The Free, Accessible Health Tool You Probably Haven’t Optimized Yet

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 3 June 2024
  • 10 minute read
Light: The Free Accessible Health Tool You Probably Aren't Using Yet | The Health Sessions

What if I told you there’s a free, accessible and effective tool to boost your health and happiness that many of us aren’t using to our full advantage yet?

Light affects your body and brain in more ways than you probably realize. That’s because light is the most important cue for your  body clocks to understand where you find yourself in the world’s 24-hour daily cycle of sunlight and darkness, so this internal network of clocks can synchronize your biological rhythms accordingly.

And these circadian rhythms influence almost every part of your physiology, from feeling alert during the day, sleepy at night and getting hungry around mealtimes to your mood, libido and even your immune function.

But our modern lifestyle with electronic light and screens at night, shift work and traveling across different timezones can easily disrupt these natural 24-hour patterns. At best, a (social) jet lag leaves you feeling groggy, forgetful and irritable, but a persisting disturbance of your circadian rhythms puts you at risk of insomnia, weight gain, insulin resistance, depression, accidents and substance abuse.

At the same time, exposing yourself to natural day light in the morning and limiting artificial light at night can have all kinds of positive impacts on your wellbeing.

So let’s take a closer look at how light affects your health and happiness, and how you can start tuning into this free, accessible and underused health tool too!

Light: The Free Accessible Health Tool You Probably Aren't Using Yet | The Health Sessions
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How Light Affects Your Health and Happiness

1. More energy and mental alertness

Want to put some pep in your step? When you wake up in the morning and light enters your eyes, it triggers a cascade of reactions in your brain to prepare your body to start the day. Cortisol is released to help you feel more alert, energetic and ready to take action, while suppressing the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.

What’s more, consistently exposing yourself to natural light throughout the day – especially in the morning – syncs up your body clocks, making it easier to fall asleep at night and wake up feeling well rested.

2. Good mood

It might not feel that way when you’re grumpily crawling out of bed, but opening your curtains as soon as you get up can really brighten up your day. That’s because early morning daylight also sets off the release of serotonin, a brain chemical that supports a good mood and helps you feel calm, collected and mentally sharp.

A drop in exposure to sunshine – for example, during the darker days of winter – can lead to a decrease in serotonin, which in turn can translate into mood swings and seasonal affective disorder.

3. Healthier appetite and metabolism

You know how you crave comfort food after a bad night’s sleep? Not getting enough sleep is known to be associated with feeling hungry and weight gain, so improving your sleep-wake cycle with light exposure would have a positive impact on your appetite.

But studies suggest that light also directly affects your blood glucose levels and metabolism beyond the eating more calories due to hunger pangs. Being exposed to blue-wave light – the kind of light coming from our electronic devices – results in a higher insulin resistance compared to being in dim light.

What’s more, getting more morning light is often linked to leaner body weight and lower body fat, whereas later timing of light tends to be associated with heavier body weight.

Light: The Free Accessible Health Tool You Probably Haven't Optimized Yet | The Health Sessions
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4. Increased sexual desire

Spring and summertime have the reputation for being the seasons for flirting and seduction, but research backs up this idea that feeling the sun on your skin increases romantic passion in men and women.

Studies found that exposure to UV-B sunlight increases the activity of a skin protein called p53, which in turn stimulates key sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen to get you in the mood.

5. Better immune function

Getting outside intuitively makes you feel better, but we now know that natural daylight actually improves your immune function in several ways. Not only does sunlight allow you to produce vitamin D that supports your immune system, but exposing your skin safely to UV-rays also seems to make T-cells that play a central role in your immunity work faster.

6. Increased pain tolerance

Research suggests that even your sensitivity to pain follows a 24-hour circadian rhythm, and differs throughout the day as well as the seasons.

It seems that UV-B light landing on your eyes triggers the release of endorphins and other bodily opioids that act as a natural pain killer. That’s why studies show that we tolerate physical and emotional pain better in bright light environments, including summer days.

Reaping the benefits of (natural) light

Of course, exposure to natural daylight does not magically cure any illness, but as the findings above have shown, it can help you reset your biological clock, which in turn impacts your mood, appetite, sleep and sex drive.

That’s great, but most of us spend the majority of our waking hours indoors, under fluorescent lighting. And when you’re chronically ill, getting outside can be challenging due to limited mobility, little energy and temperature sensitivity.

So what can you do to reap the health benefits of natural daylight? What works for you obviously depends on your health and living situations, but here are some ideas to get you started.

This article contains some affiliate links to products you may find useful, at no extra costs to you. All opinions are my own. 

Light: The Free Accessible Health Tool You Probably Aren't Using Yet | The Health Sessions
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How to Use Light to Boost Your Health and Happiness

1. Expose yourself to morning (day)light

Letting light enter your eyes in the early morning signals to your brain and body that it’s time to get ready for the day. To sync up your body clocks and regulate your hormones for better energy, good mood and a healthy appetite, you should catch 2 to 10 minutes of sunlight each morning.

