Struggling with poor sleep? Wired & alert at night yet groggy and lethargic when your alarm clock screams out in the morning?
You’ve probably tried all sorts of things to fix this – supplements, sleep tracking devices, maybe even modifying your sleep environment. But have you ever considered that your daily environment could be setting the stage for how well you sleep at night?
In fact, there is a very critical time every day that can make or break whether you will sleep well later that night. That time is in the morning - the first few hours after you wake (and ideally around sun rise).
So what should you be doing every morning for optimal sleep? The short answer is simple – get some sun! The long answer is explained below.
Chances are, unless you know a thing or two about blue light, your light/dark cycles are totally messed up. In fact, your body may not even be experiencing a ‘dark’ environment anymore. What with all the artificial light from TV screens, smart phones, fridge lights… In today’s modern world we come home from work at the end of the ‘day’ and worship our second suns – screens & light bulbs. We consistently simulate second ‘day times’ long after the sun has set. Day after day.
No wonder we’re all tired, it’s never dark!
The first thing to do to improve your sleep is make your environment dark when the sun goes down, but I have covered this in my article - How Technology & Blue Light is Ruining Sleep & Making You Fat - so go and read that if you haven’t already. I’ll wait right here until you’re done.
Now that you’re blocking blue light in the evening, we need to increase our light exposure in the morning. How does this help us sleep? 3 keywords – serotonin, cortisol & melatonin.
Every morning, if your body, face and eyes are exposed to sunlight your body will increase its production of serotonin (1, 2).
Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, regulates mood, appetite, memory, sleep and is primarily manufactured in the gut (and is why you should care for your gut if you want stable moods and sleep patterns!) It’s crazy to think that people will pop all sorts of side effect laden drugs to alter their serotonin levels when they could simply pop their head outside every morning. But I digress.
So how does serotonin help us sleep? Well serotonin is a precursor to melatonin (keyword # 2). Melatonin, as you probably know, helps control your sleep and wake cycles and is a very powerful anti-oxidant.
Not only does our morning sun light exposure boost the amount of raw material needed to make melatonin, but by exposing our bodies to morning sun, our serotonin cycles stay aligned with ‘nature’, peaking midafternoon and dropping off at night – synchronous to our body temperature and our cortisol patterns (if they are working properly!).
We now know that serotonin:
No sun = inadequate serotonin = poor levels of melatonin = bad sleep
Cortisol is our 3rd keyword. Light doesn't only impact your sleep through serotonin... the hormone cortisol also plays a role. Cortisol and melatonin work in opposites – ying and yang, up & down, day and night…If we want to optimize our sleep we need to ensure our cortisol/melatonin rhythms are working properly.
Source - http://en.licht.de
Bright light in the morning (i.e. sunlight) also increases production of cortisol like it does with serotonin (3, 4).
Now before you all say ‘cortisol is bad’ remember we need cortisol, it gets us up in the morning and is a vital hormone to one’s health. If you have heard people bagging cortisol it's because chronic cortisol can be problematic... that and misaligned cortisol rhythms. If cortisol is up, melatonin is down, and vice versa.
We want cortisol up in the AM and then dropping down in the evening so we can sleep. It's not a coincidence that our (natural) light cycles mimic our (normal) cortisol levels. Remember - cortisol is going to mess with your sleep (and for the guys out there – your testosterone levels)
Cortisol patterns for 2 individuals... guess who will be sleeping better? (hint it's the indiviudal with the labs on the left!)
If you’re still not convinced on the importance of light cycles, have a look at these findings:
"Even after controlling for all non-light exposure factors including food intake, sleep, activity, the influence of morning light on weight was considerable—it accounted for roughly 20% of the subject’s BMIs, meaning those with earlier light exposure weighed less."
"...individuals who had exposure to sunlight in the early part of the day had DECREASED levels of cortisol later on in the evening"
What do these papers mean? Morning light and sunlight exposure, in general, are vital for one's health.
