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Artificial Light: The Modern Sleep Problem
Artificial light is all around us. During the day, it can help keep us alert and productive. At night, however, between the glowing screen of your television or tablet and the flashing alerts of your cell, your sleep will pay the price of this modern invention.
How does light affects sleep?
Light, both natural and artificial, is arguably the most important external factor that affects our sleep/wake patterns. In the morning, bright light signals to our body that it’s time to wake up. Being exposed to bright light encourages wakefulness and energy – which is a great thing in the morning, when our body has evolved to anticipate bright light.
However, light will continue to encourage alertness even when we don’t want it to. In the same way that light matters, so does darkness. A gradually darkening environment helps the body prepare for sleep, and greatly impacts the quality of our sleep. Light not only makes it more difficult to fall asleep, it can also influence the timing of our circadian rhythm, which affects our sleep patterns.
The light bulb’s influence on sleep patterns
Throughout history, our bodies have evolved to respond to light and darkness in a way that supports sleep patterns. In the late 19th century, the invention of the light-bulb changed things.
In the modern world, we’re exposed to far more light at night than we ever have been before. Since artificial light was introduced so recently (relatively speaking), our bodies have not yet adapted to the way it affects sleep patterns. Light exposure at night will delay our body clock’s signals that tell us to sleep; it also affects brainwave patterns, hormones and cell regulation, which has been linked to depression, obesity and cardiovascular disease (source).
Harnessing the power of light
Understanding the sway that light and darkness both have on bodies is helpful. We can use this knowledge to take steps to use this sway to our advantage.
Firstly, try to get some bright light exposure during the morning hours. A recent study out of New York found that people who were exposed to greater amounts of light between 8:00am and 12:00pm fell asleep more quickly at night, and reported fewer sleep disturbances. They were also less likely to report feelings of depression and stress, compared to those who had less light exposure.
Next, reduce light in the evenings. Since screens like tv, tablet or cell phone emit light that can disturb your sleep, try to avoid them before bed. Black-out curtains and an eye mask can also help create better sleep conditions. If you have an alarm clock on your bedside table, try turning it away from the bed, so that the light isn’t shining directly on you. If you require a source of light during the night (to use the bathroom, or if you have small children), then consider a night-light using a red light-bulb; red wavelength light has shown to be less disruptive.
Light can be a powerful tool when it comes to regulating our sleep. With a few small adjustments of habit and/or your sleep environment, you can use it to your advantage!