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The Common Late-Night Habit Almost Everyone is Guilty of

Young person browsing iPhone on bed
Source: Eren Li/Pexels

Falling asleep to the soft glow of a television or the dim light of a smartphone has become a modern bedtime ritual for many. It seems harmless, almost comforting, yet recent studies suggest this common habit could be more harmful than we realize, with implications far beyond just a poor night’s sleep.

Researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois have brought to light the subtle yet significant impact of ambient lighting on our health.

Their study, which included over 500 individuals, reveals a startling correlation: Those who slept even with the slightest amount of light in their room showed a higher propensity for serious health issues like diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. This connection, deemed “staggering” by Dr. Joe Whittington, an emergency medicine doctor with nearly 2 million followers on TikTok, raises crucial questions about our nocturnal environments.

Diving deeper into the science of sleep, we uncover the critical role of melatonin, a hormone pivotal in regulating our sleep-wake cycle. Light, particularly the blue light emitted from screens, disrupts melatonin production, leading to disturbed sleep patterns. This disturbance extends beyond mere insomnia; it impacts our body’s ability to regulate glucose, increasing the risk of diabetes, as noted in the Northwestern study. Moreover, insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes, was found to be higher in individuals exposed to dim lighting, such as that from a TV or smartphone.

But the implications of light during sleep don’t stop at physical health. An Ohio State University study involving hamsters offers a glimpse into the psychological ramifications. Exposed to dim light at night, these creatures showed signs of depression, hinting at similar potential effects in humans. Sleep deprivation, often a result of poor sleep environments, can dampen the function of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational thinking, according to the Mayo Clinic. Consequently, the amygdala, our emotional response center, becomes more active, leading to heightened emotions such as anger, aggression, and sadness.

Interestingly, personality types play a role in our sleep quality. Compassionate individuals, as one study suggests, tend to have fewer sleep problems and enjoy more restful nights. This finding adds another layer to the complex relationship between our disposition and sleep.

Recognizing these risks, experts like Dr. Whittington and Dr. Guy Meadows, clinical director of The Sleep School in West London, emphasize the importance of a dark sleep environment. They argue that our bodies are designed to sleep in darkness, with natural light playing a key role in regulating our internal clocks. When we disrupt this natural rhythm with artificial light, we interfere with the very essence of healthy sleep, and may even shorten one’s life.

“We’re designed to sleep in the dark,” Dr. Meadows told The Daily Mail. “When the sun comes up, the light receptors in the retina at the back of the eye tell us it’s time to wake up by inhibiting the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. The reverse happens at night, so it’s ideal to dim down the lights as bedtime approaches as sleep is vital for the regulation of our mood.”

Implementing their advice doesn’t require drastic changes. Small, practical steps can make a significant difference. Using blackout curtains, turning off electronic devices well before bedtime, and dimming lights as the evening progresses can all contribute to a more conducive sleep environment. For those who find it hard to wind down without their nightly dose of screen time, alternatives like reading a book or practicing relaxation techniques can be equally effective in signaling the brain that it’s time to rest.

It’s clear that the interplay of light and sleep is more profound than many of us realize. The evidence suggests that a few simple adjustments to our evening routines could not only enhance the quality of our sleep but also have a far-reaching impact on our overall health. It’s an invitation to revisit our nightly habits, embrace the darkness of night, and, in doing so, perhaps find a brighter, healthier day ahead.


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