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Blue Light: The Great Circadian Disruptor

July 02, 2020

Whether we realize it or not, all life is inherently organized around the daily and seasonal rhythms of natural light. These predictable and consistent cycles create order, meaning, and most importantly energy, allowing for complex life to thrive throughout the natural world.

Humans, in particular, are profoundly impacted by the presence or absence of light. Our bodies are programmed to use the sun’s dynamic electromagnetic spectrum as a barcode for critical behavioral and physiological processes—these daily changes are referred to as our Circadian Rhythm. Almost every process is tied to the circadian mechanism at some level, making proper alignment with nature critical to optimal health.

The challenge in the modern world, however, is the widespread use of non-native, artificial blue light in our homes, workplaces and technology. While it certainly makes our lives more convenient and productive, our constant exposure disrupts our circadian rhythm, altering critical functions throughout the body. The result is dysfunction and chronic disease, which have become unfortunate norms.

 

What Is The Circadian Rhythm?

The term circadian rhythm was first coined by Franz Halberg to describe the cycle of biological processes lasting roughly 24 hours1. The presence of a circadian mechanism is an important feature of most organisms, allowing them to adapt physiologic functions to environmental signals for optimal energy production and expenditure2. Processes like metabolism, glucose, body temperature, cognitive performance, hormonal balance, and mitochondrial activity are all tied to our circadian rhythm and must be aligned with nature to function optimally.

 

How Does It Work?

The circadian clock does not keep perfect time on its own, relying on environmental light stimulus to coordinate biologic activity. In mammals, this process is controlled predominantly by the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), which is located in the hypothalamus and also drives peripheral clocks throughout the body.

Perception of light occurs through photoreceptor cells located in the retina that communicate directly with the brain—these include rods, cones and intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). Rods and cones are responsible for visual image forming, while ipRGCs modulate non-visual responses to light, most importantly circadian entrainment2. What is unique about ipRGCs is the presence of a photopigment known as Melanopsin, which is particularly sensitive to blue light in the range of 440–480 nm3. Melanopsin has also been found to be present in the skin and subcutaneous fat, which means skin exposure to blue light matters as well.

When Melanopsin becomes excited by the presence of short wavelength blue light, the message is passed to the SCN which stimulates a cascade of physiologic action. One of the most important actions resulting from this process is the synthesis and suppression of melatonin2.

 

Melatonin Matters

Melatonin is found almost universally in all living organisms. As a hormone, its primary goal is to affect action throughout the body. Although most commonly associated with sleep/wake, the story goes far deeper. In fact, melatonin is a powerful antioxidant responsible for critical mitochondrial function and protection, cell death and repair, metabolic processes, immune system modulation and much more. As such, melatonin levels are one of the most critical aspects of avoiding disease and creating optimal health4.

Melatonin synthesis occurs in the pineal gland and is modulated by cues from the light environment received by Melanopsin and projected to the SCN. In the morning, the presence of visible blue light suppresses Melatonin synthesis and increases production of cortisol, serotonin, and dopamine—this helps you feel alert and energized. As the day progresses and the sun’s spectrum becomes absent of blue, melatonin synthesis and secretion is stimulated—this allows for quality sleep and cellular repair. Peak levels of melatonin occur around the middle of the night, after several hours of total darkness. Levels again begin to fall as it becomes time to wake up and the process repeats, creating a predictable, efficient rhythm of physiologic function5. But, what happens when blue light is present all day?

 

Enter Artificial Blue Light

Use of artificial light has become nearly ubiquitous throughout our lives. There are two sides to the story of non-native, artificial light as it relates to circadian alignment—chronic disruption and the promotion of an indoor existence.

First, modern lighting and technology peaks in the blue range, unbalanced by the remainder of the spectrum and unchanging as the sun would be naturally. Blue light has the greatest effect on circadian entrainment and constant exposure to artifical light signals daytime to the SCN, desynchronizing the circadian clock. While artificial light exposure is never good, use of it at night is the most disruptive to the circadian mechanism, resulting in the suppression of melatonin. The downstream effects are poor sleep quality, altered metabolism, inability to conduct cellular repair and growth and decreased cognitive function. For many, lifestyle choices make circadian misalignment a chronic state, resulting in chronic conditions6.

