For the majority of human history, the sun has been the only source of blue light. At night, while we may have enjoyed the voluminous glow of a fire, we sat in relative darkness. This meant that melatonin, better known as the sleep hormone, naturally began to release after sunset until it was time to go to bed. But with the advent of artificial blue light, sourced from our phones, tablets, televisions, and any other devices we use regularly, blue light can be an all day and all night affair, and according to experts, it's not good for us.
What is Blue Light?
Blue light, according to Max Lugavere, author of Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life, is a form of short wavelength light that until recently was only emitted by the sun.
“It helps to regulate our circadian rhythms and dysfunction (or being exposed to blue light when we’re not supposed to be), can cause bodily disease like weight gain in studies with animal models,” Lugavere says.
Blue wavelengths keep us awake and boost our attention during the daylight hours. The daylight keeps our internal circadian rhythm, according to Harvard Health, aligned with the environment.
How Does Blue Light Impact Our Sleep?
"A lack of melatonin can disrupt your circadian rhythms and sleep."
According to Dr. Robert Zembroski, director of the Darien Center for Functional Medicine and author of Rebuild, as mentioned above, exposure to light at night suppresses the release of the sleep hormone melatonin, a hormone which regulates sleep and wakefulness and is also a powerful antioxidant. “Research shows it [melatonin] helps modulate the immune system by acting as a natural anti-inflammatory. A lack of melatonin can disrupt your circadian rhythms and sleep. It’s also associated with the development of many chronic health issues.”
Does Blue Light Have a Negative Impact on Our Health?
It can. Research has shown that people who work the night shift and are exposed to artificial light all night are more likely to suffer from chronic health diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. But it hasn’t been shown that it’s directly caused by blue light. However, according to Lugavere, impaired sleep quality caused by exposure to blue light, can cause the production of excess reactive oxygen species (also known as free radicals), the unstable molecule which when produced in excess, can cause disease and aging.
How to Protect Yourself From Blue Light
While just about any light can suppress production of melatonin, says Dr. Zembroski, “blue light, which is emitted by electronics like televisions and smartphones, does so more powerfully.”
After dinner time at night, start to taper off your light. Use dimmers in your room and try as best you can to limit your screen time. While it’s tempting, checking your email one last time before bed really isn’t good for inducing sleep. Save it for the morning when you’re trying to wake yourself up. These steps can also help:
- As mentioned above, avoid looking at any bright screens—TV, phone, computer— a couple hours before bed.
- If you need some light at night, consider using dimmed red lights, as red light has the least power to suppress melatonin.
- Consider getting some kind of glasses or eyewear that blocks out blue light. Lugavere recommends Swannies and uses them without fail if he’s really busy and has to work into the night.
- If you read yourself to sleep at night, do it with a traditional paper book instead of on a tablet. According to Lugavere, those who read on a tablet before bed released half as much melatonin compared to those that read a traditional book. While reading is great before bed, not so much if it's combined with blue light.
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