The Most Underrated Sleep Factor: Light

As a holistic psychiatrist practicing in New York City, I see a lot of people who struggle with sleep. Sleep problems include difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, not getting tired at night, not having enough time to get adequate sleep, and sleeping well but not feeling rested in the morning. While I can’t shorten your commute time or work hours, and I can’t stop a crying infant from disrupting your sleep, we can improve the quality of your sleep with a few easy fixes.

Here’s the thing: sleep is supposed to work. We’re supposed to get tired at night, sleep deeply, and then have energy during the day. So what gives? Why is this system failing for so many people? The system works, but there are aspects of our modern life that throw the system out of whack. The most important and overlooked factor is…Light!

Light is the official regulator of our sleep-wake cycles, also known as the circadian rhythm. When we wake up in the morning, light enters our eyes, which sends a signal to the brain saying, “good morning, it’s 7 am!.” This starts the clock for the day. Our body releases hormones making us feel awake and energetic, and starts counting down to the evening, when it will release hormones to make us sleepy. Blue spectrum light is the strongest signal (e.g., screens), and red spectrum light is the weakest (e.g., candlelight).

If we were living on the African Savannah 50,000 years ago, or even just backpacking in the wilderness, the system would work fine. Instead we live in modern homes with electricity. At 9 pm, when we’re supposed to be getting sleepy, light from screens, lamps and even ambient light pollution enters our eyes, telling the brain: “good morning, it’s 7 am!” (even though it’s 9 pm). Our brains get confused, thinking the sun just rose, and release hormones that make us feel wide awake. Then we lie in bed, thoughts racing, wondering why we can’t sleep.

How do we use this insight to improve our sleep? We get strategic about light. Here’s how:

1. See Bright Light First Thing in the Morning

  • Open your shades all the way as soon as you wake up
  • If you typically wear sunglasses during your morning commute, consider taking them off and letting your eyes take in the bright morning light
  • If you don’t have a way of getting natural light in the morning, you might want to try light therapy with a 10,000-lux lightbox (discuss this with your healthcare provider)

2. See Only Dim Light At Night

This section requires the most work on your part—some steps are easy, some take work. Do what you can.

  • Easy:
    • Download f.lux on your computer. This free program transitions your screen to a dimmer, redder light as the day goes on, mimicking sundown and reducing your exposure to blue light at night. This one is a no brainer!
  • Moderate:
    • Dim the lights in your home in the evening. You may want to install dimmer switches on a few lamps to make this possible.
    • Get an orange night light for the bathroom. This way you won’t have to turn on a bright light when you brush your teeth or get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
      • Here’s a good one: GE 11487 LED Night Light in Melon
  • Advanced:
    • Wear amber plastic glasses at night. You may want to wear them as you’re finishing up emails or watching Netflix in bed. You can even experiment with wearing them from sunset onwards.
      • Here’s a good option: Uvex S1933X Skyper Safety Eyewear in Orange
    • Get back to candlelight! Before electricity, the only light our eyes saw after sunset was the moon and fire. These lights probably don’t disrupt our circadian rhythms as much as electricity. If you really struggle with insomnia, consider turning off all electronics and illuminating your home with candles in the evening. An especially nice ritual is taking an epsom salt bath by candlelight before bed. Please be careful to not cause a fire!
      • I like these non-toxic candles: GoodLight Paraffin-Free Candles

3. Sleep in Total Darkness 

  • You want your room to be completely dark while you sleep.
  • Look around your room at night with the lights out. If you see anything glowing– a digital clock, an air conditioner, a computer– consider removing the item from the bedroom or covering the light with duct tape or orange tape.
  • Blackout shades– this is less intimidating than it sounds. Go to a store like Home Depot or Loews and explain that you want blackout shades. They will send a team to your home to measure your windows and install the shades for a surprisingly reasonable price.
  • And here is one of the hardest but most important steps: get your cell phone out of the bedroom. You don’t need it. Buy an old-fashioned alarm clock and say goodnight to your phone before you enter the bedroom.

Modern living, with all its comforts, also comes with a big dose of light exposure after sunset, which is confusing our brains and disturbing our natural sleep-wake cycles. With a few strategic moves, you can prevent light from disrupting your sleep and actually use it to improve your sleep.

Note: There are many possible causes of sleep disturbance, and it’s always important to discuss insomnia with your healthcare provider.

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