Shining a new light on your sleep wellness
You may have seen the headlines about the sleep health benefits of exposure to morning light – curious to learn more about it? How can it be that just 30 minutes of natural sunlight viewed through our eyes can help to boost our sleep wellness and mental health, alongside a whole cascade of other benefits? Can two hours of the right light, at the right time, really help to mitigate stress and help you focus on your goals?
Here, Hypnos’ resident sleep specialist, Natalie Pennicotte-Collier [MSC, MBCT, D.CHyp, MNCH, DHybKG, Reg CNHC], offers her advice on the link between light and sleep wellness. Natalie is a clinical sleep therapist and mindfulness expert specialising in sleep health & wellbeing.
“Pre-pandemic, whether you were working a regular 9-5, or pushing through a 45-hour plus working week, it's true to say most of us took our lunch breaks and the time we spent commuting for granted. With busy lifestyles the norm, most of us weren’t prioritising light in the same way we tend to when it comes to fitness, nutrition, and our desire to be endlessly productive.
“Understanding light science and its effects on your wellbeing actually helps us with reaching our health goals and can profoundly impact our sense of wellbeing and ability to focus.
“Hypnos has been shining a light on the links between light and your sleep wellness for over five years. In fact, back in 2018, we teamed up to create a CPD for architects to help them understand design for wellbeing, with sleep and light science at its core.
“When it comes to your sleep health it’s essential to strip everything back to the moment you wake up. Getting the right light, at the right time, sets the clock in your body’s cells, which in turn will affect many different functions in the body. It stimulates the cortisol you need for energy and focus (not many people realise that cortisol is a helpful waking agent in the morning) and it has positive effects on everything from sleep, energy, and immunity, to appetite and mood, and so much more.
“During the pandemic our schedules changed confusing our body clocks, and with the majority of people experiencing more stress and pandemic anxiety, this has directly had an impact on our sleep health.
“But what happens when we don’t get the right ‘light diet’? When those rhythms are off, you might have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, have trouble falling asleep at night, and perhaps experience unrefreshing broken sleep. This can often be seen at the weekends when we might have social jetlag, where our usual bedtime has changed dramatically. When we sleep in and miss the morning light exposure, when bedtime comes around, we won’t feel as naturally sleepy.
"Exposure to morning light early in your day is one of the most powerful tools we have to improve mood and mental health, and later, sleep quality. Conversely, moving away from bright artificial light after sunset helps promote melatonin, the sleep hormone, and supports the rest of the sleep process that naturally occurs when we don’t confuse our body clocks with our artificial light habits.
Putting science into practice
“Did you know that the pathways for sleep and mood overlap by 90%? With that in mind, it’s essential to make sure we’re getting the right amount of natural light in order to enhance our sleep, given that this will impact our mood and overall wellbeing.
“Our eyes communicate the time of day to our central circadian clock depending on the presence or absence of sunlight. The central circadian clock communicates to the rest of the brain and body where we are in our day – this affects levels of alertness, mood and fatigue, along with millions more subtle messages.
“The central circadian clock needs light to start the central conducting of our sleep health and circadian rhythm, and it has to use the outer brain, our eyes, and so called melanopsin ganglion cells (neurons in the back of eyes) to do this effectively.
“So powerful is the circadian cascade effect of light that a 2019 study found that exposure to morning sunlight results in greater alertness during the day, which helps us to improve our health habits and leads to better sleep quality.
“This benefit of exposure to morning sunlight cannot only be seen that day, as positive effects can be felt into the next day. A 2017 study, published in the Sleep Health Journal, found that people who are exposed to sunlight in the morning sleep better at night, feel less stressed, and experience better mental health than people who don’t get access to morning sunlight.
Give your cells the time of day
“Light viewing behaviour is the foundation of sleep wellness – it has a powerful influence (backed up by hard science!). Every cell in our body has its own little clock and they all need information about the time of day. Prioritising immediate light upon waking will help to set you up for body, mind and sleep wellness.
“Even before we wake up, we can sense light, which informs the brain and nervous system to taper off melatonin production. We also start our day with the powerful cascade CAR effect (cortisol arousal system), releasing more wake-promoting neurotransmitters – namely, and very helpfully, cortisol. We often wrongly misjudge cortisol as a stress hormone only, which isn’t true.
“Morning cortisol is actually the waking agent we need and helps us to focus – alongside healthy dopamine, norepinephrine, and histamine, which help you ease into your day, and encourage healthy sleep at night.
Daily winter sunbathing anyone?
“If you can get outside within the first hour of waking, the photons (light energy) supercharge all of these powerful biological processes. Yes, even on a grey, cloudy day the light outside is hundreds of times more powerful than looking at a screen or staying indoors! By starting your day viewing sunlight for two to 10 minutes every morning, a simple measure for most of us to take, you can boost a myriad of brilliant supportive processes in your body and mind, as well as promoting better sleep wellness.
“If you’re considering improving your health in 2022 make sure you put getting more natural light at the top of your list to help you to sleep better and boost your wellbeing.”