If you’ve been reading this column for the past 12 months, you might remember that this time last year, I wrote an article looking at the best ways to stay healthy whilst we move from summer and into the gloomier days of autumn and winter. But it’s a subject worth revisiting, particularly when it comes to the reduced sunlight we experience in the darker months. The critical information to remember here is that we want to maximise natural light to the full. We live in a world full of unnatural light sources, many of which can play havoc with our body’s attempts to keep us healthy.
Research is repeatedly showing the importance of getting a good night’s sleep, and this is one of the first things that can be affected by the drop in natural light that starts in autumn. There are several causes of this problematic situation. Firstly, many of us simply aren’t getting enough
natural light early enough in the morning.
Our body regulates itself in what’s known as a circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that sets our levels of arousal, governing alertness and sleepiness. So how does our brain know when to move into the different phases of arousal? Well, there’s one part of our nervous system that controls the whole cycle - our eyes. Our eyes are the only part of the central nervous system on the outside of our body. Their job is to communicate to the brain and let it know when to release chemicals associated with alertness, such as serotonin or cortisol and when to release sleep stimulating chemicals such as melatonin. In turn, every cell in the whole body sets its own rhythm based on what the eyes are telling the brain. This governs overall physical and mental health massively, and the number one factor in allowing the eyes and brain to set these levels of alertness is, you’ve guessed it, natural light.
As we move from summer into autumn and eventually winter, natural light becomes even more critical. The number one rule here is to get exposed to natural light early in the morning. In summer, this is pretty easy as the sun is up earlier, and the weather is often warm and welcoming. In the winter, this is less so, but it is still essential for us to get this early morning exposure. Research suggests between 3 and 10 minutes of natural light within 90 minutes of sunrise is the optimum amount of light necessary to start this cycle running. One important thing to note here - this light exposure doesn’t happen inside; you have to be outside. Modern glass stops the vital light waves necessary to stimulate this cycle. Let’s say that you get up at 7 am on a November morning. You get outside for five minutes and allow your eyes to take in as much light as possible (always avoid staring at the sun). This sets up the cycle for the rest of your day so that by early evening you are starting to slow down, and the natural alert phase of your day is waning.
Hopefully, you should be ready for bed by 10 pm or so. A further suggestion is to set your home lighting to subdued tones from about an hour before you wish to go to sleep. Some sleep experts even suggest using eye masks and cutting out as much light as possible from your bedroom to increase the likelihood of the perfect night’s sleep. Another thing to remember is to reduce exposure to blue light for at least an hour before going to bed. That means no phones, no TV, no tablets for at least an hour before bedtime. Research suggests that many of us are constantly jet-lagged at home, getting less than ideal natural light whilst spending hours on screens during the day, which constantly sabotages our natural light cycles. This can lead to all manner of problems, from brain fog to mood swings and even chronic health conditions.
One of the first things I teach the professionals who go through my “beating burnout” programme is the importance of mastering sleep - it’s one of the first steps in dealing with chronic stress. Many health experts say that if you haven’t got a healthy sleep schedule, you should forget about anything else and focus on this one area of your life. This becomes even more tricky in the winter months, and for many of us, the shift in seasons presents a real challenge. Still, by adding a few simple steps to your daily schedule, you’re increasing the chances of developing a healthy rhythm to life, improving your physical, mental and emotional well being.