On Monday, March 21, SkillShare member Michael Gest and his co-conspirators in better living through bio-hacking Tad Hanna and Leslie McLaughlin presented a most informative and, um, illuminating talk called “How Light and Sleep Affect Your Health.” To start things off, we each turned to a neighbor and asked those questions. The result? About two-thirds of us weren’t thrilled with our sleep, or lack thereof. I mean, who wouldn’t love to dream longer and wake up totally refreshed every day? But were you aware that not doing so could be debilitating and that our relationship with light is a huge factor in our quality of sleep, and thus in our quality of life? Well, inadequate sleep has been proven to affect cognitive function and contribute to disease, and if that isn’t enough inspiration to start get more zzzz’s, sleep deprivation also speeds up the aging process—now you’re awake, right?
Light gives the body information about the outside environment so it can adjust its physiological processes accordingly. If the body gets the message that it’s daylight, it stops releasing melatonin, our sleepy-time hormone, and keeps pumping out cortisol, our rise-and-shine hormone. Light comes in many wavelengths: the shorter the wavelength, the more energy it contains, and the more sensitive we are to it. Incandescent bulbs (think Thomas Edison), omnipresent until about the 1980s, are similar in spectrum to candles, emitting mostly low-energy, long-wavelength red light, which doesn’t upset our delicate circadian rhythms. But then fluorescent bulbs, which put out more high-energy, shorter-wavelength, green and blue end of the spectrum, became popular. And in the past decade LEDs, which put out even more “blue” energy, have become rampant. Got iPhone? Got computer? Got TV? Then you are getting zapped, up close and personal, with those blue rays. Because our retinas are way more reactive to blue wavelengths, they have a greater affect on our inner clocks. Wonder why you can’t go to sleep after watching a movie on your computer or reading a book on your Kindle? You’ve got the blues, baby. Blue light suppresses melatonin more powerfully than longer wavelengths.
But help is available. At LowBlueLights.com (“products for naturally maximizing melatonin—a powerful antioxidant”), you’ll find blue-light-blocking screens for your devices, as well as red and amber bulbs to replace your “white” lights, which have a significant blue component, and all kinds of other fun sleep-supporting products and info. You can wear amber glasses (this link is for cheapo ones), which make blue light invisible, when staring at a screen. If you’re a Mac person, you can download f.lux software, which adjusts the color of your computer’s display to real time—warm at night and like sunlight during the day—so your body doesn’t get confused.
It’s also a good idea to get yourself exposed to some real, unadulterated (no sunglasses, no sunscreen, no long sleeves) sunlight. For one thing, it helps, especially for those bathed in artificial light all day, to sensitize the body to real-world rhythms. For another, 75 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, which has been linked to dementia, prostate cancer, schizophrenia, and heart disease.
And light is one of the key factors in epigenetics, “the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in DNA sequence,” according to Merriam-Webster. That’s a nerdy way of saying that while genes are passed down from parents to children, the way they are actually expressed is affected by environmental factors, like what we eat, where we live, our relationships, how much sleep we get, and, yes, light. Translation: You might carry the gene for, say, breast cancer, but you might not actually get breast cancer because positive environmental factors keep it at bay. In fact, only a tiny fraction of chronic illness is purely genetic. So go get some sun, but don’t go crazy. Step outside and watch the sunrise. Put on a tank top and expose your body to some not-high-noon rays. And to cure insomnia, go camping. Yes, a recent CU study found that immersing ourselves in the rhythms of nature for a several-day chunk of time can reset our circadian rhythms.
If you want to dive into this topic, Michael recommends John Ott’s book Health and Light and/or Richard Hobday’s book The Healing Sun. Of course, there’s a Facebook group for everything, so it’s not surprising that you can find information at Quantum Health: Light, Water and Magnetism. And if you abhor FB, Jack Kruse’s website has plenty of info as well.
This is the second fantastic talk produced by Michael that I’ve attended, and I don’t plan to miss the next one. If you want to improve your quality of life by improving the quality of you, you won’t want to miss the next one either!