So if you find yourself wired and alert every night when you should be falling asleep, perhaps you need more morning sun exposure?!
Before you rush outside, it’s important to know what to expose to the sun. Though any exposure to bright light in the morning will be beneficial for sleep, it’s the light exposure to the eye that matters most.
Why the eye?
(Note, the below paragraph is paraphrased from Dr Jack Kruses Cold Thermogenesis 7 blog)
When you are sleeping, your eyes retina is turned off. The retina is extremely sensitive. Sun light to the eye sends a ‘wakeup’’ signal to the RPE (Retinal Pigment Epithelium) in the eye, which relays a message to the anterior pituitary gland. This gland releases hormones (testosterone, growth hormone etc.) in the morning. Without this signal, hormones are not released in the quantity we need for optimal health. Not only that, but this signal effects hormone release later on in the day.
Vitamin A plays an important role in this signalling process. When light hits the eye, there is a protein in the retina called melanopsin that uses vitamin A to detect the light and also signal the brain that it’s day time. When it’s night time this signal is switched off. If you are deficient in vitamin A then the melanopsin protein cannot transfer this light signal to the brain, meaning the brain may not receive accurate night/day signals (impacting your circadian rhythm and in turn sleep). The easiest way to ensure you’re not deficient in vitamin A? Eat liver once a week.
Even melatonin (which controls sleep) released at sundown is impacted by this morning eye signal. Studies show that full spectrum sunlight in the morning increases ocular melatonin levels at night. Without this ocular melatonin (made in the eye) your pineal gland cannot release melatonin after 4 hours of darkness at night.
So what should you do? First thing every morning is to go outside (not behind a window - as glass filters UV light), with no sunglasses, eyeglasses or contacts (again, they all filter out light). Look towards the sun (not at it, but off to the side) so that sunlight hits your face. The longer the better. 20minutes is great, but 2 minutes is better than nothing. Remember, wearing glasses filters the much needed full spectrum light!
So there you have it, the secret to fixing your sleep is to get some sun! Who would have thought?! And if for whatever reason you can’t get outside every morning, then all is not lost. Studies show that sunlight exposure later in the day can also help with sleep at night (6). Plus, exposure to sunlight during the day can dampen the effects of artificial light at night (though I still recommend wearing blueblocker glasses and installing f.lux on your screens).
What happens if you don’t live in a sunny part of the world? It doesn’t matter, even on a cloudy day, it is brighter outside than it is in a lit-up office building. And sunlight – even through clouds – is full spectrum light, unlike many modern lightbulbs. Alternatively, you could look at using a Light Therapy Light Box.
Before I let you run outside, you’re probably wondering what exactly ‘light exposure’ entails? Well, we covered the importance of getting sun in the eye, but you also want to maximize the coverage on your skin as well. And make sure its naked/unprotected skin (and eyes). So no sunscreen (filters light), minimal clothing (check out Tan Through clothing range if you can’t take off your clothes but still want light exposure on the skin), no contacts, no glasses etc.
At a minimum, you should be exposing your face to sunlight (or towards the direction of the sun) for a few minutes every morning and also during the day.
If you're looking for serious improvement when it comes to your sleep quality, then I highly recommend checking out my Sound Asleep program. In this program, I work you through every little step to help you optimise your sleep. You can learn more about this by clicking HERE.
Do you consistently get morning sunlight exposure? If you don't will you start now? If you notice it improves your energy, mood and sleep please leave a comment below! Or if you have any other questions please post them in the comments section
This blog post was written by Alex Fergus. Alex is an ISSN Sports Nutrition Specialist, Fitness Professional and certified Superhuman Coach who continues to expand his knowledge base and help people across the world with their health and wellness. Alex is recognized as the National Record Holder in Powerlifting and Indoor Rowing and has earned the title of the Australian National Natural Bodybuilding Champion. Having worked as a health coach and personal trainer for over a decade, Alex now researches all things health and wellness and shares his findings on this blog. Learn more about Alex's Credentials HERE.
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