For most of our evolution as human beings, we lived outdoors.
We were not in direct sunlight the whole time, but the majority of our day would have been spent outside under natural daylight.
There would have been shade from trees, and diminished light in other places such as in caves and other natural barriers from the sun.
At night, our only source of light would have been from fire or the moon.
Since then, we have built ourselves away from our natural habitat. In most modern western societies, it’s not unusual for someone to spent 80-90 per cent of their day indoors under artificial light.
Unfortunately, this is not so good for our health.
Because we evolved outdoors, our biology is closely tethered to the light/dark cycle of the sun. Remove that cycle, and our health will suffer.
If we’re spending most of our time indoors and away from the natural daylight which powers our circadian rhythm, it’s not really surprising that our health can suffer as a consequence.
In this article, I’m going to briefly cover the main reasons why sunlight is so important to our health, and some of the things I’ve done to help realign myself to the cycle of the sun.
I’m going to spilt this article up into the following sections:
• Our Connection to the Sun – What’s Gone Wrong?
• How To Fix It
• Expert Comment from Sleep Expert Nick Littlehales
• Anything Else to Consider?
• Wrapping Things Up – Final Thoughts
So, let’s get started and take a look at why starting your day with some natural daylight is so important for your health.
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Our Connection to the Sun – What’s Gone Wrong?
These days, we’re indoors much more than our ancestors would have been.
We already know that this is not optimal, given that our species mostly evolved outdoors in natural light. Our connection to the sun through light and dark cycles has been severed.
So what’s gone wrong? This connection with the natural cycle of daylight then changed forever with the invention of the electric lightbulb around 140 years ago.
With the flick of a switch, we were able to illuminate our homes with brighter lights and in a much safer way than with candles or fire.
Furthermore, our society has shifted towards being a mostly indoors-based one. We work in offices, schools, universities and hospitals – and are almost totally detached from the rhythm of natural daylight outdoors.
Simply put, we are not outside anywhere near as much as we used to be – and our DNA has still not caught up.
However, in recent years, things have taken a significant turn for the worse – as far as our health is concerned at least.
Fast forward a few decades from the invention of the lightbulb, and the amber glow or incandescent lightbulbs has largely been replaced by the bright blue flicker of LED and fluorescent lights.
On the one hand, these ‘energy saving’ lightbulbs are good for the environment, because they consume much less electricity. However, they may not be so good for our health.
In case you didn’t know, blue light (which only existed in daylight prior to the invention of the lightbulb) has a stimulating effect on the human body.
Simply put, blue light tells our body that it’s daytime and that it’s time to be up and awake.
On the other hand, diminished light, redder light (such as that which comes from fire) and darkness, signals to our body that it’s nighttime and time to go to sleep.
The problem these days it that we are constantly being blasted by blue light from all angles, at all times of the day. Worse still, we’re basically never outdoors any more.
By living in this world of artificial light, we’re unintentionally frying our body clocks on a consistent basis. And that can have some pretty bad consequences for our health.
Biohacks To Fix It
So, what can we do about the circadian mismatch that we’ve unintentionally created?
One of the things I’ve tried for the last few weeks is ensuring that I start every day with some exposure to natural daylight.
This ideally means being outdoors, without contact lenses, glasses or sunglasses on, during the very first part of the day.
I’m lucky because I live in an apartment on the 17th floor with an east-facing balcony, meaning that I can see the sun rise over the horizon every day of the year.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been going straight onto my balcony first thing in the morning after having woken up, and staying out there for 15 minutes.
I go straight out there – no coffee, no checking of my phone, no work – just a 15-minute dose of natural daylight.
Some mornings I feel a bit groggy when setting foot out on the balcony for the first time, but by the time the 15 minutes is up, it’s amazing how energized and awake I feel, even if it’s a cloudy day.
Why does this work so well? As we mentioned above, daylight is supposed to wake us up. It’s nature’s way of signalling the start of the day, and it’s coded into every single one of us.
If you’re not starting your day with some exposure to natural daylight, then you really are missing a trick.
Just like it’s important to be exposed to light during the day and in the morning, it’s equally important to ensure that you’re not over-exposed to blue light and light in general after dark.
Using a pair of blue light blocking glasses after dark can help to filter out the harmful blue wavelengths of light that are emitted by so many of our devices, but also found elsewhere in our homes, on subways and in offices.
The glasses produce a yellow/red glow, which is supposed to help mimic what fire would have looked like to our ancestors.
Expert Comment From Sleep Expert Nick Littlehales
I spoke to leading sleep expert Nick Littlehales last week.
During our discussion Nick mentioned the importance of starting your day with some natural daylight, and making a point of being aware of when sunrise is happening each morning.
Here’s some of what he had to say about the importance of improving our relationship with light.
“The first thing you have to understand is the circadian rhythm,” Nick explains.
“The sun goes around our planet every day – we cannot change that. It’s a whole process of light and dark and temperature shifts. We are human beings with bodily functions that are completely synchronised to that process. That has not changed. So whilst everything else changes around us, that process has always been in place.
“Principally, as human beings living outside, we would have been driven by that light/dark cycle. There’s a little bit of blue light in daylight and there is also some now hopping around in artificial lights and now the focus is on technology.
“But what I try to do is to emphasise that it’s really important as a human being to make sure that you’re exposed to daylight at the start of the day. Because without that, you don’t create all the bodily functions properly.
“This is about producing serotonin in your brain that tells you to un-suppress everything and become active. As we all know, the sun rises and gets to midday when it’s at its strongest, and then it starts to diminish towards the sunset.
“Really, what you want every day is around 12 hours of daylight, about four hours of diminished light and eight hours in darkness.
“Make sunrise part of your thing. Ask yourself, what time is the sun rising next week? If it’s rising at 5am and you normally get up at 6am, then open those curtains up and let it in.”
Anything Else To Consider?
Remember that it’s really important to actually get outdoors in the mornings.
Glass filters out a lot of the wavelengths of sunlight so it really is always optimal to be outdoors rather than inside when you’re exposing yourself to light in the morning.
Ideally, also do not wear sunglasses, glasses or contact lenses, to ensure you’ll be getting a dose of full-spectrum sunlight first thing.
Wrapping Things Up – Final Thoughts
So, how are you going to start incorporating more natural daylight into your mornings and days in general?
It really is something to think about.
Natural daylight really is one of the most important aspects to our health overall.
This includes the quality of the light we are exposed to in our eyes, on our skin and even the light our food has been exposed to.
As a modern society, we are guilty of ignoring one of our primary energy sources (the sun).
Begin by starting your mornings with some natural daylight and see how it affects your mood, wellbeing and health over the course of 30 days.