The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown routines out of whack. People are spending more time indoors. Parents are working odd hours while juggling childcare. And many of our sleep routines have been disrupted.
"Schedules are very important when it comes to sleep,” says Dr. W. Chris Winter, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of "The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix it." “But during quarantine, there's nothing that anchors our schedule or differentiates parts of our day.”
The result? Our bodies’ internal clocks can get thrown off, impeding the amount and quality of sleep we can get. But here’s the good news: A growing selection of smart bulbs and lamps, which let us program our homes’ indoor lighting to mirror what's going on outdoors, may help us recalibrate.
Manufacturers claim that by automatically adjusting the hues and tones of our bedroom lights so that they're warmer and dimmer as bedtime approaches, we’ll fall asleep faster and wake up more refreshed. (Some products even go a step further, mimicking the sunrise to gently wake us up.)
But, do these smart lights really work? To figure that out, you have to know a little bit more about how light affects sleep.
The Relationship Between Light and Sleep
Most people only think about the absence of light when it comes to creating an optimal sleep environment, but light exposure during waking hours can have a big impact on how fast we doze off—and how well we sleep. That's because light suppresses melatonin, the hormone that tells our bodies it’s time to rest. Disrupted melatonin production can mess with our circadian rhythms, the natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle.
“Light is the major synchronizer of the circadian system,” says Dr. Mariana G. Figueiro, director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. “When you get too much light in the evening, it can delay your clock and push back the start of sleep, so you don’t sleep well.”
Over time, the adverse effects of sleep deprivation can add up: Poor sleep quality is associated with a 2-fold increased risk of prediabetes, finds a study published in Sleep Disorders. Sleep disturbances have also been linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart attacks, and cardiovascular disease, according to a study in The Journal of Sleep Research.
While all light can suppress the secretion of melatonin, some colors appear to be worse than others. In one study, people exposed to 6.5 hours of blue light—which electronics like smartphones and laptops emit—experienced twice as much melatonin suppression then when they were exposed to green light of the same brightness. The blue light also shifted their circadian rhythms twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5).
“It’s wakefulness-promoting,” says Winter. The blue and green wavelengths in light interact with cells in your retina to tell your brain not to make melatonin.
How Smart Night Lights Work
New snooze-promoting smart-bulb systems, such as the Philips Hue, and standalone lamps, such as Dyson’s Lightcycle Morph, claim to eliminate blue and green light. They’re often controlled by an app that lets you program a bedtime—when the light will gradually fade to mimic sunset—and a wakeup time—which triggers a slow brightening that approximates a sunrise. Some stand-alone bedside lamps, like Hatch Restore, even play soothing music or white noise to help you sleep. Other bulbs are more low-tech and simply cast a warm reddish light.
But are they worth the money? Without independent studies to prove efficacy, experts are split. “I don’t think you need to pay the extra amount for those color-tunable lights,” says Figueiro.
Winter’s take, on the other hand, is that the products probably help but aren’t necessary if you make it a point of going outdoors to experience natural light during the daytime. “The bottom line is, you can either buy lightbulbs with colors, or you can go outside during the day,” Winter says.
5 Less Expensive Ways to Ensure Optimal Lighting
Below are five affordable ways to tweak your light exposure so that you sleep more soundly.
1. Let the daylight in. “If you don’t have the budget for buying all new lights, the best thing you can do for sleep is increase your light levels during the day,” advises Figueiro.
Open the shades during daylight hours and, if possible, spend an hour or two outside or facing a window. If you work in a room that doesn’t get a lot of natural light, she suggests putting more lights close to your face—perhaps arranging four lamps around your computer screen. "As long as you're making sure that the light reaches your eye, that's the most effective way to keep your circadian clock aligned," Figueiro says.
2. Minimize screen time at night. Melatonin starts rising two hours before bedtime, so if possible, avoid looking at smartphones, tablets, or TV screens one-to-two hours before you plan to hit the sack. "If you have to look at your phone, check it for 5 or 10 minutes, not a half-hour straight," Figueiro says. Make sure the rest of your room is relatively dark and try not to read or watch anything that will get you emotionally worked up. (Yes, that means stop doomscrolling on Twitter and Facebook!)
3. Wear blue light blocking glasses. Blue light-blocking glasses have coated lenses that claim to block blue light, stopping the harsh side effects we experience when looking at screens for too long. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that when young people (under the age of 20) wore orange-tinted glasses at night while looking at screens, they felt sleepier than those who wore nothing or their regular, clear-lens glasses. Winter keeps a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses on his bedside table.
4. Use a dimmer switch. How dark should your bedroom be before you go to sleep? Think warm candlelight. “You should be able to navigate the room well and make your way to the bathroom,” says Figueiro.
Winter tells patients to dim their lights by 25% after dinner, and then to 50% before bedtime. “When you gradually lose light in the house between dinner and when you go to bed, you’re mirroring what’s going on outside,” says Winter. “It’s a strong stimulus to sleep.”
5. Block artificial light. If streetlights bother you, consider putting up blackout shades to keep your bedroom in total darkness. Similarly, if lights from clocks or electronics disrupt your sleep, turn those devices away from your bed or wear an eye mask.
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