As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene. Consult your physician before implementing any of these topics. We are not your physician. Note: This post may contain affiliate links to the products we use.
At the end of this article, you’ll be able to escape grogginess and jet lag forever. When I learned this, I was skeptical. Now, I can say the practice has bolstered my mental and physical performance more times than I can count.
Whether you’re making a flight to another time zone or you have to wake up early for a big competition, getting optimal sleep is paramount. If you’re changing your sleep schedule, doing nothing could mean staying awake staring at the ceiling until your programmed melatonin release kicks in. Alternatively, you might decide to pop a couple “sleep” pills to chemically knock you out. In reality, this drugged-up stupor doesn’t give you the restorative sleep your body craves.
One of the most simple solutions is the most effective: the light you see before bed and the light you see when you wake up. We’ve written an article about the light you should have on before bed (read: how red light boosts performance). In this article, we’re limiting the scope to light you see in the morning. Specifically, we’re focusing on bright white light.
Part of the influence behind white light involves it’s wavelength. If you read our previous article, you might have a basic understanding of the long- versus short-wavelength concept. To recap, longer wavelengths of light are less stimulating to your eyes and nervous system. These wavelengths typically include colors like red, orange, or deep yellows. Conversely, shorter wavelengths of light are more stimulating to your nervous system. White light falls into this category, and a specific type of light box produces an exceptionally bright form of this light.
How does this bright light affect you?
Intuitively, exposing yourself to more stimulating forms of light at the start of the day can make you more alert. Turning on a light box can immediately slough off any grogginess. For us, it’s similar to a splash of cold water on your face or a quick shot of caffeine for your brain. The benefits don’t stop there, though.
Early bright light goes as far as setting your melatonin release for the next night. This effect has been shown in research settings too. As an example, one study aimed to shift participants’ sleep time three hours earlier over the course of three days. Each day, the participants were subjected to bright light immediately upon waking (i.e. bright light 1 hour earlier each day). Using just 30 minutes of light-box exposure in the morning shifted melatonin release to match the new cycle. At the end of the study, subjects had completely shifted their circadian rhythm. Multiple studies have shown similar results. [1,2]
“That’s great, but what if I don’t want to adjust my sleep schedule right now?”
Optimizing your melatonin release matters regardless. Bright light can make that melatonin release more consistent. If you want to set your circadian rhythm to a very specific sleep/wake cycle, use bright lights. While it’s anecdotal, this practice has been particularly helpful in our sleep/wake routine. At times, our circadian rhythm has been so precise that alarms are not necessary.
How can you take advantage?
In order to take advantage of the results shown in the studies, we suggest investing in a bright light-emitting light box. We use this one, but similar versions can be found here, here, and here. The key is the brightness. Studies have shown these benefits with 5,000 lux boxes, but 10,000 lux boxes will potentially limit the amount of time you have to spend in front of the light.
If you sleep alone or your partner operates on a similar schedule, placing the light box on your bedside table can do the trick. Given the recommended minimum 30-minute period of exposure, it may be more practical to keep one or more lights in an area where you execute your morning routine (i.e. in the kitchen while you make coffee or on the desk where you journal, if that’s your thing). If you want another 25% improvement in melatonin release over the single 30-minute exposure, spend four 30-minute sessions in front of the light over the course of 3.5 hours.
If you’re anticipating a schedule or time zone change, plan out the number of hours you need to adjust. The researchers behind these studies suggest limiting the amount of time you advance your sleep phase each night to 30-45 minutes. For example, if you need to move your wake time 2 hours earlier, do not jump the immediate 2 hours unless absolutely necessary. Instead, move your wake time earlier by 30-45 minutes each day and expose yourself to bright light immediately upon waking. By gradually adjusting, you prevent a stark misalignment in your circadian rhythm. An extreme misalignment might result in significant fatigue, grogginess, or symptoms of jet lag. 
If you want to compound the benefits, pair bright light in the morning with red light in the evening approximately 2-3 hours before bedtime. Our article on red light will equip you with the knowledge to take advantage of earlier melatonin release, improved deep sleep, and more. If you want to get more performance enhancing benefits of sleep, we suggest reading what professional sleep hygiene looks like.
- Crowley et al. Phase advancing human circadian rhythms with morning bright light, afternoon melatonin, and gradually shifted sleep: can we reduce morning bright-light duration? Sleep Medicine. 2005. 16:288-297.
- Burgess et al. Preflight Adjustment to Eastward Travel: 3 Days of Advancing Sleep with and without Morning Bright Light. Journal of Biological Rhythms. 2003. 18:318-328.