of a negative impact on your melatonin production. If special bulbs aren’t in your budget and you need to be strategic about how you spend your lighting dollars, remember that ordinary, old school, low-watt incandescent bulbs (though they do emit some blue light) will emit less than most fluorescent bulbs.
Set an ‘electronic sundown’ alarm.
I know old habits die hard but take that phone alarm of yours and use it to remind you that it’s time to shut down all your devices—and the blue light that goes with them — for the night. Doing so 2 -3 hours before bedtime will help you to help your body start powering down and preparing itself for bed. Can’t live without your social media fix of the day? Then set the timer for 20 minutes and cut yourself off when the bell goes off. Better yet, if you have to catch up on emails or read the headlines, flip the script – and do that as soon as you get home to free up the rest of your day for downshifting and non-digital interaction with loved ones.
Get your melatonin in the mood.
Candles are all but blue light-free, so add them to your evening lighting scheme. If you’re flame adverse or have kids and animals that could knock candles over, pick up a few battery-operated, flameless candles (controlled by a timer or remote) to add the light you need with minimal hormone disruption. In the bedroom, use flameless candles or add a Himalayan salt lamp, for a warm and gentle pink glow that’s thought to improve indoor air quality. Also, switch to a battery-operated travel alarm so you don’t sneak a melatonin-disrupting peek to check the time at 4 am.
Read like we did in the 80’s.
Reading in bed is one of life’s great pleasures, that is, as long as you’re not keeping your partner up. If you’re a bed-time reader, turn off your electronics (no excuses) and go old school with a paper book, not an electronic one. Use a very small table lamp and the lowest watt amber bulb you can find. Keep in mind though that while getting swept up in a good novel may be wonderful, be ready to cut yourself off in order to get a proper 7-8 hours. You might also wish to avoid topics that might over-excite, or cause upset, and inadvertently keep you up.
Gently light your way.
Flipping on the bathroom light in the middle of the night is a great way to wake yourself up in the middle of the night, and mess with melatonin release. Instead, try a nightlight with low-watt red bulb, as red has the least ability to mess with your melatonin. Or, add a flameless candle to a corner of the bathroom to light your bathroom to make night-time visits less disruptive too. If you travel frequently, take along a few flameless candles to gently light guestrooms and hotel bathrooms.
Give your eyes a break.
All of us these days are spending far too much time in front of screens – and it’s just plain hard on our eyes. If you are a night owl or are a shift worker who needs to be on electronic devices at night, do everything you can to tame the blue light and enable the melatonin to flow when it’s supposed to. The three essentials that help you do that are: 1) turn the screen brightness down as low as possible; 2) add a blue light filtering app (in addition to the one your device may already provide and 3) as eccentric as they may make you look, invest in a pair of blue-light blocking glasses to help keep melatonin release on track. Finally, as important as filtering the blue light from screens is, it’s probably more beneficial to filter all artificial light at night.