Let’s have a look at some ideas to inspire your own (doable) Sunlight Before Noon challenge:

  • Wake up, sunshine! Open the curtains as soon as you get out of bed or consider using dawn-simulating devices like the Philips Wake-Up Light during darker months.
  • Eat your breakfast by the window or enjoy your cup of coffee on the balcony.
  • Head outdoors in the morning if you can. Walk the dog, cycle your kids to school or park your car a little further from work to catch some daylight before you go into the office. You could even do some sun salutations in the garden. Combining early morning light with gentle movement will boost your energy levels and mental alertness even more.
  • Too tiring or taxing to go outside? Apparently sitting by the open window is 50 times more effective (!) than looking at sunlight through the glass. So let the fresh air in while you check your messages or read a book.
  • Do you tend to feel down and sluggish during the winter months? See if you could benefit from doing light box therapy in the morning to beat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

Even on a cloud-covered day, you are going to get far more light energy through cloud cover than you are going to get from an artificial light source.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman

Light: The Free Accessible Health Tool You Probably Aren't Using Yet | The Health Sessions
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2. Safely seek out some sun during the day

No, you shouldn’t spend the day sunbathing unprotected, but safely exposing your skin to sunlight for 20 minutes, 2 to 3 times per week promotes the production of vitamin D and hormones like testosterone and estrogen, as well as helps to relieve chronic pain.

Be careful: How much sunlight is good for you highly depends on your skin type, the time of year and the latitude of your location. Someone with red hair and blue eyes can get a sunburn under 10 minutes on cloudy summer days, while people with dark skin tones could be at risk of a vitamin D deficiency when they don’t catch enough sunlight.

So check this overview for skin types and your local UV index before getting out into the sun! Remember to retreat to the shade, cover up with clothing and/or use sunscreen lotion after 10-30 minutes of sun exposure, depending on your circumstances.

Also please check with your doctor first if you have skin conditions or underlying health problems that are sensitive to light, heat and/or cold exposure. 

Here are some accessible ways to safely seek out the sun for a limited amount of time (before covering up or moving to the shade):

  • On nice days, have your lunch al fresco, read a magazine on a bench or go for a short walk during your break.
  • Speaking of walking, check out these 25 exciting ways to get more steps – and sunshine! – in.
  • If possible, move your desk by the window to catch some natural light throughout the day.
  • Housebound? If you have an outdoor area, see if you can create a cozy and comfortable spot for you to rest. Set up a daybed, relax in a hammock or grab a soft beach towel to lay down in the grass for a while.
  • Take one of your chores and tasks outside this week. Maybe you can read papers or brainstorm ideas outside the coffee shop, make phone calls on the patio or take all of your cooking outdoors to get some sunlight in the afternoon?
  • Make a seasonal list of fun outdoor activities that are doable for you and schedule them. You can find some inspiration here for getting outdoors in fall and winter, embracing spring when you’re isolated and having an amazing summer at home.
  • Infuse your weekends with some nature therapy. Whether you enjoy a picnic in the park, playing frisbee on the beach or simply sitting in a botanical garden, being in green surroundings with natural light will lower your stress levels, boost your mood and enhance your wellbeing.
Light: The Free Accessible Health Tool You Probably Aren't Using Yet | The Health Sessions
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3. Dim the lights in the evening

Because light has such a strong influence on our physiology, you shouldn’t turn on bright lights in the evening if you want to have a good night’s sleep and avoid late night snacking. Instead, follow nature’s example and keep the lights down low in the evening.

  • Dim the lights if possible, and turn on lower-placed lamps instead of overhead lighting. To your brain, this mimics the sun setting instead of being high in the sky at midday.
  • On winter days, create a cozy mood by having dinner by candle light.
  • Blue light coming from electronic screens is known to suppress the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone. That’s why it’s advised to turn off your TV, phone and tablet one hour before bedtime, and build a relaxing routine like taking a bath, reading a book or doing restorative yoga to wind down instead.
  • Really got to work on your laptop at night? Blue-light blocking glasses should help reduce your exposure to light to improve your sleep and protect your eyes.
  • Keep your bedroom dark. If you can, install good curtains unplug devices that emit light, or use an eye mask in summer months. When traveling, you could bring a portable blackout curtain if you (or your little ones!) are easily woken up by sunlight seeping in.
  • If you have to go to the bathroom at night, use a low-wattage light to find your way. Don’t turn on your lamps or scroll on your phone if you can’t sleep at night, but instead listen to an audiobook or try these helpful tips.
Light: The Free Accessible Health Tool You Probably Aren't Using Yet | The Health Sessions
Pin and save these tips for later.

There is no such thing as a miracle cure, but exposing yourself to early morning daylight and limiting artificial, bright light at night does help to fine-tune your circadian rhythm and consequently have a positive impact on your sleep and energy levels, mood, appetite and libido, and even your immunity and pain tolerance.

And the best thing is, using natural light is freely available for all of us to boost our health and happiness. With the tips given, hopefully you can tune into this accessible but effective strategy to support your overall wellbeing too.

What will you change about your exposure to light today to gradually improve your physical, emotional and cognitive functioning? 

For all the physiological details about using light for better health, listen to this episode of the Huberman Lab or check out his Daylight Protocol

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