People everywhere seem to be throwing a collective temper tantrum. Logic need not apply. Facts are irrelevant. Truth changes daily.
I know that I’m not the only one to have noticed this trend! People blame TV, the internet – no, wait – it must be all ‘the Facebook’s fault’. Political rhetoric is nastier than ever with all sides acting like a satire of themselves.
The craziness doesn’t stop (or start) with politics. I follow quite a few health and nutrition Twitter streams. The personalized attacks and nastiness from some health and wellness experts are out of control. I’ve unfollowed many a Twitter-er for making fun of the way a person looks: A doctor who publicly pokes fun at a person who is fat, declaring her diet policy speech an example of her personal weight failure. The people who poke fun at a thin vegan, calling him weak and questioning his manliness. These types of personal attacks are coming from people whose goal is to promote health?
The examples are endless. I’m sure you can add in a bunch of your own.
We seem to have collectively lost our minds.
The question is… why?
My answer may surprise you, and you may disagree or want to dismiss it. But please, do so politely.
Everyone who has kids knows what it is like to deal with a tired toddler. They are cranky, irrational, loud, and usually either whiny or aggressive (sometimes both!).
The solution that every parent understands: it is nap time.
We adults are all acting like tired toddlers in need of a nap. We are loud, irrational, whiny and aggressive. We have lost our ability to reason.
The solution: go to bed.
We need to shut off our electronic devices, and get off Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and Netflix at 8 pm each night. (Yep, that is a totally arbitrary time, but stick with me as I explain.) The problem with all of this social media usage at night is not that it is acting as an echo chamber, fomenting insane conspiracy theories. It is that as a population, we are all streaming blue light into our retinas each night.
Blue light at night is causing a physical change. And this change is eroding the foundation of our physical and mental well-being.
We evolved with one constant – sunlight. The sun has come up each morning and sets each night for billions of years. And almost all living creatures – from tiny cyanobacteria to plants to insect to humans – have built-in circadian rhythms for which sunlight is at the core.
We have a photoreceptive pigment called melanopsin in the retina of our eyes. This melanopsin absorbs light in the blue wavelengths (around 480 nm) and signals to our brain that it is daytime.
For the first time in the 4.5 billion year history of the earth, we have light in the blue wavelengths hitting the photoreceptors in our eyes at night. Prior to electricity, all of our light at night was from a flame (fireplaces, candles, gas lanterns). And light from a fire gives a nice warm, yellow-red glow because it lacks any light in the blue end of the spectrum.
How does this play into us all collectively going off the rails? Scientific research is exploding right now in the field of circadian rhythm biology. It turns out that messing with something so fundamental, so core to our being, is causing an increase in a lot of chronic health problems. Researchers show a causal link between circadian rhythm disruption and obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, breast cancer, colon cancer, and mood disorders.
The idea that light at night – specifically blue light at night – is causing such dire consequences seems unbelievable at first glance. But thousands of studies – good, solid scientific studies – are showing this at the molecular level, through epidemiology, and by genetics.
Our core circadian rhythm is written into our genes and affects every cell in our body.
Let me paint a quick word picture: You are on your first trip from the US to Europe and excited to get there and see the sites. You expect to feel tired after the overnight flight and figure that you’ll want to take a nap due to jetlag. Instead, by 2:00 in the afternoon you feel like you’ve been hit by a train. You could care less about site seeing! The Queen herself could be offering you a cup of tea, and all you want to do is snarl. Jetlag messes with your ability to think logically (scary in a foreign country!), makes you feel disoriented, and physically creates a feeling like you are coming down with something (not actually sick, but definitely ‘off’). Jetlag is throwing off your circadian rhythm, putting your core circadian clock in disarray.
Social jetlag is a term applied to the way many people live today. An example: you go to bed at a reasonable hour during the week and get up to go to work in the morning. Then each weekend, you stay up late and then sleep in the next morning. This is creating a circadian disruption akin to that of traveling to a time zone that is two or three hours away for the weekend and then traveling back for Monday morning.
Back to the idea, though, that chronic blue light exposure at night is causing us all to be a little less logical, more distracted, irritable, short-tempered, and more likely to go off on a long rant about aliens building pyramids on our Flat Earth.
95% of people in the US are using some type of blue light emitting electronic device (cell phone, laptop, tablet, TV) within an hour of going to bed, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
This blue light at night is suppressing the amount of melatonin we make at night. Melatonin is much more than just a sleep hormone: it acts as an antioxidant, it entrains our circadian rhythm, it protects us from diabetes, and it modulates our immune system.
Our core circadian clock is not only involved in the big things like our sleep/wake cycle or our body temperature fluctuation over the course of a day, but it is also involved in the rise and fall in levels of neurotransmitters over the course of 24-hours.
Genetics research shows us that people who carry genetic variants (mutations that are common) in the core circadian genes are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. We all know that sleeping poorly affects our mood, but this goes far beyond just being grumpy after a sleepless night. Disruption to our core circadian clock can be a physical cause of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. I’m not saying it is the only cause, just that genetics points to it being one cause – that affects a lot of people! (Side note: several popular antidepressants and bipolar medications work by changing circadian rhythm.)
So what is the solution to our blue light at night problem?
We aren’t all going to go back to using candles and gas lanterns at night. That just isn’t reasonable. But we do have the ability to eliminate blue light at night using technology.
The simplest way for an individual to block out blue light and still be able to use electronics at night is to wear blue-light blocking glasses. These make a huge difference in the amount of melatonin that your body produces. One study on people with insomnia found that just a week of wearing amber lenses (blocking 100% of blue light) at night was enough to increase melatonin production by 50%.
Another way to eliminate blue light at night is to switch off your bright overhead lights and use lamps with bulbs that give off a warm glow. There are all kinds of options now for bulbs that harken back to the orange glow of the original Edison bulbs, or you can just go with a red light bulb. The key here is that you will also need to avoid using electronic devices for a couple of hours before bed. Read a book, work on a hobby, play cards or board games with friends. You know… the things that people did for the many thousands of years before the advent of color TV!
Looking beyond individual choices…
Here is where my solution is going to step on a few toes and gently point fingers. The fact that blue light at night increases the risk of certain cancers is not new information. The World Health Organization has listed light at night as a probable carcinogen since 2007. The environmental impacts of light at night have been ignored by local governments all the way up to the federal government for years.
It is time for us to make choices at the local level that decrease the amount of blue light (and light in general) from street lights, business lights, signage, and yes, even our yard lights. Do we really need to leave on a bright porch light or have up-lights on our trees? Streetlights may prevent some crimes, but they are also contributing to increases in cancer, diabetes, and the general craziness gripping our world.
I’m not advocating for a bunch of laws to be passed that mandate the amount of light allowed at night. Instead, I’m begging for a grass roots movement to encourage people to take back the dark.
Media companies are deliberately trying to keep us hooked on our phones and laptops for hours at a time. This is how they are making billions of dollars a year, and it is adding greatly to the problems caused by blue light at night. We need all users of media to understand that the goal of the company is to make money through our eyeballs being glued to their products. We need to wise up and turn it off at night.
My challenge to you:
Give it a try for one week. Seriously. Cut out blue light at night for a week. Either get some blue blocking glasses (inexpensive on Amazon) or simply switch over to low watt, amber colored bulbs with no screens (laptop, cell phone, tablets, TV) for two hours before bed.
One solid week without blue light hitting your eyes for two hours before bedtime. Not just turning off your phone but then using your backlit eReader. Not just turning down the overhead light for a while, but then flipping on the bright lights while brushing your teeth. And not just trying for a day or two and then staying up late to binge watch your favorite new series on Netflix. A solid week with no blue light at night.
After a week, you should notice that you are sleeping better. Your mood in the morning should be good. You should be able to focus better at work. You should stop ranting at bad drivers (or being the bad driver), stop jumping on the Twitter bandwagon to bitch about things, stop passing around the crazy emails about politics…
Imagine if everyone would do this.