Get Morning Light, Sleep Better at Night

Ask clinical psychologist Michael Breus, Ph.D., also known as “The Sleep Doctor,” for his #1 tip on getting more energy and better sleep, and he won’t hesitate to share his morning routine: He gets up at 6:15 a.m. daily, drinks. a large glass of water and meditates while waiting for the sunrise. Then, at 7 a.m. sharp, he walks his two dogs, Hugo and Musa, around the block, leaving his sunglasses at home.

“Every person, as soon as possible after waking up, should go outside and get at least 15 minutes of direct natural light. Periods,” says Breus, a Los Angeles sleep medicine specialist and co-author of a new book. Get energized! Go from ass dragging to kicking in 30 days.

Breus’ simple hack reflects a growing body of scientific evidence linking sufficient exposure to bright light early in the day to everything from improved sleep and mental clarity to better mental health and reduced risk of obesity and diabetes.

One study of 700 people conducted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic found that those who spent 1 to 2 hours outdoors daily or spent days in a brightly lit room were less likely to experience sleep problems or worry.

Another found that when people let natural light into their apartments during the day for 1 week, they fell asleep 22 minutes earlier, slept more regularly, and were happier and more alert during the day than during the week they closed the blinds.

How does morning light work wonders?

“Light is the most important element for setting our circadian clock, or internal 24-hour rhythm, and morning light is the key,” says Nathaniel Watson, MD, sleep specialist, and professor of neurology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Each of us not only has one master clock deep in our brains, but a number of other clocks in our tissues that govern the release of hormones, keeping our sleep-wake cycle, hunger, and other daily rhythms in a predictable rhythm. cycle.

If you lived in a cave with no light at all, the hands of the main clock would still click, but on a cycle of about 24.2 hours, a bit out of sync with the clock society runs on. Every day you will drift further and further out of sync.

“Today your clock would show 7:00, but your biological clock could show 6:50,” says Mariana Figueiro, MD, director of the Light and Health Research Center at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York. “Tomorrow your biological clock may show 6:40 am, and the next day 6:30 am, and it will be more and more difficult to get up.”

Open your blinds or step outside, and once the morning light enters your eyes, it synchronizes your biological clock with the 24-hour day in two important ways:

  • Specialized retinal cells tell your brain to stop producing the sleep hormone melatonin.
  • Your brain’s master clock sets a kind of internal timer, instructing your body to start producing melatonin again in about 14 hours.

Morning light also pushes the body to increase the production of the stimulating hormone cortisol, which fuels your brain throughout the day.

What research shows

In one experiment, office workers received brighter morning light for 5 days. It became easier for them to make decisions, and their cognitive tests scored 79% higher.

Research shows that morning light can also influence the hormones leptin (the satiety hormone) and ghrelin (the hunger hormone) in ways that promote healthy body weight.

And researchers at Northwestern University found that people who received most of the bright light before noon weighed slightly less — an average of 1.4 pounds — than those who were exposed to the brightest light in the evening.

What not to do: bright light, blue light

On the other hand, it’s best to keep bright lights to a minimum at night, as it has the same wake-up effect as it does in the morning.

“Light is like a cup of coffee,” says Figueiro. “It has a direct acute action that is to keep you alert and that happens day and night.”

Bright, short-wavelength, or “blue light” (the glowing screen of your laptop or smartphone) is especially disturbing to sleep because it most closely mimics the natural sunlight we evolved to wake up to.

Unfortunately, people, these days spend about 87% of their time indoors, where the environment is darker than it should be during the day and lighter than it should be at night.

And the pandemic, which has encouraged more people to work from home, has made things worse in many ways.

“Often you can get morning light on your commute,” says Figueiro. She notes that a bike ride or a walk from the train station to work can easily provide enough morning light to keep the circadian clock ticking on time, even on an overcast day.

Instead, many of us now just stroll from our bedroom to our computer. “People miss this morning light. It worries me,” says Figueiro.

But the means are simple.

What can you do

Try to spend at least 1 hour outdoors every day. This includes at least 15-30 minutes in the morning after dawn. Another good time for a walk in the fresh air is from 13 to 15 in the afternoon, when the body produces another short-term burst of melatonin.

“Instead of a coffee break when you start to feel sluggish in the afternoon, go outside and take a break in the sun,” Breus says. Leave your sunglasses off for the full effect.

Facing the window. If you spend most of your time indoors during the day, position yourself facing a window and open your curtains if possible.

If your day room doesn’t have a window or it’s very small, add more light. Figueiro recommends installing a table lamp (1500 lumens each) on each side of the computer with a light shade that diffuses light. A regular white bulb will do, but for more effect, choose a blue light or place the light closer to the eye.

Get an extra boost. If you commute to work in the dark, frequently travel across time zones, or have trouble getting natural morning light, using a “dawn simulator” or a “light therapy” lamp in the morning can also help, Watson says. 10,000 lux of bright light. That’s about five times the brightness of outside light on a very overcast day.

Set a curfew for screens. To minimize light at night, turn off the electronics (or at least dim the display and set it so the words are white on black) 2 hours before bed. If you’re really having a hard time calming down, consider putting on blue-light blocking glasses 90 minutes before bed. Also use warm, low, dim lighting in the bedroom and living room at night.

And yes, you also need to stick to a consistent schedule, going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every day. It’s simple – but not easy.

“Sleep thrives on consistency and routine,” Breus says. As a sleep consultant for celebrities and athletes in Los Angeles, he knows how hard it can be. But, as he says, if you want better sleep, it’s worth it.

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