It may sound counter intuitive that getting more sunlight during the day can help you sleep better at night, but science has proven it.
Your body’s sleep cycle is not just some airy-fairy thing. This is a real, built-in, 24-hour clock that’s not that much different from the clock on your cell phone or wristwatch. Your sleep cycle is regulated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus, a small group of nerve cells found in the hypothalamus in your brain. The hypothalamus is considered to be the master gland of your body’s hormonal system. It controls your body’s hunger, thirst, fatigue, body temperature, and sleep cycles by acting as a master clock.
Now, how does morning light improve sleep? Light actually signals your hypothalamus and all corresponding organs and glands to be alert and “wake up.” That light exposure, specifically sunlight exposure, triggers your body to produce optimal levels of daytime hormones and regulates your biological clock. Too little light exposure during the day, and too much light exposure in the evening will negatively impact your ability to sleep well at night. One of the most vital hormones affected by light exposure is the powerful antioxidant hormone melatonin.
Melatonin sends signals to create the best environment in your body for sleep. It’s secreted naturally as it gets darker outside, but we can really screw it up if we don’t get the right light exposure at the right time. Melatonin is not the “sleep hormone,” but it can definitely be considered the “get good sleep hormone.”
Some researchers believe that melatonin is related to aging. For instance, young children have the highest levels of nighttime melatonin production, but it gradually declines as we age. Melatonin is associated with being young and vital, but it diminishes as the years pass by. Is this simply how it has to be, or is it something we cause by not honoring our sleep cycles?
Remember, the production and secretion of melatonin is heavily affected by light exposure. Sunlight provides the natural spectrum of light that we need to help coordinate the cycle of melatonin production. Simply put, when you get more sunlight exposure during the day, and less light exposure at night, you’re on your way to a magic sleep formula that really works.
Now how do we apply this when millions of us are busy in our offices all day long? And, how much does it matter anyway?
A recent study focused on sleep quality of day shift workers revealed some shocking results. When compared to office workers who have direct access to windows at work, those office workers who didn’t have access to windows got 173 percent less exposure to natural white light and as a result slept an average of 46 minutes less each night. This sleep deficit resulted in more reported physical ailments, lower vitality, and poorer sleep quality.
The office workers with more light exposure tended to be more physically active, happier, and had an overall higher quality of life. With your new found understanding of sunlight’s affect on sleep and hormone function, the data from these types of studies become obvious.
Sunlight Power Tip #1
When it comes to sleep benefits, all sunlight is not created equal. The body clock is most responsive to sunlight in the early morning between 6 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Exposure to sunlight later does not provide the same benefit. Make it a habit to get some sun exposure in that prime time light period. Direct sunlight outdoors for at least one half hour has been shown to produce the most benefit.
Sunlight Power Tip # 2
If you are in cubical dungeon away from natural light at work, use your break time to strategically go and get some sun on your skin. Even on an overcast day, the sun’s rays will make their way through and positively influence your hormone function. You can take your 10 or 15 minute breaks outdoors or near a window, or if you are really playing at a high level, you can make a habit of eating your lunch outside.
Sunlight Power Tip # 3
In emergency situations, where you are chained like a prisoner in the cubical dungeon, there are specially designed light boxes and visors that simulate sunlight. These are often prescribed to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that tends to take place during the darker winter months. But, truly you are more powerful
than you know to affect change in your life and get yourself the natural sunlight you require. This is only an option because I felt an obligation to tell you about it. Although this can be helpful, even the best light box won’t give you as much phototherapy benefit as 30 minutes outside on even an overcast day.