Winter has arrived in most parts of the country which means less exposure to one of the components essential to life- sunlight. Before there was electricity and countless devices to awaken us (or prevent us from sleeping), humans relied on the sun to regulate body rhythms. Our brains are hard wired to know the time of year based on exposure to morning light. Total sunlight exposure is a key factor in regulation of many hormones including cortisol, serotonin, and melatonin. Too much or too little can throw the entire system out of balance.
Sunlight stimulates the production of cortisol and serotonin, while dimness and darkness promote melatonin production. As with all hormone function, cortisol, serotonin, and melatonin work in concert with each other to regulate circadian rhythms. Exposure to early morning light triggers cortisol and serotonin to increase. Cortisol wakes you up and gets you moving, while serotonin helps you regain consciousness. Cortisol decreases throughout the morning and early afternoon, then jumps up a little again in mid afternoon before declining again in preparation for sleep. Serotonin remains elevated after cortisol’s initial dip earlier in the day and declines in the afternoon as exposure to light decreases. At this point the brain begins to convert serotonin into melatonin in preparation for rest and sleep.
It seems easy enough to expose yourself to light and darkness at the right time, but modern technology and habits, coupled with the seasonal changes can wreak havoc on your mood, sleep, and immune function. If you suffer from adrenal fatigue, lack of energy, sleep problems, or seasonal mood changes, then getting proper exposure to light and darkness is key in rebalancing the hormone symphony.
Here are 5 steps to achieve this:
1. Let your body awaken to sunlight rather than an alarm. Even when your eyes are shut, light penetrates the eyelid and stimulates the brain beginning the awakening process. If you can’t do this because it’s winter or your room just doesn’t get much light, consider getting a sunrise alarm clock. These use light to gradually wake you up and many models include sound too.
2. Expose yourself to sunlight within 30 minutes of waking. After waking up, try to get outside for 20-30 minutes to reinforce the cortisol awakening response (CAR). It’s thought that the CAR occurs to get you prepared for the stresses of the day and it’s superimposed on the sleep-wake cycle hormone patterns.
3. If you can’t get outside, consider getting a light therapy lamp. These are portable devices allowing you to bring it in bathroom as you get ready for work or eat breakfast. Be sure to get a model that emits 10,000 lux (equivalent to full daylight) that’s on a stand so the light is coming into your eyes from above as the sun would be.
4. Avoid electronics in the evening and at night. The blue light emitted from phones, tablets, computer, televisions, and other electronics interferes with the natural hormone rhythms. It suppresses melatonin production and can increase cortisol which both prevent you from sleeping. If you must use your gadgets, there are a couple of options to filter the blue light. You can use apps like Twilight or Flux which acts as filters on the screen of your devices or you can pick up a pair of glasses with orange or amber lens for less than $10.
5. Keep the lights in your home dim at night. Try keeping most of your lights off or if you have dimmer switches, use those to keep the light at a lower level to support melatonin production.