Getting more daylight could sleep better at night

Getting more daylight could sleep better at night

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12/22/2022 – Falling asleep later and waking up later at this time of year? You may need to reset your sleep/wake clock. Going outside to get more daylight — especially in the morning — could help, new findings suggest.

Yes, using electric lights and screens in the evening can affect your sleep, but that’s not the whole picture, says Horacio de la Iglesia, PhD, a professor of biology at the University of Washington in Seattle. In fact, even on a cloudy day, daylight is significantly brighter compared to indoor lighting. So they are not the same.

In a study of 507 college students at the University of Washington, shorter daylight hours delayed bedtime in winter by about half an hour compared to other seasons.

“It’s important for a number of reasons,” says de la Iglesia.

First, teens and young adults tend to have very late sleep timing, “or what we call a late chronotype, which predicts physical and mental health. If you have a late chronotype, it likely means you have trouble getting out of bed, you end up sleeping less, and you also increase what’s known as “social jet lag.”

Social jet lag is the difference in sleep time between weekends and weekdays, “and that’s also an indicator of poor health,” says de la Iglesia.

“A simple solution”

Poor sleep can be costly in more ways than one. Researchers estimated in 2021 that it would cost nearly $95 billion to diagnose and treat sleep disorders in the United States each year.

“People are investing a lot of money trying to develop drugs that will improve your sleep, prolong your sleep, and advance your clock,” says de la Iglesia. But a simple action like taking a brisk walk in the morning can help adjust your sleep clock, “and you’ll feel better.” That’s what we like about it – that it’s a simple solution,” he says. “Even if you can get out for a little while, it should help you put your clock forward … and help you deal with the winter blues.”

The study was conducted on college students, but the results may apply to people of other ages, says de la Iglesia. For example, younger teenagers could also benefit from more daylight.

“And older adults are struggling with winter here trying to get out of bed and I think that should definitely carry over to all age groups.”

Students wore automated data loggers around their wrists to measure activity and light exposure. Outside light was defined with an intensity of at least 50 lux. The researchers compared findings from all four seasons, including the university’s summer session.

The study was published online in November in the Journal of Pineal Research.

If it makes more sense that a later sunset in the summer means a later bedtime, you’re not alone.

“Although we had good reason to believe that sleep would change seasonally, we didn’t have a clear prediction of which direction it would change,” says de la Iglesia. “And indeed, the prediction we had was completely wrong.”

The students fell asleep 35 minutes later and woke up 27 minutes later than students during the summer school days.

The researchers found no significant differences in sleep duration depending on the time of year. But the students used an alarm clock to wake up about 10% more often in the fall and winter than in the spring and summer.

Several health effects possible

“In my opinion, exposure to sunlight appears to have a greater effect than exposure to artificial light — which is consistent with what we know,” says Karin Johnson, MD, medical director of the Baystate Regional Sleep Medicine Program in Springfield, MA who were not involved in the study.

“In addition to sleep loss, the misalignment of the social schedule with the body’s schedule alone affects health, even when the average sleep duration is the same,” she says. “This effect helps explain why a permanent DST in winter would likely be exponentially worse than the impact it has on us in summer.”

A later midsleep — defined as half the time between falling asleep and waking — a nocturnal chronotype, and greater social jet lag are “strongly associated with many health problems,” Johnson says. Examples include metabolic syndrome and obesity, cardiovascular problems, depression, anxiety, and poor performance and thinking.

latitude adjustment

In the future, de la Iglesia and colleagues plan to expand the study to other sites.

They plan to work with employees in San Diego, which is at a lower latitude and doesn’t have the same daylight conditions. This might help answer the question of what happens on other school campuses where the seasonal changes are not as severe.

“Maybe that’s a problem in the northern latitudes,” says de la Iglesia.

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