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Have you ever set your alarm at bedtime, only to wake up moments before it went off?
You might be amazed at your gift for perfect timing, but all the credit actually goes to your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm.
It’s like having a little timekeeper in your brain, only in this case, it’s an actual part of your brain — called the hypothalamus…
You see, when your retinas detect changes in light, they send signals to the hypothalamus. Brighter light causes the hypothalamus to wake you up. In the evening, when light dims, it signals the hormone melatonin to kick in, which prepares you for sleep.
But, most important, the type of lighting you’re exposed to at bedtime is a crucial factor in how well this rhythm works. A few bad habits, like staying up late in front of the TV, or keeping phones and monitors on while trying to fall asleep, expose you to blue light, one of the most disruptive wavelengths of the light spectrum — and your sleep cycle’s worst enemy.
Moreover, it’s not just a good night’s sleep that’s at stake when your internal clock goes awry. It’s your mental health as well…
When light causes depression
It may seem illogical that making your environment darker could actually ease or prevent depression. But science has proven otherwise.
In fact, if you’re down in the dumps, a light at the end of the tunnel may be the last thing you need. Instead, a darker bedroom may be just the thing to boost your spirits, and here’s why…
For the past decade, researchers have been conducting studies in order to determine whether the light level in our sleeping environment is connected to depression. Specifically, in 2009, researchers at Ohio State University set out to determine if too much light at night was connected to depressive symptoms.
They found that mice kept in a lighted room round the clock showed signs of depression, including low activity and lack of interest in sugar water. In contrast, mice that were exposed to round the clock light, but were given a dark tunnel where they could escape into darkness, showed fewer depressive symptoms.
Our eyes are connected to our emotions
Dr. Samer Hattar of Johns Hopkins University also wanted to see if exposure to light at night would trigger signs of depression. He exposed mice to a cycle of 3.5 hours of light and 3.5 hours of darkness.
Not surprisingly, these mice also developed depression-like behaviors. They moved around less, and showed little interest in novel objects, food or sweets.
But what do these depressed mice have to do with us? For starters, both mice and humans have intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, or ipRGCs, which trigger emotion by stimulating the limbic system. Because of this similarity, it makes sense to Dr. Hattar that humans would also show signs of depression in a sleep environment that’s too bright.
Even a candle is too much
Finally, a 2017 study found a strong association between even low levels of nighttime light exposure and depressive symptoms in elderly adults.
Japanese researchers measured nighttime light levels in the bedrooms of 863 adults and had them complete sleep diaries. During a two-year follow up period, researchers found a correlation between depression and exposure to nighttime light.
Even at levels as low as 5 lux (a measurement of how bright a room is as a result of a light source), depression was evident. For reference, looking at a candle from a foot away equals 10 lux.
How to get sleep and get happy
All these studies bring us to one important conclusion: Total darkness truly is necessary for your circadian rhythm to function properly. And a properly functioning internal time clock is vitally important not only to your sleep, but your state of mind.
While many of the steps you can take may seem obvious, few people actually sleep in total darkness. If you’re one of them, here are some ways to make your bedroom both light- and depression-proof:
Dim the lights before bedtime. Lowering the lights about an hour or half hour before bedtime will signal your body that it’s time to get sleepy and kick start melatonin production.
Use blackout shades. It’s the rare person who doesn’t see a street light, headlights or other light sources through the window at night. Blackout shades prevent this light from entering your room.
Cover door jambs. Light from the next room creeps under and around your door. You may have to use a ‘draft dodger’ along the bottom, and hang a dark cloth over the rest of the door.
Ditch the digital. Even a small red indicator light on your phone can disrupt sleep. Digital clocks and radios should be removed or turned to the wall.
No blue light. Blue light disrupts the production of melatonin. Your computer, tablet, iPad and phone should be out of your bedroom. (If you use your phone as an alarm, turn it face down and place it far from your bed).
Skip the night light. If you need light to guide your nighttime bathroom trips, use a motion sensor light, and place it away from your bed. You want just enough light to guide you, no more.
Wear an eye mask. This is especially helpful if you have a partner who wakes up before you do.
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- Being Exposed to Even a Small Amount of Light During Sleep is Linked to Depression — Time
- Study links exposure to light at night to depression, learning issues — Johns Hopkins University
- Light at night linked to symptoms of depression in mice — American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)