SAN ANTONIO— Five out of ten Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) students said that they fall asleep with some kind of light at night. OLLU student Jocelyn Medina said, ” I sleep with a string of colored Christmas lights on. I find that the warm colors of the reds and oranges help me go to sleep and feel more relaxed.”

“I usually leave my cellphone on, it shuts off after I pass out,” OLLU student, Nicholas Tolbert said. Exposing ourselves to artificial light at night may be detrimental to our health.

From the beginning of time, humans evolved with the natural light/dark cycle of day and night. According to the national sleep foundation, our bodies are designed with internal clocks that detect light to let us know when it is daytime and when it is nighttime.  Humans were never meant to be exposed to light at night. Even with our eyelids closed, our brain detects light and prevents our body from performing important nighttime functions, which are crucial for overall health.

  • Sleeping with light at night will disturb the body’s ability to produce melatonin Our bodies produce the hormone melatonin in response to the circadian rhythm in cells, tissues and organs and it synchronizes the day-night rhythm in animals and humans. Melatonin has antioxidant properties, induces sleep, boosts the immune system, lowers cholesterol, helps the functioning of the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, testes and adrenal glands. Complete darkness is required for maximum melatonin production. Our brain can detect the slightest bit of light while sleeping and it gets confused about what time it is resulting in low levels of melatonin. This doesn’t just impair sleep but can also be the onset of more serious health problems.
  • Being exposed to light throughout the night is a risk factor for depression, obesity, poor reproductive health and cancer Research published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry states that “even dim lighting at night, the equivalent of a night-light, can increase physiological changes that lead to depression.” It is theorized that chaotic wake/sleep cycles due to an imbalance of the circadian rhythm could reorganize eating schedules. This will cause overeating throughout the day and ultimately may lead to obesity.  Exposure to light at night could interfere with fertility over time, is a known risk factor for developing breast cancer, and can cause cancer cells to metastasize. Author Russel J. Reiter, Ph.D., said that “tumors grow faster at night when you have light because melatonin levels are low.”
  • Exposure to blue light is especially disruptive to the circadian rhythm Blue light is the main culprit for low melatonin levels and is considered by scientists to be particularly hazardous to health. Blue light is a short wavelength light that is found in higher concentrations in many modern light sources, including energy-efficient light bulbs, streetlamps, televisions, cellphones, computers and tablets. Blue light can also cause macular degeneration which is the leading cause of vision loss among older Americans.
Visible light spectrum chart.
credit: Mike A. Berger

The following tips may help develop a healthier nighttime routine.

  • Seek bright light, such as sunlight, first thing in the morning This will help the body set its internal clock.
  • Turn off all screens Disconnecting from the computer, television, smartphone and tablet at least an hour before going to bed will help the body start producing melatonin.
  • Limit light while sleeping In addition to turning off all the lights, consider putting up light-blocking shades or curtains to keep your neighbor’s porch light out of your room. Sleeping with an eye mask is also a good solution.
  • If you must use a night light, choose a red-colored night light Using colored light at night may be a beneficial option. The American Medical Association recommends dim red night lighting since red light does not affect the circadian system in the same way as white/blue light does. The above chart shows the range of harmful to beneficial visible light.
  • If using a lot of electronic devices at night consider wearing blue light blocking glasses or installing an app that filters the blue/green wavelength at night.

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