One of my main recommendations for folks who are having trouble sleeping is a simple one: Turn out the lights. I’ve heard folks say they “can’t” fall asleep without surfing the web right before bedtime, or having the TV on in the bedroom. But late night exposure to light suppresses the body’s natural production of melatonin, our main sleep hormone.
Melatonin is produced by a tiny gland at the base of the brain called the pineal gland. The pineal gland releases melatonin in response to darkness, and this signals the brain to go into sleep mode.
Recent findings have shed more light (so to speak) on the importance of darkness and melatonin. Melatonin has antioxidant effects in the body that protect against cancer. Nurses who work the night shift (and therefore get round-the-clock light exposure) produce less melatonin, and are at significantly higher risk for breast cancer (1, 2).
A new study found that even low light levels in the sleeping room at night can produce symptoms of depression (3). Granted, this study was done using hamsters, but the biological effects were clear: depressive symptoms after four weeks of dim light at night.
Depression? Insomnia? Cancer risk? Turn out the lights: shut off all screens (TV, computer, iPad, smartphone, etc.) 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Get rid of the night lights and television in the bedroom. You might even want to move that bright LED alarm clock away from your head. Allow a few weeks for your body to readjust to what is becoming a scarce, but highly valuable, commodity: darkness.
- Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2012 Apr;21(4):609-18. Epub 2012 Feb 7.
- Cancer Causes Control. 2006 May;17(4):539-45.
- T A Bedrosian, Z M Weil and R J Nelson. Chronic dim light at night provokes reversible depression-like phenotype: possible role for TNF.
Molecular Psychiatry , (24 July 2012).