Using Light to Optimize Sleep & Recovery

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. 


For both athletes and working professionals who are looking to optimize their daily performance and health, few areas of focus provide a greater return on investment than sleep. For some, circadian rhythm is only a term heard in high school or around daylight savings time. Unfortunately, our standard education on the subject fails to convey both the importance of regulating your circadian rhythm and how you can use some simple tips and tricks to make falling asleep and waking up refreshed easier than ever. 

The most actionable items on our sleep optimization checklist include light exposure, diet, and room temperature. Because our modern lifestyles expose us to so much unnatural light, our typical sleep 'cues' are also unnaturally delayed. Fortunately, there are a few small sleep hygiene adjustments that will give you a competitive edge on the field or at work. If you have kids, some of these tricks may help the back-to-bed routine after a midnight wakeup. 

To clarify some vocabulary prior to digging into the studies, melatonin is the body’s ‘sleepiness’ molecule that helps regulate quite a few restorative activities (basically, the more you can produce and the earlier in the night you can start producing it, the faster you will fall asleep); short-wavelength light is a stimulating form of light found in colors like white, blue, and green light (these are types of light emitted from nearly all of your typical house and workplace overhead lighting); and long-wavelength light is found at the opposite end of the spectrum, including the least stimulating color of visible wavelengths, red light. 

Several studies have looked into the effects of light on melatonin production, and the findings have all shown that shorter wavelengths of light suppress melatonin, making it more difficult to fall asleep. In one study examining the effects of blue light and green light on melatonin production, researchers found that blue light suppressed melatonin release by 3 hours and green light suppressed melatonin for 90 minutes versus longer wavelength light or no light exposure. Another study supported this finding, where participants who were instead exposed to red light prior to sleep ended up reaching peak melatonin production almost an hour earlier than those viewing white light. In both of these studies, short-wavelength light proved to be more disruptive than long-wavelength light for melatonin release. 

If you’re looking for another way to gain a competitive advantage with your recovery, or if you simply want to fall asleep faster and stay asleep during the night, limit your exposure to short-wavelength light in the evening. We and many athletes we train with have started mimicking the natural light cycles seen during the day, where bright light fades to orange and red at sundown. Choosing adjustable bulbs capable of going completely red are an awesome addition to living areas, bedrooms, and bathrooms. If you frequently wake up at night to use the restroom or check on young ones, place these red-light emitting bulbs in those locations so that you will keep your melatonin flowing strong. While it might look a little funny to visitors, you’ll back up the peculiarities with better recoveries, an easier time falling asleep, a more refreshed mind, and a general sense of peak performance. 


References

  1. Wright, Helen R.; Leon C. Lack. Effect of Light Wavelength on Suppression and Phase Delay of the Melatonin Rhythm. Chronobiology International. 2001. 
  2. Yeager, Ronnie L.; Deanna A. Oleske, Ruth A. Sanders, John B. Watkins III, Janis T. Eells, Diane S. Henshel. Melatonin as a principal component of red light therapy. Medical Hypotheses. 2006. 
  3. Guilleminault, Christian; Alex Clerk, Jed Black, Michael Labanowski, Rafael Pelayo, David Claman. Nondrug Treatment Trials in Psychophysiologic Insomnia. Arch Intern. 1995. 
  4. Lockley, Steven H.; George C. Brainard, Charles A. Czeisler. High Sensitivity of the Human Circadian Melatonin Rhythm to Resetting by Short Wavelength Light. The Journal of Clinical endocrinology & Metabolism. 2003.