How Light Can Change Your Mind
By: Dr. Leland Stillman, MD
Is light driving the modern epidemic of mental illness in young adults?
Have you ever wondered why you can stay awake at night on your computer or your phone, but you can fall asleep as soon as you turn off the light?
Or why you wake up in the morning when the light shines through your windows?
Light is the trigger for wakefulness. You know this, even if you’ve never stopped to think about it.
But what if light is doing more than just waking you up? Light is the trigger not only for wakefulness, but for many other processes of life.
First of all, what is light? Your phone uses light you cannot see (the same kind of light that your microwave uses to cook your food) to send and receive information, whether it is a text or an email. The screen you interact with uses visible light, but what is visible light? The colors of the rainbow are actually different kinds of light. They have different energies or wavelengths, similar to how instruments can make different kinds of sounds. Some of these colors of light are warm, inviting, and comforting – visible light in the red, orange, and yellow spectrum. Other colors are harsh or cold, and are rich in blue or green colors.
These colors have different effects on your body. Why does this matter? How could this be driving an epidemic of depression and anxiety among young people?
The answer is a chemical you may have heard of – melatonin. Melatonin is also known as the hormone of sleep. It turns out that blue and green light can shut down melatonin production, and in doing so it can ruin your sleep. But how could this change your mind?
Melatonin is not just the hormone of sleep, it is the hormone of rest and regeneration. Without melatonin, you fall apart, and not just your body, but your mind. The reason is that your brain has enormous requirements for energy. What makes energy in all of your cells? A tiny structure called a mitochondria. Your brain cells are loaded with mitochondria and, just like your car or your computer, they need routine maintenance. Occasionally, you need to change your car’s oil or restart your computer. For your mitochondria, their reset is sleep and the magic of sleep depends on melatonin. Melatonin repairs your mitochondria and readies them to power you through your next day.
What does this have to do with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses? You may know that depression and anxiety are related to chemicals called neurotransmitters. These are tiny molecules that your brain uses to signal. They can make you happy, sad, excited, angry, and they are essential for memory, movement, and sensation. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications work by altering your neurotransmitter levels.
If your brain cells are starving for energy, you might wonder how they could produce enough neurotransmitters to keep you happy, calm, and smart. The truth is that it cannot. Depression and anxiety are not the only diseases associated with low neurotransmitter levels and trashed mitochondria – many forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, fit this description as well.
When we use artificial light at night, we shut down melatonin production and one day after another, our mitochondria suffer as a result. Over time, this may manifest as insomnia, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and, later in life, dementia, heart disease, and many, many other disorders that are growing more common in our modern blue-lit world.
What can we do about this?
1. You can use software on your smart phone, tablets, or computers to filter out blue light, so that you see only red, yellow, and orange light. This will not damage your melatonin levels.
2. You can buy glasses that block blue light called, “blue blockers.” These have been proven in many studies to protect your melatonin levels, and with them your sleep and your mitochondria.
3. You can use lights that are warm. Your eye can easily tell the difference between lights that are low in blue and green – they seem warm and inviting. They have more red, orange, and yellow.
4. You can use less artificial light at night. This will also protect the rest of the world (like animals and your environment) from artificial light. Turn off as many lights as possible, especially ones you are not using.
5. You can go to sleep earlier, maximizing your time spent in darkness, when your melatonin levels will naturally be high.
6. You can avoid eating late at night. The later you eat, the more you disrupt melatonin levels in your body.
7. You can use black-out curtains to make your bedroom as dark as possible.
8. You can limit screen time and use reading lights that are red and won’t shut down melatonin production.
These are just a few tips to help you protect your brain from the dangers of artificial light. Young people today are struggling with depression and anxiety that are worse and more prevalent than ever before. It does not have to be this way. You can keep your brain healthy and happy by minimizing artificial light after dark.
You may know Albert Einstein’s famous equation, e=mc^2. The equation means that light and matter can be converted into one another. Did you ever stop to think that if e=mc^2, then light = food? What are you feeding your mind through your cellphone or laptop screen? Does it matter more than what you put in your mouth?
We need to be careful what light we live our lives under, because it can change our minds for better, or for worse.
Light shapes life. How is it shaping yours?