You may have heard the expression, “timing is everything.” We are finding out that when it comes to our health this saying is becoming truer every day. For thousands of years humans got up with the rising sun and went to sleep after the sunset. Today, however, technology has allowed us to work beyond the boundaries of daylight. Modern life has eclipsed the need for working during daylight hours and technology is at our fingertips day and night.
In many ways this has been a blessing, however there is a price to pay. This is because we all have an internal clock called our circadian rhythm. This rhythm regulates everything from our metabolism to when we sleep to even when we are best coordinated during the day.
Specifically, it tells us when it is time to wake up and when it is time to go to sleep. If this circadian rhythm timing does not match your daily reality, you will get symptoms of sleepiness or insomnia. A circadian rhythm that is delayed will tell our body it is time to go to sleep at 1:00 in the morning and it will tell us that it is time to wake up at 9:00 in the morning, when our alarm goes off at 7:00 in the morning. The result is sleepiness in the morning and insomnia at night.
This delay in the circadian rhythm is known to be caused by exposure to light after 9:00 p.m. The delay only requires a small amount of light that can penetrate our eyelids to shut down melatonin production in the brain and delay our circadian rhythm. And yet this is exactly what is happening: We go home, watch television, scroll through our smartphone or open up our computer. While blue light from these devices is particularly egregious, any type of light will have the same effect – to delay our internal body clock.
Interestingly, the opposite effect occurs when one exposes their eyes to bright light in the morning. This tends to slightly advance our circadian rhythm and to keep it grounded in place so that we sleep better in the evening and wake up easier in the morning. In fact, a study published in Chronobiology International found that having our eyes exposed to bright light in the morning improves our performance during the day both physically and mentally.
For a better night’s sleep and more energy during the day, it is important to make sure you optimize your circadian rhythm. I highly recommend turning off excess lights after 9:00 p.m., including shutting down devices that expose your eyes to light. This would include any sort of screen devices, even e-readers. Similarly, I would highly recommend getting outside into natural sunlight early in the morning when you get up. The amount of light that one receives outside is tens of thousands of times greater than the light that you are exposed to inside the house, even if you are next to a window. Do this consistently for a month and you will improve not only your sleep, but also your energy levels.
Dr. Roger Seheult is cofounder of MedCram.com, an online medical education program. He is an associate clinical professor at the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine and Assistant Clinical Professor at the School of Medicine and Allied Health at Loma Linda University. Dr. Seheult is board certified in internal medicine, pulmonary diseases, critical care medicine and sleep medicine.
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