Can’t fall asleep? You may need to turn the lights off earlier. Studies show exposure to light after dusk, particularly light from computer screens, iPads, iPhones, televisions, and other electronic items, significantly inhibits the production of melatonin, your body’s sleep hormone.
Insomnia is a national problem, affecting about 30 percent of Americans and fueling a $2 billion sleep medication industry. Although prescription sleep medications are common, they also come with troubling side effects and a four times higher risk of death.
While the natural sleep aid melatonin may be safer, it can disrupt your body’s delicate balance of hormones and create a dependency. Research shows it also stimulates inflammation, which could worsen autoimmune disorders, such as arthritis or Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, in some people.
The best natural sleep aid may be to change your lighting after dusk. Although going light-free in the evening is too much to ask, you can boost melatonin production by reconfiguring the kind of light to which you expose yourself.
Although any kind of light can suppress melatonin, research shows the worst offender is light with blue wavelengths. LED bulbs, though hailed for their energy efficiency, are dominant in blue light and suppress melatonin five times more than orange-yellow light bulbs. One study showed that exposure to room light (compared to dim light) before bedtime shortened melatonin duration by about 90 minutes, and that exposure to light during usual sleep hours suppressed melatonin by greater than 50 percent.
Examples of light sources high in melatonin-suppressing blue light include:
Melatonin does more than deliver a good night’s sleep. Numerous studies have linked poor melatonin activity and a disrupted sleep-wake cycle with an increased risk of cancer, an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, more autoimmune flare-ups, obesity, and other health issues.
A sleep-friendly solution is to configure your lighting so that it mimics the light of a fire, which is rich in red and yellow wavelengths. This could mean shutting off the overhead lights and using floor and table lamps with orange and yellow bulbs in the evening. Of course, it also means forgoing computer and television use, especially just before bedtime. It may sound drastic, but for the person with persistent insomnia, these changes can help.
Other ideas to simulate our pre-industrial light-dark cycles include: