Artificial foods, colors, sweeteners and…environments? A new study detects at least one consequence of artificial lighting; namely, disrupting our biological clock and sleep.
We’re not just talking about the child bearing age of women, but our bodies’ vital connection to the earth and cosmos. Though our modern world can seem, and perhaps is, disconnected from the raw earth and universe, in reality everything and everyone in the earth is affected by the cycles of the moon and sun, light and dark, the movement of planets and the changing seasons. How does your brain know whether it’s morning, noon, or night? The human brain contains a “master clock” designed to be heavily influenced by the rising and setting of the sun. Light and dark each trigger the release of specific hormones (which are signals) for sleeping, waking, eating and even making love. Our brain detects sunlight and twilight through our skin and eyes. Humans evidently aren’t nocturnal animals because when the sun goes down, we’re designed to produce lots of melatonin, a hormone that helps to prepare us for sleep.
But what happens when the sun has gone down, yet our lights are still on? As I write this, I’m in just such a predicament and it’s not a fantastic one. I need to be up at 4am to go with a friend to the local TV station. Happily, I’m not the one being interviewed. But the problem is that light inhibits the production of melatonin. Our brains recognize it as daylight. As a result, we dance offbeat from the rhythm of the earth.
Electric lights are a blessing, no doubt. But if you ever want to reconnect with your primordial pulse, this study says you might do well to skip the sleep aids, the herbs and tinctures and technologies. Instead, try camping for a week.
Researchers kept an eye on eight “happy campers” in the Colorado Rockies to see if undiluted exposure to the earth’s rhythm would affect their circadian clock. During the day, the volunteers drank in four times more light than a typical day indoors. Then, at nightfall, the only light permitted was by campfire. They were even restricted from the glare of a cell phone. The scientists reported:
“…we find that after exposure to only natural light, the internal circadian clock synchronizes to solar time such that the beginning of the internal biological night occurs at sunset and the end of the internal biological night occurs before wake time just after sunrise.”
“Biological night,” in this case, means that melatonin rapidly increased at sunset and dwindled fast after sunrise. At the end of the trip the subjects were waking up two hours earlier than usual. In just a few days their internal clocks adapted.
The significance of this cosmic connection is likely further reaching than we’ve yet discovered, especially when you consider that modern research has linked difficulties with sleep, melatonin, sunlight, vitamin D, and other hormonal and cyclical processes in the body to cancer, diabetes, obesity, chronic fatigue, insomnia, weakened immune system, chronic stress, anxiety, depression and more. Our circadian rhythm will, then, not only affect our sleep but our overall health and longevity.
The good news is that it didn’t even take a week for the volunteers to reconnect. And it seems that we can accomplish similar results if we just make sure to enjoy several bouts of sweet sunlight each day. Head researcher Kenneth P. Wright, along with many other sleep experts, recommends a bright and early morning walk to catch those first rays and Entrainment of the Human Circadian Clock to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle
K.P. Wright Jr. et al. Entrainment of the human circadian clock to the natural light-dark cycle. Current Biology. Published online August 1, 2013. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.039.