It seems counter intuitive, we hear so much about how it is best to sleep in darkness, that we need to avoid the stimulating effects of artificial, blue light and screen time before bed. Not only that we also get bombarded with information on how bad the sun is. Cover up, wear sunscreen and hats, and avoid the sun at certain times of the day. Headlines on how the sun causes skin cancer and premature aging are everywhere. And while these headlines are true, when coupled with modern lifestyles it means we are spending less and less time being exposed to natural light.
Chronobiology is the study of the circadian rhythm of living organisms and their relation to lunar and solar patterns. Essentially scientists in this field study circadian rhythms and how these are affected by night and day, darkness and light. Research in this area helps us to understand what is happening in our bodies at certain times of the day and things like the best times to sleep, wake, exercise and concentrate within a 24 hour time period. It also looks at the best conditions for these things to take place.
Our days can essentially be split into two parts. The time we spend awake and the time we are asleep. But what happens in our body to make us fall asleep and wake up? This is down to a hormone secreted by the pineal gland called melatonin. Melatonin is made in response to the effect of light or darkness on our eye. The idea is that as it gets dark melatonin production starts and continues until it gets light. It’s not hard to imagine why our body clocks may have become messed up as we work later, watch television and use artificial and blue light in our homes. Many of us have heard how these blue light sources like phones and screens can affect our ability to fall asleep. Insomnia is on the rise and it is easy to put this down to the stresses of modern living. But adults are not the only ones affected by this epidemic. There are countless books on sleep training, kid’s night lights and products like melatonin for kids being sold.
However, what is sometimes missed in all this is the importance of natural light to wake up and halt melatonin production. We need natural light to regulate our circadian rhythms just as much as we need darkness. In a study conducted by Chronobiology.com female office workers were split into two groups. One group was exposed to artificial light during their workday while the others were exposed to natural light through windows. At the end of seven days saliva was tested at 8am, 4pm and 10pm. The group without the windows had lower melatonin levels and higher cortisol levels, both detrimental to sleep quality. So what exactly is the problem with artificial light sources? Artificial light just often doesn’t have right light spectrum to help our bodies produce the hormones we need to sleep and wake.
Often times especially in summer when the sun sets late, we may need to close the curtains especially for kids at bedtime. The solution is this case could be a wake light or alarm that simulates natural light. This could also work if you sleep in an area where there is no natural light source. A kid’s alarm clock like Tick Tock Turtle can help achieve the effect of the sun rising…the time old natural alarm clock. This is important not only to wake us but to stop melatonin production and keep it shut down through the day to avoid daytime sleepiness and sleep inertia on waking. Sleep inertia is the groggy feeling that sometimes follows us into our morning long after we wake up. It is caused by waking up at the wrong stage in your sleep cycle. Sunlight stimulates the Suprachiasmic nucleus in the brain which helps keep our body clock regular and helps us to wake up feeling fresh and well rested.
While we are not suggesting that you need to spend the entire day bathing in direct sunlight, we need to help our bodies in keeping our circadian rhythm and sleep wake cycle regular. Exposure to natural light in the morning and throughout the day helps. Open the curtains as soon as you wake, work near windows, put some sunscreen on and get outdoors. If possible exercise outside. There will be added benefits too. Research shows natural light is good for your eyes and helps balance out all the time we spend in front of screens or in artificially lit buildings. Natural light increases productivity and alertness, improves mood and decreases anxiety. Studies have shown that natural light can decrease blood pressure. Sunlight provides our bodies with Vitamin D which is essential for calcium absorption and good bone health. Vitamin D also keeps your immune system strong and decreases depression. Again with direct sunlight be sensible, protect your eyes and skin.
So get out there and bask in the light, your body will thank you for it!