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Brandon Peters, M.D.

30 Days to Better Sleep: Expose Yourself to Morning Sunlight

By January 26, 2013

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What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Chances are that it doesn't involve getting prolonged direct exposure to sunlight. How might this undermine your ability to sleep? Learn how exposure to morning sunlight may help you to sleep better, especially if you have a circadian rhythm disorder.

Light is the principal control of our day-night cycle, influencing everything from body temperature to metabolism to sleep. Without it, our bodies will run on a pattern determined by our genetics (called tau). This may not be quite 24 hours in length, and the daily discrepancy can add up. We also have natural tendencies that determine when we most want to sleep, with about 10 percent of people being night owls.

When the timing of sleep runs counter to our social obligations, it can be problematic. Falling asleep and waking too late may represent delayed sleep phase syndrome. On the other hand, falling asleep and waking too early may characterize advanced sleep phase syndrome. Each of these conditions may be helped by properly timed exposure to light and melatonin.

Light can also be helpful in people who suffer from difficulty sleeping as part of insomnia. It can help to regularize the patterns of sleep and wakefulness. How and when should you expose yourself to light?

There is a growing market for artificial light boxes. Many of these provide an intensity of light of about 10,000 lux or less. For comparison, the sun's light intensity is 100,000 lux. Light boxes can cost up to several hundred dollars, but sunlight is free. Therefore, it is recommended that people head outdoors.

For most people, exposure to sunlight should occur in the morning upon awakening, typically within the first hour after crawling out of bed. It is best to spend 30 to 45 minutes getting direct sunlight exposure into the eyes. Do not wear a sun visor or sunglasses. Sunlight filtered through a window pane may not have the same effect. If you are concerned about the effects on your skin, you can wear sunscreen. The sunlight is somewhat less intense in the morning, and it has little risk of adverse effects.

It is best to get the sun exposure while going for a walk. Alternatively, you can sit on the patio while reading the morning newspaper or having breakfast, as long as the light is hitting your eyes directly. What if the day is overcast with clouds? Even when filtered through clouds or rain, the sunlight will continue to have its effect. Keeping a regular schedule with a consistent wake time coupled with exposure to sunlight as part of a morning walk is an extremely helpful combination.

If you are struggling to sleep well at night, especially with insomnia or a circadian rhythm disorder, begin to regularly expose yourself to morning sunlight. You will find that your sleep and daytime function improve significantly.

Check out the entire series, "How to Sleep Better in 30 Days."

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