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A Neuroscientist’s Top Tip for A Good Night’s Sleep

Hayley Dawes
20 February 2023

Think you’ve tried every sleep trick in the book already? From breath work and meditation to various gadgets and apps, the sleep and wellness space has endless techniques and products that promise a deep, continuous night’s sleep. If you struggle with insomnia, then it’s likely you’ve experimented with them all – often with no improvement. The real secret to better sleep could be right in front of you.

They say the best things in life are free, and morning sunlight is no exception. Our bodies thrive when we’re well-nourished, and just like when we eat healthy food and feel good, sunlight can work similar wonders. Our bodies are all biologically wired to sync up with the sun. Our bodies produce melatonin when the sun goes down to help us sleep and then reduces the chemical when the sun comes up.

During the winter months when the days are shorter and darker, many people spend less time outdoors and don’t get as much natural light. This can affect everything from mood and energy to sleep. To improve your sleep patterns in the winter, experts recommend spending more time outdoors, being physically active, and following a regular sleep routine.

Many of us dismiss getting outside as a luxury, putting it off to work longer hours or recharge in front of the TV. However, research suggests that sunlight could help you recharge more effectively, work more efficiently, and feel better as a result. Recent studies have revealed some interesting insights about our bodies’ sleep patterns and demonstrates the value of getting outside during the day, even when it’s overcast.

The Importance of Sunlight

Andrew Huberman, neuroscientist and associate professor of neurobiology, psychiatry, and behavioural sciences at Stanford University, points out that one of the most important practices for healthy sleep is to ensure you view sunlight each morning. He advises to view sunlight by going outside within 30 to 60 minutes of waking, for around 2 and 10 minutes, and then to do it again in the later afternoon, before sunset.

Improves Sleep Quality

Sunlight and darkness are powerful biological indicators – seeing the sun regularly every day helps keep your internal clock synced. We naturally feel more awake and energetic during daylight hours, and when it’s dark out, our internal clock tells us it’s time for bed.

Viewing sunlight is not only crucial to balancing our circadian rhythms, but it also triggers an increase in healthy levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and dopamine – all hormones that are key to improving immune system function, mood, and energy. It is one of the most important things that any, and all of us can – and should – do, in order to promote metabolic wellbeing, the positive function of your hormone system, and get your mental health steering in the right direction.

This simple habit starts a timer for the onset of the sleep hormone, melatonin. This helps our bodies understand when it’s time to wind down and get ready for sleep. By seeing daylight in the morning, your body slows down melatonin production to wake you up and increases output at night when the sun goes down.

*DREEM TIP* This habit is much more effective if you actually go outside to view sunlight, rather than just taking it in through a window. With spring on the horizon, it can’t hurt to try.

How to Get More Early Light

You’ll get the most benefit from sunlight if you can get it first thing in the morning. Try to get outside in the first hour after you wake up, and don’t wear any sunglasses. If the light is filtered, it won’t have the same affect.

Taking a walk first thing in the morning gets you sunlight and exercise at the same time. If you have a garden or patio, you could have your breakfast outside. Just make sure the sun is getting on you.

Sunlight is less intense first thing in the morning. It can still damage your skin, but not as much as it would later in the day. Making sure to wear SPF can help keep your skin safe as you soak up the morning light. If the day is overcast and cloudy, you can still get sunshine. Light from the sun that’s filtered through clouds or rain can still have positive effects.

Once you figure out what works, stick to a regular schedule. Waking up at the same time every day and getting morning sunlight is a good combination.

Guidelines for Light Exposure 

To get the most out of your morning light exposure, follow these guidelines:

  • Get out in the sun within the first hour after you wake up
  • Spend 30-45 minutes in the sun
  • Don’t wear sunglasses or visors
  • Get direct light (not filtered through glass)
  • Use SPF to protect your skin

How Sunlight Helps You Sleep

Sunlight affects your sleep because it affects your body and its natural rhythms. Your circadian clock, an internally driven 24-hour cycle that helps to set your sleep-wake cycle, is most sensitive to light around the following times:

  • About one hour after waking up in the morning
  • About two hours before bedtime
  • Throughout the night

When you get light in the morning it can help you feel more alert during the day and has a subsequent effect that helps you to feel sleepy in the evening and fall asleep earlier. However, if you are exposed to bright light within two hours of your bedtime, it can make you less sleepy and fall asleep later.

How Sunlight Affects Your Body

Here are some ways that sunlight affects your body, including: 

  • Being in the sun warms you up. Your body temperature also changes when you sleep.
  • First thing in the morning, your body makes a stress hormone called cortisol. Having too much of this hormone at night can keep you awake.
  • Sunlight helps your body make a brain chemical called serotonin that plays an important role in your well-being. 

Your body senses when it’s daytime and when it’s night time, by being exposed to light.