Introduction – Your Circadian Rhythm:
My previous post explained what sleep scientists have measured during sleep using EEG, and scientists’
current state of interpretations. Included in that post was my definition of objective sleep quality: going through the proper sequence of sleep cycles during the night with sufficient amounts of both stage 3 sleep (slow-wave sleep) and REM sleep. This post will focus on what drives you to be awake during the day, and makes you sleep at night: your circadian rhythm. The term circadian rhythm comes from the latin words “circa” which means “around”, and “dia”, which means day. So, a circadian rhythm is any biological process that cycles around the Earth day, which is 24 hours.
Sleeping definitely fits the bill. Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, your activity patterns, sleeping included, are connected to the astronomical motions of Earth. Modern technology, however, can interfere with this process, as discussed below. Imagine a world without technology: nights would be very dark, and days would be very bright. This dark/light cycle is the primary driver of your circadian rhythm (which includes sleep), the maintenance of which is a critical component of your overall health and longevity.
To begin, let’s take a look at the circadian rhythm with this diagram I snagged from Wikipedia:
As you can see from the above diagram, in a mostly-natural setting, humans (and most animals) have a daily rhythm (i.e. the circadian rhythm). I can definitely relate to this diagram, which is backed up by research. As an early riser, I find my greatest mental work occurs in the morning, and by the afternoon I can get somewhat foggy-headed, and begin to crave more physical activity. I have, however, trained early in the mornings but I find it takes time (a couple weeks or so) to adapt to intense early-morning training, whereas afternoon training always seems natural.
This rhythm is driven by various environmental stimuli, but by far the largest impact, as mentioned above, comes from the natural daily light-dark cycle. During the day, when the sun is out and it is bright, light entering the eye and projecting to the retina (basically a movie screen at the back of the eye for the brain) causes light-sensitive receptors containing melanopsin to communicate directly with the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the brain. The SCN is the major regulator of the circadian rhythm, and it is light exposure – or the lack thereof – that lets your brain know whether it is day or night. The process is illustrated below:
The SCN then communicates with the pineal gland, which either releases melatonin (in darkness), or shuts off melatonin production (in brightness). Melatonin is the hormone that makes you sleepy, and has a huge effect on sleep quality. Without it, quality sleep just won’t happen correctly. In the pineal gland, melatonin is produced from serotonin. These two hormones are inexorably linked, with serotonin (amongst other hormones) producing feelings of being awake and alert, and melatonin getting you ready to sleep deeply.
Serotonin and Melatonin:
The process of creating melatonin in the pineal gland during darkness actually starts with an essential amino acid (a building block of protein) called L-tryptophan. L-tryptophan can do a lot of things, but one is that it can be converted in a two-step process to the neurotransmitter serotonin. L-tryptophan is thus a precursor to this whole process. As it is a building block of protein, it can be found in a variety of foods. The highest concentration of L-tryptophan is found in egg whites, but it is present in all animal foods, most nuts & seeds, and even fruits like bananas (granted, a very small amount in bananas). Sufficient tryptophan in the diet is critical to ensuring that the body has the building blocks to create serotonin which then turns into melatonin and allows for the high-quality shut-eye we all need.
Once there is sufficient L-tryptophan in the diet, how is serotonin created then? Well, most of it is made in your gut, surprisingly. In the brain, which is what we’re concerned with when it comes to sleep, serotonin production is directly related to how much bright sunlight you are exposed to. The brighter the sunshine, and the longer an individual is exposed to it, the more serotonin the brain will produce. Serotonin is thought to produce feelings of well-being and happiness, which might explain the prevalence of depression during the darker winter months. So, during the (hopefully) bright sunny day, your brain produces and stores up serotonin from L-tryptophan. Then, when the sun gets lower in the sky, the SCN senses this dimmer light and the pineal gland starts the synthesis of melatonin from serotonin. Shortly after melatonin is secreted into the bloodstream and you start to feel sleepy. The process is illustrated in the infographic below:
Melatonin is a powerful hormone. The varying concentration of melatonin in the blood throughout the day carries out many important biological functions to the circadian rhythm, and also acts as the body’s most powerful broad-spectrum antioxidant. Quite literally, the release of melatonin at night is imperative to mop up the junky chemical remains of biological functions that occur during the daytime (this is the antioxidant function). This is so important, in fact, that a lack of melatonin due to circadian rhythm disturbance leads to an increased risk of all cancers. Moreover, timing of sufficient melatonin concentrations has a large impact on sleep quality. This means that even if you do manage to fall asleep with low melatonin concentrations in your blood, you will experience less of the critical stage 3 and REM sleep stages that are the most physically and mentally restorative processes.
