What do you get when you mix late nights and artificial blue lights? A stuffed up sleep pattern, less deep sleep and potential waking in the night with an inability to get back to sleep, if we do it long enough. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself? Just 12 short years ago before smartphones exponentially increased our blue light exposure at close range, followed by the trend towards LEDs everywhere in our homes, we used to take a good book to bed or at least watch a little TV with a bit of distance between us and the screens (still not ideal, but the research shows not as bad as close range blue light)
I wanted to take us on a reminder/re-cap or if you’re new here, introduction to why we ought to pay attention to how much blue light exposure we’re receiving, why that isn’t working for us and our low tox health goals and how we can practically reduce it to the bare minimum when it counts the most, without feeling like we need to go build a yurt in the middle of nowhere to thrive in life (although sometimes, I’m tempted! You?) So here we go, off to blue light school!
What is blue light?
Blue light is everywhere and comes in both natural and artificial forms. In its natural form, light from the sun travels through the atmosphere. The shorter, high energy blue wavelengths collide with the air molecules causing blue light to scatter. This is what makes the sky look gloriously blue. But that’s not the blue light we’re concerned with. It’s the artificial blue light that’s not doing us any favours.
Artificial blue light comes from light-emitting diodes (LEDs), often used in energy-efficient light bulbs, as well as the lighting in our electronics, laptops, phones, TVs, tablets – you name something powered by electricity and it likely has a blue light.
The fundamental concerns with blue light
While this post will go into some super-useful info, you might be wondering, ‘what’s so bad about blue light?’. So let me address this first…. until the advent of artificial blue lighting, the sun was the major source of lighting for humans, and they’d typically spend their nights in darkness (aside from the odd campfire).
Now, think about your location, if you’re in a major city, you’re guaranteed that light is flooding the sky, perhaps less so if you’re living deep in the country where you do get to enjoy the beauty of a clear sky. But either way, let’s head into your homes in the evenings… no doubt you’ve got a couple of lights on while you’re cooking dinner, perhaps you’ve got the TV on, or maybe you’re working through some emails on a computer or laptop. You could even be ‘triple screening’ with your laptop, TV and phone on the go at once. Yikes! I’ve been there! Blue light exposure isn’t just a problem for adults. Kids tend to be big-time screen users. Research shows that children’s exposure to blue light at night causes their bodies to produce less melatonin and to feel less sleepy at bedtime.
Point is, for the average person in the Western world (big or little), our evenings are illuminated, and we take our easy access to light for granted. This development of light saturation has occurred at a rate that the human body has simply not had time to adapt to. Given blue light is absorbed through the skin as well as the retinas, this is where things start to get tricky for us.
Blue light and your sleep cycle
A circadian rhythm is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. We all have slightly different circadian rhythms and can function with different amounts of sleep, but what we do know, is that light exposure throws the body’s biological clock—the circadian rhythm—out of whack, and can have huge implications for immune health (more on this to come). A quick side note, if you’re really struggling with your sleep, I recommend Alex Fergus’s Sound Asleep Course to help you on your way.
The science of blue light exposure
- Research has demonstrated that nighttime light exposure suppresses the production of melatonin, the major hormone secreted by the pineal gland that controls sleep and wake cycles.
- While all light exposure has implications for sleep disruption, a Harvard study compared 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.
- A systematic review that evaluated the use of blue-blocking glasses in the evening found that there was substantial evidence for blue-blocking glasses being successful for reducing sleep onset latency in patients with sleep disorders, jet lag, or shift work schedules.
Blue light exposure and health implications
So we now know that a reduction in melatonin at night is associated with subjective levels of fatigue and tiredness due to a disrupted circadian rhythm, but melatonin suppression has far worse consequences than just a restless sleep.
Melatonin suppression has been shown to increase the risk of cancer. A study found a direct link between blue light exposure and an increased risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer. People exposed to high levels of outdoor blue light, like street lights, at night had a higher risk of developing breast cancer and prostate cancer, compared with those who were less exposed.
Melatonin suppression has also been associated with impaired immune system function, and can possibly lead to cardiometabolic consequences such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and heart disease.
Are your environmental concerns at odds with blue light exposure… ?
While blue light does have adverse health effects, environmental concerns, and the quest for energy-efficient lighting, is still an important consideration. We’ve often been told that LED lighting is the best option for the environment, and while those compact fluorescent lightbulbs are indeed much more energy-efficient than the old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs they tend to produce way more blue light.
The good news? The physics of LED lights can’t be changed, but the colour coatings inside the bulbs can be so that they produce a warmer amber light.
These Brilliant Halo bulbs are a good option available from Bunnings $17.
Or for more night-time friendly bedside bulbs and if you love that Amber glow, these are the ones we have at home in our bedside lights and living room, go for these ones $29.95.
Blue light versus orange/amber light
Blue light (the type commonly found in electronics) has a short wavelength, so it produces more energy than lights with longer wavelengths, like red light, do. Blue light is not all bad, exposure in the mornings can help with waking the body up, especially if you’re struggling with an out-of-whack circadian rhythm or cortisol imbalances. It’s even been shown improve your mood when used correctly. Blue-light emitting goggles and panels are also used to treat a number of issues such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), jetlag and jaundice in newborn babies.
Amber light is best employed once the sun has gone down. Installing amber light across your devices and your lenses are highly effective in reducing the effects of blue light exposure, and in most cases completely eliminate the short-wavelength radiation necessary for nocturnal melatonin suppression. More on how to do this below.
10 ways to protect yourself from blue-light exposure and melatonin suppression
- Set up your ‘night mode’ on your smartphone, this will automatically turn the screen a yellow tinge as the sun goes down and will brighten it up during the daytime. Also, a great option if you’re a shift worker and trying to mediate that blue light exposure.
- Use F.LUX on your computer or similar software to automatically dim the light and make it yellow after sunset. You’ll notice it gets darker and darker, encouraging you to hurry up and get off your screens before bed!
- If you can, avoid looking at bright screens two to three hours before bed altogether.
- Expose yourself to lots of bright light during the day, which will boost your ability to sleep at night, and improve melatonin production, well as support your mood.
- Install block-out blinds, especially if you have a little crack of bright light creeping through the curtains each night and keeping you semi-conscious. If you need a quick fix, try some velcro strips around the seams of the current curtains to keep light out.
- Unplug unnecessary electrical devices in your bedroom. All of them! When in hotels, do the same thing to help your body wind down.
- Invest in a luxe sleep mask like this one from BlockBlueLight.com that completely blocks all blue light so your melatonin behaves as it should through the night. You could also go for the one I use, which is the Manta sleep mask from Nourished Life. I got mine on the company’s Kickstarter about 3 years ago now and was excited to see Irene had managed to get them for Australian distribution. It’s SO comfy but I’ve also heard peeps recommend these from the community too so you’re on a win-win with either.
- 8. Chuck out (responsibly!) those compact fluorescent lights (the curly bulbs) and switch to mercury-free amber or red LED bulbs around the house. Your council will have special waste collection days for things such as these lights which contain mercury – if in doubt give them a buzz to ask them how best to dispose of them as mercury exposure is dangerous, as discussed with Dr Leila Masson on the podcast when we did a show on heavy metal toxicity.
- 9. Increase your exposure to high-quality light sources like infrared saunas and lumi lamps (alarm clocks that light up in accordance with the time of day)
- 10. Invest in blue-blocking glasses. These are by far the single best change you can make. While they’re not always the most stylish option there are some great brands out there now! If you already wearing glasses you can ask your optometrist to add a blue-light coating to your next pair for around $50. Blue-blocking glasses have a colour coated lens to block the blue rays coming from your screens. Pop them on as the day is winding down and you’ll be avoiding all of that disruptive blue light. These grey-blue blockers are great for daytime wear and block out 50% off unnecessary blue light, while still allowing day time light to filter through and maintain a healthy circadian rhythm $89.95. They’re the pair I have and I love the frames and comfort of wearing them long term.
If night time is where your blue light exposure is at it’s highest, invest in these amber style blue blockers to ensure you block out 100% of blue and green light prior to bed $114.95.
These daytime screen ones and night-time amber ones for kids are also a fantastic purchase at $69.95 and $79.95 respectively.
Has this been helpful? Did you realise just how much that late-night internet browsing could be impacting you? Share your ‘aha’ moments or blue-blocking tips in the comments below or of course any further questions you have. We absolutely LOVE our amber block blue light evening lights in our living space and as our bedside table lighting. It’s more than enough for reading a book or having dinner, and we find it so much more relaxing than dark lights at night, too.
Something I’ve noticed big time since our move where we see the sunrise from our bedroom every morning is that I have – in the space of 2 weeks since the move at the time of writing this piece – become a morning person and naturally get tired around 10, which NEVER USED TO HAPPEN. It’s been amazing to observe and experience and I can’t wait to see what this does for my recovery as a hormone-challenged (especially melatonin/leptin/cortisol) person recovering from CIRS.
Looking forward to seeing how you’re navigating this and enough the products from BlockBluelight (they ship internationally BTW) as I’ve done for years.
Low Tox. Healthy People. Happy Planet.