Your future may be bright, but your sleep space shouldn’t be: Light can be one of the biggest inhibitors of quality sleep and, unfortunately for us, our eyelids are not blackout curtains.
Unfortunately, it’s a very common issue. Even those who are meticulous about bedtime routines — avoiding caffeine, maintaining a cool space, blocking blue light — can be impacted by light, whether moonlight, streetlights, the long days of summer, or your partner’s late-night reading habits.
How Light Affects Your Sleep Cycle
Overexposure Disrupts Your Circadian Rhythm
Daytime light exposure is critical for setting your circadian rhythm. When light weasels itself into your sleep pattern, your body perceives that as daylight, altering your circadian rhythm. This can reduce the quality of sleep, lead to repeated awakenings, and limit the time spent in deeper sleep stages.
“Light helps our bodies regulate our circadian rhythm, so light during the day has an impact on sleep as does light at night," says sleep professional Jeff Rodgers, DMD. “The most common example of the impact during the day is jet lag — this is why it takes some time to adjust to a new time zone.”
Light Can Signal Your Body to Wake
Similarly, when your eyes sense light, they signal your suprachiasmatic nucleus, a tiny region of the brain located in the anterior part of the hypothalamus. This signal, which runs on 24-hour cycles, resets our body’s clock daily and carries out essential processes such as the sleep-wake cycle.
“At night, it is important to keep in mind that your eyelids do not block all light,” says Rodgers. “Any light in the room where you sleep can have an impact on normal sleep cycles, leading to less REM and deep sleep. And, if the light is strong enough and your arousal threshold is low enough, it can also lead to a full awakening in the night.”
Light Suppresses Melatonin Production
A 2011 study of 116 healthy individuals found that light exposure before bedtime is also responsible for suppressing melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that helps your circadian rhythm find a normal sleep-wake schedule. By suppressing melatonin, the study theorizes that light exposure at night could impact sleep quality, thermoregulation, blood pressure, and glucose homeostasis.
Overexposure Increases Your Risk for Other Disorders
Light exposure can create a domino effect in your health. Disorders that may get worse with consistent over-exposure to light include shift work disorder, jet lag, irregular sleep-wake rhythm, and more.
Chronically out-of-whack-circadian-rhythm disorders can also make way for additional significant health impacts, like a slowed metabolism, cardiovascular issues, and diminished mental and emotional health. For example, seasonal affective disorder — the depression one can experience during the shorter days of winter — is a reaction to changes in circadian rhythm.
7 Tips for Keeping Light at Bay
When it comes to light, there are many cosmetic changes you can attempt to shield your eyes for more shut-eye.
Here are seven tips and tricks to keep light at bay, so you can indulge in the quality sleep that your body and mind deserve.
Say Aye to Sleeping Masks
Investing in a sleep mask is one of the most cost-effective ways to block out disruptive light. Not only that, but because of the ease of using one, sleep masks are also a low-commitment habit to pick up on your journey to an improved quality of sleep.
No matter your preference in shape, size, material, or weight, choices abound, so browse through options with the goal of finding a mask that rests comfortably on your face, while still being secure enough to keep the light out. Adjustable options with a 100% blackout rate are the gold standard, as are 100% pure silk sleeping masks that will deflect light while pampering your eyes with a smooth, lush material.
Invest in Blackout Curtains
Made from tightly woven, dense fabrics, blackout curtains block the majority of outside light. You can find these curtains made from polyester, polyester-cotton blends, or heavy microfiber.
“These are very important for shift workers who work at night and sleep during the day,” says Rodgers. “Blackout curtains can also be helpful for people who live in areas with high light, such as apartment complexes or cities, or areas of the world where the days and nights may last 20+ hours, depending on the season.”
Ease Into Pitch Blackness
Consider upgrading your lights with Bluetooth LED bulbs that allow you to adjust the brightness and warmth of the bulb through your phone. These can be easier on the eyes and promote a state of tranquility. Research has also shown that warm temperature colors around 1900 K, which mimic sunset, can help you relax and may even promote melatonin secretion for better sleep.
You can include this spectrum technology all throughout your home and bedroom, through devices like:
- a bedside table lamp that supports your natural sleep cycle
- a circadian LED light that allows you to switch between a warm, sleep-enhancing spectrum to an alert and focus-enhancing one
- a travel-friendly nightlight featuring a dusk-to-dawn sensor in a warm, blue-light-free hue
Keep Electronics Out of the Bedroom
Sleep specialists agree that screen time within an hour of bedtime can disrupt our circadian rhythm. Blue light, which can also be found in the sun, signals the mind to stay stimulated instead of allowing it to wind down.
“All lights do not affect sleep the same, but the blue light from screens has been shown to be exceptionally bad for sleep and brain activity,” Rodger explains. “Other electronics count, too. A simple power light indicating a computer is on, or even asleep in some cases, is strong enough to disrupt sleep.”
If you have not yet reached a point where electronics are banned from the bedroom at night, try easing into the habit of staying away from electronics one hour before bedtime. As part of your ready-for-bed routine, turn your devices’ brightness down to the lowest possible setting. If available, make use of the ‘night mode’ setting, and make sure you are turning off any notifications before falling asleep.
Hacks for Light-Sensitive Sleepers
There are more creative ways to hack your bedroom, depending on the degree of your light sensitivity. For seriously light sleepers, here are some additional tips that can ensure smooth rest time sailing.
- Hallway lights seeping in? Grab a towel or old t-shirt and place it at the bottom of your door to see if blocking intruding light benefits your sleep. Once you know it does, try putting a mat outside the door to block the light or get a seal for the bottom of the door.
- Lingering lights keeping you awake? Before going to bed, make the rounds and completely unplug your devices in order to avoid accidental light. If this is a tedious task, invest in smart power strips that automatically turn off electricity, and upgrade your alarm clock to one that does not have lights.
- Use an alarm clock instead of your phone. And while you’re at it, keep a container of melatonin to take, on an as-needed basis to get your sleep-wake cycle resynced.
- Your home is TOO well-lit? Try painting your walls a darker color in order to minimize light reflection (and, as a bonus, make your room appear larger!)
Nightlight Lovers: This One's for You
Whether it is a personal preference or a partner whose sleep habits do not match your own, if you find yourself relying on light as part of your sleep routine, don’t fret. There are still tricks you can employ to minimize its negative effect on your cycle:
- Afraid of the dark? Keep your light set to the lowest setting or set a timer that will keep the light on long enough for you to comfortably fall asleep and turn off so the rest of the night is spent in darkness.
- Dozing off with the TV on? If keeping the TV out of the bedroom is not a realistic option, set ground rules around how you use it. Make sure it is off by a certain time or turn on the sleep timer setting so that it will turn off by the time you’re into dreamland.
- Different sleeping habits than your partner? If your partner prefers sleeping with the lights on, discuss compromising around the level of dimness of the light. In the meantime, treat yourself to a sleep mask.
At the end of the day, a dark, restful sleep is within reach. All it takes is one cup of habit adjusting, a dash of environment hacking, and making the switch to appliances with supportive features that will light up your moments of rest. And that’s the formula for bright future of dark rest.
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