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The Morning Mistake That's Costing You Sleep

One of the most powerful things you can do for your health and wellness is to increase your connection to the natural rhythms of the Earth, especially sunrise and sunset. We are light-sensitive animals. Light cues from our environment affect how quickly we wake up in the morning, how much energy and focus we experience during the day, how easily we fall asleep at night and how deeply we rest.

The artificial lighting that is now ubiquitous in households is a very recent invention. Mass adoption of electric lighting is less than 100 years old. Prior to that, all nighttime illumination occurred by some form of flame (e.g., candle, oil or gas lamps). And flames are unique because of the warm color temperature and relatively low light intensity they emit. Contrast that with the household lighting of today where illumination is very bright and nearly inescapable. There's light from phones, tablets, computers and televisions. Even when those are off there's light from a variety of LEDs on appliances, clocks and devices. There's light from the street, of passing cars and even inside the fridge if we go for a midnight snack.

The problem with this artificial light is two-fold. Its color temperature is more akin to daytime than the candlelight of night. And its intensity is more akin to daylight than the candlelight of night. In other words, these cold, bright beams send a message to your light-sensitive body that it's daytime rather than night. And your body takes that signal as a cue to do things associated with daytime (e.g., releasing the stress hormone cortisol) and not do things associated with night (e.g., release melatonin for rest).

This means that exposing yourself to artificial light at night is like stepping on your body's accelerator, exclaiming "let's go," while simultaneously pressing on the brake, saying "go to sleep." Maybe you know this already. Perhaps you've even taken some steps to mitigate blue light exposure in the evening. But there's more.

Odds are your nighttime light mitigation is insufficient. The good news is you don't have to give up all of the comforts of modern living to have more morning energy, daytime focus and nighttime rest. You can achieve all of those things with an intervention that takes as little as five minutes per day.

Get morning and evening light, ideally by watching the sunrise and the sunset. Realistically, that could mean getting outside as close to sunrise as possible for 2+ minutes in the morning and getting outside as close to sunset as possible for 2+ minutes in the evening. This morning and evening light exposure, will entrain your circadian rhythm in a way that provides benefits well beyond your sleep-wake cycle. It entrains neurochemicals that affect your energy, positive mood and immunity. If sunrises and sunsets were patentable, they'd be sold as a drug. That's how powerful they are at aligning and regulating systems in your body. As it is, however, the only cost of sunrises and sunsets is the effort required to get your butt, or your eyes, outside.

Watching from inside your house or your car doesn't cut it. Modern windows filter the spectrum of light that your body needs to receive the full benefit of natural light exposure. Plus, there's an intangible benefit to actually going outside and having that deeper connection with the natural world, the wind, bird song . . . . The mistake most people make every morning--and all day--is they move from the "house box" to the "car box" to the "office box" and back again with nearly no time outdoors. So they miss out on the improved energy, increased focus, positive mood and deeper rest that they could get from natural light exposure.

There is a complication to this for some people, depending on where you live or your work schedule. The further you live from the equator, the greater summer and winter variance there will be in the time of your sunrises and sunsets. Or if you work a night shift, you may be going to work in the afternoon or evening when the sun is setting. In these circumstances, you may need to use indoor light and blackout curtains to create an artificial sunrise and sunset for yourself. It won't be a perfect approximation of the real thing, but it will be an improvement over no sunrise/sunset. I have a lot of experience with this because I lived in Alaska for 14 years. At the darkest point of my winters, the real sun didn't rise until noon and then it set before 4 p.m. Summertime was the reverse, with almost zero nighttime darkness. So I'm quite good at creating healthy circadian alignment in a circadian dysregulated space. If you need help improving your morning wakefulness, midday energy/focus/mood and evening rest, feel free to reach out to me.

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