Additionally, the use of artificial light has enabled an indoor existence with 24/7 access to food, work, and leisure. For the majority of human evolution, the sun was the predominant source of light—when the sun was absent, the only options were to make a fire or go to sleep. Food was also tied directly to its photosynthetic origins and seasonality determined availability. However, proliferation of artificial light has enabled us to trade alignment with nature for convenience. Today, we no longer depend on the sun and instead spend our days and nights indoors, surrounded by artificial light with unlimited access to food7.

 

The Consequences

Chronic circadian disruption and an indoor lifestyle have serious consequences for health and aligns with the increase in modern day dysfunctions like: 

  • Cancer8,9
  • Metabolic disorders and obesity10, 11, 12
  • Decreased immune function13
  • Altered and poor quality sleep14
  • Inability to conduct cellular repair15
  • Neurodegenerative Disorders16, 17
  • Mental health18
  • Alzheimers19
  • Diabetes20
  • Cardiovascular disease21
  • Gut dysfunction22
  • Mitochondrial Dysfunction23 

 

What’s The Solution?

Mitigating and eliminating the presence of artificial blue, especially at night, is critical to optimal health. Here are some strategies for optimizing your light environment:

  • Get outside in the morning to optimize melatonin production in the evening: Although melatonin plays a starring role at night, synthesis of melatonin actually begins in the morning. Melatonin is a derivative of tryptophan, an aromatic amino acid. The aromatic amino acids are specialized to capture UV light and tryptophan’s peak absorption occurs at 280 nm, which is UVB radiation. This spectrum is present in the late morning and early afternoon. When you expose your eyes and skin, tryptophan production is stimulated, which eventually leads to the synthesis of Melatonin24, 25.
  • Wear Blue Light Blocking Glasses: Blue light blocking glasses block varying amounts of blue from entering the retina depending on the type of lens and intended use. While blocking blue is important all day, use of blue blockers is especially important at night, when Melatonin synthesis and secretion takes place. There are a number of great brands with great products—makes sure to do some research to determine which one is best for you.
  • Limit technology use as much as possible: Although technology is such a huge component of the modern world, limiting our usage as much as possible is critical to mitigating blue light exposure. Even a couple minutes less per day can have a huge effect. Find ways to be mindful about usage and don’t be afraid to place restrictions and time limits.
  • Shut down electronics at least an hour before bed: Eliminate the temptation to utilize technology and expose yourself to harmful blue light before bed. Dedicate the last hour of your day entirely to sleep quality by shutting down electronics or putting them on airplane mode.
  • Use as few lights as possible prior to bed: The artificial lighting in our homes peaks in the blue range, disrupting our circadian rhythm and suppressing melatonin. Either choose bulbs designed to eliminate the presence of blue, use a red light or candle, or forgo lights altogether.
  • Make your bedroom as dark as possible: Even the smallest amounts of light can greatly interrupt your sleep quality. Eliminate all light in your bedroom by using black out shades and putting your phone in another room.
  • Repeat: Build your functional ecosystem around your light environment and seek alignment with nature as much as possible—this is the surest way to optimal health.

Cites:

  1. http://halbergchronobiologycenter.umn.edu/home/franz-halberg
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2848671/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7065627/
  4. https://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2359-39972018000400472&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=en
  5. http://photobiology.info/Roberts-CR.html?fbclid=IwAR04N-lvc_z56kChYW3M5SLnPiBCM3W9qVPs9-SBvZSL1h0sja0lx-9Ogb4
  6. https://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/emerging/docs/scenihr_o_035.pdf
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5587396/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4038658/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3162043/
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3756146/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860420/
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30633544/
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860420/
  14. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519507/)
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3389582/
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6338075/
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6321023/
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32066704/
  19. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30594436/
  20. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30645664/
  21. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30633544/
  22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6290721/
  23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6187225/#:~:text=Circadian%20rhythms%20provide%20a%20selective,metabolic%20capacity%20during%20active%20hours.&text=The%20circadian%20clock%20regulates%20many,metabolism%20and%20particularly%20mitochondrial%20activity.
  24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2654999/#:~:text=Tryptophan%2C%20the%20precursor%20of%20melatonin,eye%20movement%20sleep%20(16).
  25. http://www.biology.arizona.edu/biochemistry/problem_sets/aa/Aromatic.html#:~:text=To%20different%20degrees%2C%20all%20aromatic,with%20an%20ionizable%20side%20chain.

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Medical Disclaimer: This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Monette nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program. Statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Products sold on this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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