Secrets for Improving your Sleep, Health & Productivity:
Why Color and Light Matter
by Leanne Venier, BSME, CP AOBTA
(From her LinkedIn article. Also Published under “Research” in Texas MD Magazine, April/May 2015 (sold throughout Texas) & in TexasMDMonthly.com)
It’s 7 am. The alarm clock starts blaring and you groggily reach over to swat it into snooze-ville, wishing for nothing more than an extra hour of sleep. Lately, you just never feel rested in the morning although you go to bed plenty early every night.
Sound familiar? Do you toss and turn for several hours, finally nodding off to sleep but never getting into a deep sleep, and you wake up exhausted? Or maybe you eventually fall asleep only to reawaken a few hours later, unable to get back to sleep?
In all of these cases, your health may be suffering far more than you realize.
Poor sleep can cause weight gain, dramatically shorten your life, and kill your productivity at work. The good news is, there may be a very simple solution to getting your sleep hygiene and health back on track and it all has to do with properly timed Blue Light exposure.
First of all, let’s examine why so many people are having a very difficult time sleeping nowadays, and why we’ve become a nation so dependent on caffeine and other stimulants to keep us awake and alert.
In 1923, a Harvard grad student, while experimenting with what he thought were blind mice, discovered that although they couldn’t see objects, they could still perceive light. And more interesting and relevant to today’s sleep deprivation epidemic, the sleep-wake cycles of these “blind” mice were directly controlled by the light. It turns out that all mammals have a special photoreceptor in their eyes which enables them to detect a certain type of light.
This important research was largely ignored by the medical and scientific community for almost 80 years, but in 2001, this key photoreceptor was re-discovered in the human eye. A team at Thomas Jefferson University published the study “Action Spectrum for Melatonin Regulation in Humans: Evidence for a Novel Circadian Photoreceptor” and we now understand how those mice were able to sense light and why this discovery is so important to good sleep hygiene and optimal health.
Unlike the cones in our eyes which sense objects and colors in well-lit conditions and rods which are responsible for night vision, these photoreceptors are particularly sensitive to blue light, especially the narrow band that corresponds to midday sunlight from a clear blue sky, 446-477 nm.
So why should you care about these tiny cells in your eyeballs? Well, by sensing blue daylight, they’re responsible for telling your body when it’s daytime; they control melatonin suppression during the day, and melatonin production at night.
Melatonin is that all-important hormone that helps us get sleepy in addition to being an extremely potent anti-oxidant and cancer preventer. Unfortunately, with our predominantly indoor lifestyles nowadays, lack of sunlight and round-the-clock artificial light, most people are extremely deficient in melatonin since our bodies think it’s daytime all the time.
A November 2014 study published at The Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul titled “Lack of exposure to natural light in the workspace is associated with physiological, sleep and depressive symptoms” proved one of my own long-standing hypotheses — when we get sunlight exposure during the day, we naturally get sleepy at night. This is true not only with adults, as shown in this study, but I’ve also long believed it to be one of the main reasons that children who spend time outdoors during the day, sleep much better at night (it’s not just about the fresh air as our parents use to tell us).
This 2014 study analyzed corporate employees, some working next to a window, others with no windows. The ones with exposure to natural window daylight showed dramatically varying melatonin and cortisol levels from those with no windows. “The ‘with window’ group had a lower melatonin level at 08:00 am, but a higher level at 10:00 pm than the ‘without window’ group.” This means that the people who got the proper amounts of daylight exposure produced more melatonin at nighttime which our bodies are supposed to do.
Conversely, “the ‘without window’ group had “lower melatonin levels at 10:00 pm (which) were correlated with depressive symptoms and poor quality of sleep.”
Nighttime cortisol levels for the ‘without window’ group were significantly higher than the ‘with window’ group which “positively correlated with minor psychiatric disorders and depressive symptoms at 10:00 pm”. This means that those who didn’t get daytime natural light exposure were far more likely to suffer from depression or psychiatric disorders.
An article published in Psychology Today, “Cortisol: Why ‘The Stress Hormone’ Is Public Enemy No. 1”, shows that high cortisol levels also reduce life expectancy. They add that,
Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease… The list goes on and on.
Ok, so now we know that we need to get blue light from natural sunlight so we can stay awake and alert during the day but get sleepy at night. But what happens if we get this same blue light at nighttime? And how is that even possible?
It turns out that all modern technology using LED screens – Ipads, computers, tablets, smartphones – emit a high percentage of this blue light which tells our bodies to stop producing melatonin. When our eyes see this blue light at nighttime, it relays, “It’s the middle of the day – shut off melatonin production for at least 1.5 hours!” That’s why using any of these devices at night will very likely cause insomnia and/or poor sleep. This is directly contributing to the growing epidemic of declining health, depression, weight gain and low productivity across all age groups.
A December 2014 study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital analyzed people who read before bedtime, comparing those reading from any LED screen (laptops, smart phones, iPads, eReaders) versus old-fashioned paper books. Participants reading these blue-light-emitting LED screens “took longer to fall asleep, were less sleepy in the evening, and spent less time in REM sleep” and they had reduced melatonin levels at night. They were also “less sleepy before bedtime, but sleepier and less alert the following morning after eight hours of sleep.”
Another 2014 study from the University of Florida, titled “Beginning the Workday Yet Already Depleted? Consequences of Late-night Smartphone Use and Sleep” found that …
…with both top level executives and employees across a wide range of fields, smartphone use after 9 p.m. was associated with decreased sleep quantity at night which caused morning depletion the next day leading to dramatically decreased work engagement and productivity for that day.
In general, it’s healthiest to get natural sunlight exposure, which contains blue light, during the day and to NOT use any blue-light-emitting electronic devices for at least two hours before you go to bed. If you must use them, there are work-arounds such as the free program F.lux for computers which cuts out the blue light once evening arrives. There are also other blue light reducing apps for portable devices.
About the Author
Leanne Venier, BSME, CP AOBTA, is an international award-winning artist, engineer and expert on the science of color & light who regularly lectures at major medical centers, SXSW Interactive, MENSA & elsewhere, combining her art with her past careers as a mechanical engineer then acupuncturist to teach medical doctors, executives and lay people about the latest scientific research for optimizing health & productivity using color, light, Art & Flow State. She has been interviewed on NBC-TV, nationally syndicated radio, international podcasts and in numerous magazines about color, light, optimal health and Flow state, and is a regular contributor to Texas MD Magazine. Leanne also conducts Color & Creative Flow Intelligence Training where business executives, entrepreneurs and lay people learn to quickly and reliably get into Flow State, an optimal state of consciousness where Insights, Innovation, Peak Productivity & Optimal Health occurs.
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