Lying wide awake in the middle of the night, checking the clock every few minutes to gauge how much time passed between that moment, and the one when you initially went to bed, is such an agonizing experience. Some nights, there’s an obvious reason behind a bout of insomnia — stress, anxiety, illness — but then there are the dragging hours during which your smartphone screen almost taunts you with every minute that passes that you’re still not asleep. It’s times like this that’ll make you wonder what causes insomnia when, for the most part, you feel relatively calm, and you’re healthy as can be. It turns out, the answer might actually lie outside your bedroom window.
OK, so that might’ve come out a little creepier than I’d intended, but according to new study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, artificial light might be the root cause behind your insomnia. But before I dive into the research, allow me to clarify that insomnia, as per the Mayo Clinic’s definition, is a common, clinical sleep disorder, one that makes it hard to “fall asleep, stay asleep, or causes you to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep.”
In other words, insomnia doesn’t just mean you have trouble sleeping once in a while; it's a chronic condition that can make you feel irritable, depressed, anxious, and unable to focus on even the simplest everyday tasks. As of June 2018, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have estimated that one in every four Americans will develop insomnia every year, as per a ScienceDaily press release.
OK, back to regular programming: According to the study's press release from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), when investigating what might cause insomnia, researchers from Seoul National University in South Korea uncovered new evidence suggesting that too much artificial light exposure at night “induces disruption of circadian rhythms.” In other words, any light sources — i.e. those that aren’t the sun — that you’re being exposed to at night are likely throwing off your body’s internal clock, which tells you when to hit the hay, and when to rise and shine.
For their analysis, as per the AASM, researchers pulled data from South Korea’s 2002–2013 National Health Insurance Service-National Sample Cohort (NHIS-NSC). The study analyzed more than 50,000 adults ages 60 and older, and of those participants, nearly 12,000 were prescribed medication to help them sleep. In order to make the connection between insomnia and artificial light, researchers measured light exposure based on satellite data provided by the National Centers for Environmental Information, according to the study's press release. In the end, the study authors found that artificial outdoor light, aka light pollution, could be the root cause to some cases of insomnia.
Up until recently, the only kinds of pollution I’d ever concerned myself with were things like air, land, and water pollution. So if you, like me, feel a little in the dark about what light pollution is, exactly, it’s not as complicated as you might think. According to Katie Golde, a spokesperson for Mattress Clarity, light pollution can be summed up as “the brightening of the night sky as a result of excess artificial light.” What counts as artificial light, you ask? Pretty much anything that isn’t the sun.
“[Light pollution] can come from street lights or other unnatural light sources,” Golde tells Elite Daily over email. “When light from the outdoors is unnecessary, inefficient, or bothersome, it's often referred to as light pollution.”
Of course, further studies need to be done in order for us to definitively say, one way or another, if insomnia can be caused by light pollution alone. However, the concept does make a lot of sense when you really think about it. After all, your body interprets light as a signal to either go to sleep, or stay awake. Therefore, when you’re exposed to a significant amount of artificial light around the time when you’d typically be going to sleep, it’s almost expected that your body would be thrown for a curve given the circumstances.
It’s also interesting to keep in mind that, back in the day, our ancestors practically lived outdoors, soaked up all the sun, and went inside to sleep when it got dark. Nowadays, daylight hours are typically spent in school or office buildings, while the nighttime hours are often spent under lamps to prolong your wake time, says Dr. Roy Raymann, SleepScore Labs’ resident sleep expert and vice president of sleep science and scientific affairs.
“Lights on roads, parking lots, shopping malls, etc. are serving their purpose after sunset, but they also impact human behavior,” Dr. Raymann tells Elite Daily over email. “Exposure to more light at night has been linked to delayed bedtime, wake-up time, shorter sleep duration, increased daytime sleepiness, and now medication use in older people.”
It seems like one of the major issues with air pollution is that, especially if you live in a city that’s literally ablaze with lights 24/7, it can almost feel impossible to avoid. This is referred to as “secondhand light pollution,” says Rachel Wong, a certified sleep coach with Reverie, and your best line of defense against it, she suggests, is to a) invest in some blackout curtains, or b) wear a sleep mask to bed.
“There are also some forms of light pollution that are in your own bedroom,” Wong adds in an email to Elite Daily. “For those, I would recommend just going around with some duct tape or stickers at night and covering up pesky lights from your laptop or covering up a bright alarm clock and anything else that is emitting light in your bedroom.”
And last, but certainly not least, you had to have known blue light was bound to get a mention in here somewhere. Dr. Nicky Kirk of The Recovery Doctor tells Elite Daily that blue light emitting from your smartphone, laptop, and all other forms of technology definitely counts as light pollution because it squashes melatonin (aka the sleep hormone) production, making it harder to fall and stay asleep.
So get yourself some blue light protection glasses, say goodnight to your devices at least an hour before bed, and you should be good to go.