It is clear that maximizing the natural production of serotonin in the brain during the day, followed by maximizing the production and release of melatonin at night is extremely important to produce the most restful, restorative, and disease-fighting sleep. Indeed, what we truly need are bright days and dark nights to optimize this system. It is the contrast in brightness between day and night that drives our body clock. In a completely natural setting, such as the environment that humans evolved in, a high day/night contrast is the default. With modern artificial lighting and all the electronic gizmos we shine directly into our eyes, the game has changed, and melatonin suppression is becoming a serious problem.
The Impact of Artificial Light on Your Circadian Rhythm:
Before launching into the effect of different artificial light sources, a little background physics is needed. Along with the brightness of the light, the colour of the light has an effect on how much it impacts our circadian rhythms. I fully explain (in a friendly way) the physics of light in this article, and the electromagnetic spectrum here, so for this post I will just say that red light is on one end of the colour spectrum, and blue light (also violet) is at the other. Blue light has by far the most powerful impact on our circadian rhythms, and red light has a relatively small effect. The colours in between are, well, in between. A view of the light colour spectrum is below:
Very generally speaking, regardless of colour, artificial lighting is much dimmer than the brightness of a sunny day, so one result is that much less serotonin is produced if you’re in a mostly-indoor environment as compared to the outdoors. According to this handy chart, an office environment is about 500 lux (lux is just a unit of brightness), whereas a sunny summer day is 50,000+ lux. This means that going outside when it’s sunny is literally over 100 times brighter than staying inside. Even a cloudy day is over 10 times brighter than a cubicle. To produce sufficient serotonin, an outdoor-level brightness that is rich enough in blue light is required, and the longer the better (to a point, obviously). This can be done artificially, such as with light boxes, which are lights specifically designed to put out the full range of colours evenly at 10,000+ lux to replicate daylight. However, it’s much easier and more effective to just go outside mid-day if you have the option. That being said, artificial light boxes are successful in treating the winter blues if used properly. I personally shoot for at least 30 minutes outdoors during daylight hours every day, regardless of the weather. If I can’t for some reason, I use my light box.
Now, depending on the time of day, artificial lighting can actually be too bright, especially if the source is rich in blue light. At night, or even late in the evening, artificial light (especially blue light) suppresses the release of melatonin from your pineal gland, which delays your circadian rhythm and keeps you awake later and decreases the quality of the sleep you get. What’s worse is that backlit screens, such as on your smart phone, computer screen, and television screen, are fairly bright and very rich in melatonin-suppressing blue light, especially the new LED backlit screens. Not only that, but the whole point of these devices is to get you to stare directly into them. This means that staring at your smart phone/computer screen/television late into the evening will suppress melatonin and rob you of valuable sleep (quantity and quality).
Due to the melatonin suppressing effects, artificial light, though beneficial in many ways, can be carcinogenic if the timing is wrong (light at night). Although it may seem strange to consider light a carcinogen, the evidence was strong enough that in 2007 a working group funded by the World Health Organization concluded that “shift-work that involves circadian disruption is probably carcinogenic to humans”. This means that, ironically, the doctors and nurses who engage in night shift-work are at a higher risk of cancer due to a lack of melatonin production. This obviously extends to other night-shift professions, but the irony is strongest when it comes to medical professionals being at an elevated cancer risk. I will provide tips on how to mitigate this issue in the section below.
So, how much light at night is bad? Well, that all depends on three factors:
- The intensity (brightness) of the light source: Brighter lights suppress melatonin more than dimmer lights. According to one study, exposure to room lighting of just under 200 lux (typical) for a few hours before going to sleep was enough to significantly suppress melatonin production. Moreover, another study on rats showed that sleeping in a room at only 1 lux (still ~1000x higher than starlight) was enough to disrupt circadian rhythms. (Granted, the study was on rats, but rats are mammals like humans, so the results can be cautiously extrapolated to humans as well.).
- The duration of light exposure: The longer you are exposed to the light source, the more melatonin production will be suppressed, but the first few minutes of light exposure has a much greater impact than subsequent minutes, ie: your first 10 minutes of light exposure has more of an effect than the second ten minutes of exposure. Also, ten separate 50 second bursts of light (not unlike late-night texting) is enough to increase alertness and cognition.
- The colour spectrum of the light source: Light sources richer in blue suppress melatonin much more than light sources poor in blue. So, backlit LED screens (smart phones, televisions, computer screens) are much more effective at keeping you up at night by suppressing melatonin as compared to candles or campfires.
How to Optimize Your Circadian Rhythm and Sleep Better:
With all we’ve learned about the circadian rhythm and the effect of light, let’s optimize. The below tips assume that you have a typical day, ie: you wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night. I will then give suggestions for dealing with the modern, chronically-lit world in addition to some tips for night shift workers.
How to Optimize in an Ideal Situation:
- Get enough L-tryptophan in your diet: Any good source of protein will provide this. Meat, fish, eggs, and even nuts and seeds will do the trick.
- During the day-time, go outside without sunglasses and let the sun shine into your eyes: This will ensure that you produce enough serotonin to tell your body that it’s day time. I shoot for at least 30 minutes a day outside. Sunglasses block it out, so try for at least part of your time outside to be bare-eyed. Bonus points if you get at least some of this bright sunshine early in the morning.
