TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie attempted to tell viewers about new sleep science recently released. Guthrie and Tamron Hall couldn’t keep a straight face, and Matt Lauer couldn’t handle his co-hosts.
But the science behind what they’re saying is no joke.
Brushing your teeth in the dark can help you sleep? Is the brain really that sensitive to light?
Yes, actually, it is. The brain’s circadian rhythm is endlessly sensitive to things like light, something we get way too much, and yet somehow not enough, of in today’s modern society.
How Daylight Affects Your Sleep
A U.S. study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine recently found that sitting too far from a window at work can reduce your sleep by up to 46 minutes. A sunny day equals about 10,000 lux of light, but an indoor office only provides about 300 to 500 lux.
This can be especially harmful in the winter when daylight is scarce. You don’t get enough natural light during the day when you sit in the office, you go home in the dark—so your already-tired body starts shutting down—and then we get home and turn on all of the lights and screens, which confuse our brain into thinking it’s time to wake up again.
This is the reasoning behind turning the lights off when you brush your teeth at night. You might dim the lights at night, relax in low-light for a while, and then blast the lights before bed to brush your teeth. That burst of light disrupts all of the powering-down your brain has been doing for the last few hours.
Circadian Rhythm and Sleep
The circadian rhythm is very sensitive. It was only a little over 35 years ago that circadian rhythms in mammals were discovered to be driven by “pacemakers” in the brain. These consist of thousands of neurons in structures called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) in the anterior hypothalamus.
The SCN are directly connected to the retinas, which receive light pulses and translate that information to the circadian pacemaker in a “light-dark” cycle. When this pathway is disrupted, the rest-activity cycle fails to be synchronized to the light-dark cycle.
The light pulses that the circadian rhythm runs on is so sensitive, in fact, that the effect is even true for those with severe visual impairments. Regardless of whether the individual can actually see, the brain responds to a light-dark cycle, something that has been increasingly interrupted since the invention of the light bulb.
“Societal attitudes are very different to how we viewed sleep in the pre-industrial era. Thomas Edison commercialized the light bulb, which allowed us to invade the night and sleep was the first victim,” said Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University, after a recent lecture at The Royal Society in London.
“Edison’s attitudes have framed how we view sleep, which he said was a criminal waste of time and a heritage from our cave days. But it is hugely important,” said Foster.
Sleep is something humans can’t compromise on. It takes up 36 percentof our lives, but more importantly sleep is a huge contributing factor in our happiness, success, and health.
So, is it worth it for you to brush your teeth in the dark? Maybe. But you might not have to. Foster proposes a new invention that could help solve the problem: a bathroom mirror light that has a different, dimmer setting for night-time.
Before we see that product on the market, there are a few things you can do. Start by helping to reset your circadian rhythm. Here are a few simple steps to get started.
1. Adjust your bedtime. It may take some practice, but moving your bedtime back so you get enough sleep can really help your brain and body.
2. Do not sleep in. Even on weekends. Getting up at the same time every day helps your brain regulate its light-day cycles.
3. Avoid night light. This includes while brushing your teeth, but also before bed and as you sleep. That means turning the TV off at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep.
4. Try melatonin. Melatonin has been proven to help the brain sleep and regulate one’s circadian rhythm. You can find melatonin supplements, but talk to your doctor before you start taking them to make sure it’s the best option for you.
Another way to get the best night’s sleep? Have a good mattress and pillow. A lack of support while sleeping can cause you discomfort and even result in long-term pain. If you’re having shoulder pain from sleeping or back pain, it’s a good sign that your mattress is not supportive enough and you should consider replacing it. To make sure you’re not only getting enough sleep, but quality sleep, consider your mattress. It might be time to level up to a luxury mattress and improve your sleep ten-fold.