Artificial Light and Health Issues

We moderns are obsessed with light. A photo of New York City at night can dazzle. We may wonder what’s wrong with people who don’t decorate with lights for the holidays. Night lights are no longer just for kids. We often sleep with a digital clock blaring numbers through the night. And many of us live with streetlights just steps from our bedroom windows.

But what do we really know the effects of all that light on us?

Dark skies are important not just for astronomers and people who want to stargaze, but for the well being of myriad creatures, including us.

As researchers T.C. Wiley and Bent Formby, Ph.D., point out in their book, Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival, keeping with nature’s rhythms is not just environmental cant; our survival depends upon it.

Essentially, say Wiley and Formby, when we fail to follow the darkness (e.g., sleeping in total darkness and getting more hours of sleep through the fall and winter), we mimic the same processes as if we were eating too much sugar (which can be sugar or carb-based foods). With all the artificial lights and staying up late into the night or early morning hours, it’s like perpetual summer, evolutionarily a time of high-carb intake (summer’s when we have fruits available to us), because we’re to mate and pack on the fat to get us through the winter and to sustain, if we are women, life growing inside us, to be born in the late spring just as food’s becoming available again.

Give Melatonin a Chance

What happens at night that’s so important?

Melatonin production should increase. This is controlled by the pineal gland—the “third eye” located in about the middle of the forehead—which needs darkness to function. When melatonin rises, body temperature falls, and this slows down production of symbiotic bacteria in our gut, giving us a chance to “thin the herd,” as Wiley and Formby put it. That is, sleep provides us mediation of our immunity.

Ask any college student or employee working on a big project and getting little sleep how they feel. I used to feel the way a writing mentor/friend of mine felt: “I’ll sleep when I die,” he was fond of saying. Indeed! The “extra” time may allow us to “get more done,” but what is it really doing to us? I can only speak for myself. Staying up light has, at times, made me more susceptible to viral illnesses, such as colds. But in all cases, if I’m being honest, lack of sleep makes me feel like crap. (If you’ve read my earlier posts about migraines, then you may recall the link between fatigue and migraines. No surprise there. Illnesses often are our bodies’ way of shutting us down to rejigger our immune systems.)

Nothing good comes from not getting enough sleep—in darkness, according to Wiley and Formby. Lack of sleep means our cortisol levels never drop. Our body’s signaling system is always reading too much stress, which leads to high insulin; serotonin-dopamine imbalance, which, if it continues, leads to serotonin resistance, which can lead to psychological imbalances, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.

Wiley and Formby write: “Sleep normalizes serotonin levels because the melatonin produced during sleep can only be made by using up the available serotonin. That’s why people who are depressed tend to self-medicate by either sleeping all the time or not sleeping at all. Both options work just like antidepressant. Not sleeping at all in a twenty-four-hour period causes the serotonin to build up to antidepressant burnout levels because it never gets to turn into melatonin. When it gets high enough, it ‘washes over the top’ and the overload causes your receptors to go down and—voila!—it’s just like it’s low, or just like you’re on Prozac.”

It makes me wonder just how much of our fellow citizens’ anxiety, depression, aggressiveness, and obesity comes, not only from overconsumption of sugar in its various forms, but also from lack of good-quality sleep.

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