- Before you intend to sleep, start avoiding bright light: Ideally, the only source of light at this point would be firelight (candles or something).
- Sleep in a pitch black room: Anything beyond moonlight will suppress melatonin to a degree, so make your bedroom as dark as possible. If you live in the countryside with no artificial lights outside your window, this is no problem. If you live in a modern city, see below.
- If you wake up in the night, minimize light exposure: Exposure to light in the middle of the night will signal to the SCN that it is day too early, so it will be tough to get back to sleep, and it will compromise sleep quality. If you have to go to the bathroom, use a minimal amount of light so that it’s not dangerous, ideally a dim reddish light (small incandescent light bulb). Better yet, minimize fluid intake before bed to prevent this from happening, or have a well known clear path to your bathroom so light is not necessary (be careful though!).
How to Optimize When You Live in the Modern World:
On top of the above:
- Install f.lux on your computers, smart phones, and tablets: There is a glorious free program called f.lux (for Mac, Windows, Linux, and iPhone/iPad) that upon telling it where in the world you live, when the sun is down it will shift the output colour spectrum of the screen to a much redder-spectrum as opposed to the normal blue. It’s set-it-and-forget-it. When the sun goes down, the screen shifts to red. When the sun comes back up, the screen shifts back to normal. You get used to it in no time, and actually start to love it. For Android users, choose the program Twilight.
- If you can’t go outside during the day-time, use a light box: Good light boxes are effective at producing serotonin. It may weird you out to turn on an intense light every day “for your health”, but I have been using one on-and-off for years and I really appreciate it during the dark winter months, or when my schedule doesn’t allow for enough time outside. Here’s one on Amazon.com that is really popular. Here is a similar one for Canadians on Amazon.ca.
- If you must be exposed to blue light at night, try blue light blocking glasses: Ok, this is where people start to think I’m a little silly, but these things do work. I use these when I’m reading at night, or if I’m in a situation that involves a lot of blue light exposure at night (seeing a movie, usually). Here’s the most popular model on Amazon.com, and here’s the same on Amazon.ca.
- Use black-out blinds or drapes in your bedroom: Keep that streetlight OUT of your bedroom. It is suppressing melatonin, and lowering the quality of your sleep. Here are some great blackout curtains on Amazon.com, and here are the same on Amazon.ca. My rule of thumb: if you can see your hand in front of your face, your room is not dark enough!
- If you don’t want/can’t have blackout curtains, use a good sleep mask: These are great for when you’re traveling or sleeping somewhere different than usual. No need to freak out over some light-leaks if you have one of these beauties! Here’s a great one on Amazon.com, and here’s the Canadian counterpart at Amazon.ca.
Tips for Night-Shift Workers:
The first thing to recognize if you’re a night-shift worker is that this is not an ideal situation. A lot of important work is done at night in the modern world, so it is necessary, but credence should be paid to mitigating the dangers associated with melatonin suppression. Here are my tips:
- When working at night, use a light box: Ironically, this is the one situation where I would suggest bright-light (including blue light) exposure at night. In this non-ideal situation, you want your brain to think that it’s day-time, so soak up some intense light.
- Two hours before you’re done, start wearing blue-light blocking glasses: This way, your brain will think the “sun” is going down.
- When you do sleep, make sure your bedroom is pitch-black, or wear a sleep mask: You’re trying to convince your brain that it’s now night-time, so your sleeping environment must match that of a normal night.
There is also the option of supplemental melatonin for night-shift workers, or workers on a rotating schedules (nights AND days…). I hesitate to recommend these supplements as they are somewhat controversial, and I would rather people just learn to produce it as naturally as possible. Please, by all means, do some research on melatonin supplements and see if they are right for you.
There is no doubt that human beings are animals like any other (just with highly evolved cortices in the brain), so we are designed to thrive on the rhythm of night and day. Using modern technology, we can also high-jack this system and cause real harm to our bodies and minds. With some proper mitigation strategies, we can exist in the modern world, enjoy our high quality of life and modern technology, and still get the quality sleep we need every night.
I would also suggest to most healthy people to not sweat it if you don’t sleep perfectly for a night or two. As I’ve talked about before on the the Context of Vices, humans are designed to be able to be stressed in various ways, but then we need to recover. High-quality sleep is necessary for recovery, so knowing how to manufacture a good night’s sleep is a great tool to have in your arsenal.
Personally, I aim to follow the above guidelines six nights a week (at LEAST five), so I don’t stress it when there’s one night in a week where I’m up late in light, especially if it’s time spent with friends. As long as I get my recovery nights, it all comes out in the wash. There is more to producing a quality night’s rest, but you’ll have to read the next post in this series to find out. Teaser: it has to do with stress management.
Thank you for reading! I hope you learned something, and that the information presented can be of use to you.