Funnily enough, the reason for me writing this article is because I spent a number of hours on Reddit yesterday.
Not just for fun you understand, although the self-proclaimed “Front page of the Internet” certainly provides plenty of that.
No, my reason was to look through the various sleep-related sub-Reddit’s to see what type of problems people were experiencing.
To my dismay, in the main, the majority of issues that people were having could be explained because of their use of electronic equipment in the evening.
For me, there seemed a fairly obvious solution, but perhaps not.
So, in today’s article I would like to discuss, “How Does Blue Light Affect Your Sleep?”
The “Not So Obvious” Answer
Something that I’ve come to see as a fault in myself is that if I think an answer to a problem is obvious, then I’m often at a loss as to why other people don’t see it too.
I guess what may seem obvious to me, may not be so obvious to someone else, and vice versa.
I appreciate this is a part of my personality I need to work on.
However, when it comes to sleep deprivation, insomnia, sleepless and restless nights, we have all been exposed to the dangers of using electronics at night.
This is a subject which is quite frequently talked about in mainstream media, social media, magazine articles, and even talk shows.
Yet, my few hours spent on Reddit yesterday only proved to me that I may be very wrong in assuming that everyone is aware of how our electronic devices may be impacting our night’s rest.
So, how does blue light affect your sleep?
The easiest answer (which may contain some jargon, although hopefully I’ll make this easier to understand) is that it affects the brain’s production of melatonin, which in turn impacts the body’s circadian rhythms.
Allow me to explain.
Melatonin is something which I like to refer to as the “sleep hormone”.
This is a hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland of the brain. Generally, when it is light, the brain produces less of this hormone, and when it is dark, the brain produces more.
This is typically why we are awake during the day and asleep at night (if only it was that easy).
So, when the brain starts to produce more melatonin this almost “signals” to us that the time to go to bed is fast approaching.
Therefore, you could say that being exposed to light basically suppresses the secretion of melatonin.
This in turn means that our exposure to light in the evening can almost “trick” the brain into believing that it is still daytime, and thus halt the production of melatonin.
The knock-on effect from this is that you won’t feel as though it’s time for bed, and you will probably struggle to fall asleep, or stay asleep.
Light, Circadian Rhythms & Sleep
Colors of light will have a different impact on us, but it is widely accepted that blue wavelengths of light are actually beneficial during the daytime. They are known to heighten mood and attention, as well as increasing our reaction times.
This sounds great in principle, but can actually be extremely disruptive at night.
Our increased use of electronic gadgets with screens is simply escalating our exposure to blue light.
This is where our circadian rhythms come into play.
I have spoken many times about our circadian rhythm being our internal 24-hour body clock, although this isn’t strictly true.
In fact, we all have slightly different circadian rhythms, but the average length is 24 hours and 15 minutes.
If you consider yourself a night owl, i.e. someone who typically stays up late and probably gets up a little later, then your circadian rhythm will actually be a little longer than this.
However, if you happen to be an early bird, i.e. someone who generally goes to bed early and wakes up early, then your rhythm will probably be a touch under 24 hours.
With that being said, in the main, we all still stick to usually sleeping when it is dark and being awake when it is light – whether you’re a night owl or an early bird.
Does That Mean That Exposure to Light at Night is Bad?
I have read various studies which suggest there may be a link between exposure to light at night (or not getting enough sleep because of light) and various serious medical conditions.
A small Harvard study took 10 participants and put them on an awake and sleep schedule (through exposure to light) which would gradually move the timing of the circadian rhythms.
The results of the study saw an increase in blood sugar levels, which put them into a prediabetic state. There was also a decrease in their leptin levels, which is the hormone that is produced to tell us we are full after eating a meal.
So, you could say that there is potentially a link between nighttime light exposure and diabetes and obesity.
I’ve discussed the fact that exposure to light will suppress melatonin production, and it is melatonin that influences our circadian rhythms.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that you can in some way “game the system”, as even a dim light (such as a table lamp) can interfere with melatonin.
So, one of the major reasons for not getting enough sleep at night is due to our exposure to light. I’ve already mentioned the potential links between diabetes and obesity and a lack of sleep, but there is an increased risk for depression and cardiovascular issues, such as heart disease.
All-in-all this interruption to your circadian rhythms (from the suppressed production of melatonin) is extremely bad for you. Don’t simply think in terms of losing sleep, but what this lack of sleep is doing to you health wise.
Another Way Blue Light Will Affect Your Sleep
So, we are now aware of how blue light (and light in general) at night will disturb certain bodily functions, which in turn will affect the quantity and quality of our sleep.
When I mention how blue light affects your sleep I am typically talking about the electronics that are now considered everyday “can’t live without” items, e.g. smartphone, tablet, kindle, laptop, PC, and TV.
However, from reading the many threads on Reddit, something else jumped off the page and screamed out at me.
This is something that I have been guilty of in the past, and I’m sure many of you are too.
What exactly am I talking about?
Stimulating the brain.
Let me give you a prime example of something I used to be guilty of:
Just before I went to bed I would often update my Facebook status, probably something mildly amusing that was connected in some way to my day.
In my mind I thought the likes/comments/replies would give me something to read in the morning, something to put a smile on my face first thing in my day.
But, did I wait till morning?
I’d be checking my status every 15-20 minutes, often feeling hurt or unloved, because I’d only garnered 2 likes (thanks mum and dad), or no comments whatsoever, as yet.
My mind was going into hyperdrive, constantly thinking about the post I’d just written, screaming out for some instant gratification.
“Just love me please”.
Once your mind is in this vortex of emotions you’re going to find it extremely difficult to sleep.
The same can be said for replying to emails, WhatsApp messages, and don’t even get me started on what your brain’s doing if you’ve just finished watching a thriller or horror movie on the TV.
I understand all about melatonin and circadian rhythms, etc. but one of the biggest issues with falling asleep was my overactive mind, which wasn’t really being helped by my use of electronic gadgets.
This is why I finally decided that no matter how hard it was (and trust me, I felt like I had lost a loved one for the first 2-3 weeks) that I was going to stop looking at all electronic devices at least an hour before bed.
This is my advice to you and also the advice that the many Redditors with sleep problems needed to hear.
How does blue light affect your sleep?
Well, as you can see, in a wide variety of ways.
The main explanation that you will always hear is how exposure to blue light can interfere with melatonin levels and therefore influence your circadian rhythms.
This just makes it harder to fall asleep, as you have literally “tricked” the brain into believing that it’s still daytime.
However, you should also be aware that stimulating the brain prior to bedtime will simply get your mind racing, whether you want it to or not.
So, my advice, ditch the blue light at least an hour before bed, and find something soothing and relaxing to do, something that almost tells your brain that bedtime is approaching.