Would it improve our sleep or have other benefits? And how easy would this be to achieve in a modern city? One recent winter, I decided to find out.
30 Days of Night: Light of Day
Working with sleep researchers Derk-Jan Dijk and Nayantara Santhi at the University of Surrey, I designed a programme to go cold-turkey on artificial light after dark, and to try to maximise exposure to natural light during the day — all while juggling an office job and busy family life in urban Bristol. I now make simple, daily choices that can transform how I sleep, how I feel and perhaps even my cognitive abilities. Could you be doing the same? View image of Most of us are completely dependent on artificial light.
For millennia, humans lived in synchrony with the natural cycle of light and dark. Studies of pre-industrial societies, such as tribes living in Tanzania or Bolivia today, suggest that people stay up for several hours after dark, often socialising by firelight. In fact, the amount of sleep they get is quite like people in industrialised countries, but the timing is more in line with the natural cycle of day and night: they tend to go to bed earlier and get up just before dawn. Exposure to artificial light at night is shifting our body clocks later.
But we still need to go to work in the morning, so we set an alarm clock — even though the biological clock says we should still be asleep. Pre-industrial societies such as the Hadza tribe in Tanzania also seem to have a far lower prevalence of sleep problems, like insomnia.
Light has a powerful non-visual effect on our body and mind, something to remember when we stay indoors all day and have lights on late into the night — Nayantara Santhi. Why is this? Light enables us to see, but it affects many other body systems as well. Light in the morning advances our internal clock, making us more lark-like, while light at night delays the clock, making us more owlish. However, light also boosts alertness in its own right.
Light also stimulates brain regions that regulate mood. Despite this logic, persuading my family to let me switch to this way of living took some effort.
When I suggested to my husband that living by candlelight might be romantic, he rolled his eyes. But convincing him was a doddle compared to my six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son. View image of Using candles rather than bright lights at night may help you sleep better. The protocol looked like this: during the first week, I would try to maximise my exposure to daylight by moving my desk next to the window, lingering in the park on the way back from school drop-off each morning, getting outside at lunchtime and trying to exercise outdoors.
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The second experimental week would be spent minimising my exposure to artificial light after , relying on candle-light or dim red lighting instead. Then I would combine the two.
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In between each of these intervention weeks, I would lead a normal life. These weeks would function as a baseline. On the last evening of each week, I would spend the evening in darkness, taking hourly samples of my melatonin, our 'hormone of darkness'. I'd also complete sleep diaries and questionnaires to assess my sleepiness and mood and undertake a battery of cognitive tests to assess my short-term memory, attention and reaction speeds.
On the last evening of each week, I would spend the evening in darkness, taking hourly samples of my melatonin, which is released in response to a signal from the biological clock and therefore provides a marker of our internal time. The idea was to see if these changes to my light exposure altered the timing of my biological clock.
We were curious to see if any of the benefits predicted by larger, well-controlled laboratory studies would translate into real life. And so, on a bright and sunny December morning, I found myself in the local park, inconspicuously trying to work out on the monkey-bars and swings instead of going to a body pump session in the gym.
Because it was winter and most people were inside keeping warm, the park was largely deserted. Motivation had been a struggle for me also. And I soon realised that its rarely as bad outside as it may look.
Indeed, the more I did it, the more I came to regard getting outdoors in winter as a treat, rather than a chore. On another morning, I sat in the park with a cup of tea on my way back from dropping the kids at school and got out my light meter. The illuminance of light is measured in lux. On a cloudless day in summer, the light outdoors can reach as high as , lux; on an overcast day, it can be as low as 1, lux.
Today, the reading was 73, lux. View image of On a cloudless summer day, outdoor light can reach , lux. Horrified, I returned to my temporary desk by the window, where it was colder, but a sunnier lux. Despite my best efforts to get more daylight during the intervention weeks, my average light exposure between and was lux during the first week and just lux during the second. This was presumably because I still spent most of the day indoors, working at my computer, and because the Sun set at around The likely reason for this variation was the weather.
During the first week, there were 4. This was still an improvement on baseline weeks, though, when my average daytime exposure was just lux. For the first few nights of the experiment, we slept with the curtains open to maximise exposure to the dawn light. Light at this time is thought to shift the body clock earlier.
Urban dwellers are exposed to night-time light levels three to six times brighter than people in small towns and rural areas. Sports National Sports. Special Sections Back to school. Visual Stories Videos. Events Best of Alaska. Alaska Visitors Guide.
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