Contributing writer for Wake Up World
Scientists have long known that exposure to artificial light at night has far-reaching negative mental and physiological health effects. But now the dangers are accelerating at an astounding pace, largely due to the widespread use of laptops, computers, smartphones and tablets throughout the day and into the evening.
Despite that, you don’t need to become a Luddite and shun all your devices to promote health. Instead, we need to approach their use in an intelligent and informed manner. Here are a few ways we can minimize the risk, while still enjoying the technology.
Disrupted sleep isn’t only annoying, it can be life-threatening.
Everyone has had times where sleep seemed beyond reach, whether from excessive worries rattling around in our heads, young children, a big meal before bed or any other number of reasons. Having a one-off issue with sleep isn’t the end of the world. It only becomes a problem when it’s chronic — mainly because it disrupts our 24-hour circadian rhythms, which are responsible for regulating a range of important physiological functions. Disrupting these rhythms is not something you want to mess around with if you would like to be sane, creative and enjoy robust health. And yet, a majority of teenagers and adults are inadvertently upsetting these cycles with the use of personal devices. How?
In a nutshell, our circadian rhythms are tied to the rising and setting of the sun. When the sun goes down, this signals to our body that it’s time to prepare for restful and rejuvenating sleep. The same for when the sun rises — although this time, were being signaled to launch into wakefulness and the activities of the day. With the advent of electricity and interior lighting, we disrupted this important cycle by signaling to the brain that it was still daylight, when in fact, it was not. We stayed up later, instead of getting much needed sleep. Then fluorescent bulbs, LED’s, personal devices and other blue light emitting electronics entered the scene, causing further problems. In turn, our short term memory, creativity, learning performance and health took a sharp nosedive.
On top of that, we started to pack on the pounds and began to see an increase of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, kidney disease, depression, anxiety, headaches, behavioral problems in children — the list could continue forever.
Sorry to say, but the situation has grown much worse over the last few decades as our exposure to artificial light has increased exponentially, mainly from our devices that emit blue light. The problem with blue light is that we just get so darn much of it throughout the day — by being indoors and under artificial light, all the while glued to computers and smartphones. Then we return to our artificially lit homes, sit in front of a glowing television or read a book/surf the web on our tablet. Before we finally flop down into bed for a fitful night of sleep, we have to check email on our smartphone. One. Last. Time. Exposing ourselves to yet another blast of blue light. And don’t even get me started on the glaring street lamp right outside the window. You get the picture.
Harvard Health explains why blue light is particularly harmful in the evening:
“While light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light at night does so more powerfully. Harvard researchers and their colleagues conducted an experiment comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light to exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours).”
What we really need during the day is full-spectrum light — like what we get from the sun, whereas nighttime requires more subdued, reddish lighting, such as what a pink salt lamp emits. But because we are leaning so heavily on the blue side of the light spectrum 24/7, we actually need to compensate more with the red spectrum — think sunrises, sunsets, open fires, candlelight.
What to do? We can’t all sit in front of a bonfire every night and have our homes lit exclusively with candles — or spend our days outside under the sun — as wonderful as that would be. Giving up our devices isn’t an option either. Fear not. There are painless methods for balancing the situation without having to sacrifice our technological best friends.
Simple Hacks for Outsmarting Blue Light Exposure
One of the easiest — and least expensive — ways for reducing your blue light time is to download an app like F.lux or Iris to shift the color spectrum of your computer/laptop screen. It’s a brilliantly straightforward method that automatically senses when the sun is setting or rising in your location and then adjusts the screen to a warmer tone in the evening — and a brighter, bluer tone at dawn. I personally use Iris because it gives me more control and options with brightness and tone spectrum. I also adjust it to maintain a warmer tone during the day. Experts in the field recommend around a 2000K red spectrum during the day, 1600K or lower for nighttime.
When I’m doing graphics, watching a film or other work where I need accurate color, it’s easy to pause Iris with the icon in the tool bar at the top of the screen. The same for F.lux.
If you own an Apple product, the iOS system has a built-in feature called Night Shift, which can be found under the Display & Brightness tab in settings. It gives you an option to automatically shift the color of the display to the warmer end of the spectrum from sunset to sunrise. You can choose which level of color suits you best.
More hardcore warm light enthusiasts will don special glasses (such as these) after sunset to block out all blue light, including that from compact fluorescent lights and LED bulbs. Some will even go so far as to replace all their lightbulbs at night with red ones. I have to admit, though, this seems akin to creating the same red-hued environment of a dominatrix den, something I would certainly like to avoid. I think I’ll stick with the blue light blocking glasses and/or pink salt lamps.
Here’s one last nugget of wisdom from sleep researchers: simply turn off your television, computer, smartphone and tablet one hour before bedtime and read an old-fashioned book by an old-school incandescent light. Imagine that.
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