Updated: Sep 20, 2022
Go-rion Sees The Light
Here's a story about a completely anonymous person, let's call him Go-rion. When Go-rion was young he slept like a champ and felt rested the next day. If there was a sleep team he could have gone to regionals. Now Go-rion is older and if he sleeps the whole night through without waking up for more than 15 minutes he wants to call a press conference. Many nights Go-rion is awake for up to an hour before he's able to fall back asleep and he often doesn't feel rested the next morning. Then this summer something changed!
Go-rion and his son Grockwell spent a week camping on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands. Every day the sun hit their tent at sunrise and they got up and strolled along the beach. Go-rion noticed something weird a couple nights into the trip. He was sleeping through the night! It's not because he was comfortable sleeping on the ground (he was not). It's not because the campground was quiet when it got dark (it was not). And it's certainly not because he was any less stressed about life in general (his stress had proactively packed and accompanied him on vacation). He figured it had to be the early morning light!
Here's the big reveal: Go-rion is me, Orion! Grockwell is my son Rockwell! I'll pause here until your head stops exploding. And yes, it turns out there is some science behind what I experienced on Lopez Island.
As it turns out, my intuition was probably correct. Early morning light exposure sets our circadian clock and has a profound effect on our entire day including our sleep that night. According to Stanford neurobiologist Andrew Huberman:
"Getting sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning is absolutely vital to mental and physical health. It is perhaps the most important thing that any and all of us can and should do in order to promote metabolic well-being, promote the positive function of your hormone system, get your mental health steering in the right direction."
Get bright light in your eyes within the first hour of being awake. 5-10 minutes is enough if it is broad daylight on a clear day, on a cloudy day it might take 20-30 minutes
Try to get some mid-day natural light as well. Windows scatter and filter light, making window light 50x less effective! So get outside for a bit even if it's raining!
In the evening as your approach bedtime, dim the lights around you. If possible, turn off overhead lighting and rely on lower angled light sources like desk lamps. Avoid all bright lights in that last hour before bed
Here is Andrew Huberman on the Tim Ferriss show giving a brief overview
But I like watching TV at night!
Huberman has you covered with what he calls the 'Netflix Inoculation.' If you can catch a sunset, the natural low angled light sends a powerful message to your nervous system that bedtime is coming soon. This message is strong enough that if you are out walking or watching the sunset for 20-30 minutes, your circadian clock will be less disrupted by light from the TV.
As late evening comes turn off half the lights in your house. It's a nice transition and it'll even save you some money
It's a good idea to shut off the TV and put away the screens at least 45 minutes before bed. I'm talking to myself as well here. Light is a powerful suppressor of melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall asleep
But I Live In The Pacific Northwest! By November I Don't Even Remember What Sunlight Looks Like!
An LED light panel can be really helpful. You can get one for about $25 that can put out 10,000-15,000 lux. It doesn't replace sunlight but can be the next best thing for helping get through a gloomy PNW winter. Some people find as little as 10-15 minutes is enough, while some need a little more.
You need to put the light panel fairly close to you, but you don't need to stare directly at it from what I understand. In the 1900's people used to read 'newspapers' and 'books' in the morning, but you can have your light panel in your peripheral vision as you read your phone or other device!
Three Big Takeaways
Get some bright light in your eyes as soon as possible after waking up. Sunlight is best even if overcast but LED is good too, especially in winter.
Try to get natural light at midday and evening as well. Take a 10-minute walk after lunch and dinner. This is beneficial on many levels
Use dimmer light as the evening progresses and after 10pm avoid light like you're an angler fish living in the Mariana Trench
I have benefitted greatly from this information. My sleep is by no means perfect but using light exposure has made me able to fall asleep faster and spend less time awake in the middle of the night. Instead of waking up, seeing that it's only 1:30 and feeling that 'here-we-go-again' feeling, it's more like the old days when I might wake up for a minute, and happily roll over, a champion of sleep.