This summer I told you about the havoc the light emitted from today’s modern conveniences…iPads, e-readers, and smartphones…are wreaking on our sleep cycles and how using them too close to bedtime may be putting you at a higher risk for illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
But now researchers say we have to be equally concerned with light exposure that occurs after we go to bed.
Scientists at Ohio State University say that being exposed to light at night can literally cause changes in the brain and those changes are linked to depression.
Nighttime light linked to depression
According to one of studies co-authors, Tracy Bedrosian, even relatively dim light at night is enough to trigger the brain changes and resulting depression.
In fact, the effect was seen in laboratory hamsters when they were exposed to just 5 lux—about the brightness of having a TV on in a darkened room—for eight weeks.
Let me guess. You’re wondering how the heck you determine if a hamster is depressed, right? I wondered the very same thing.
Believe it or not, it turns out that there’s already a well-accepted set of tests to do just that. And, surprisingly, it seems as if hamsters have some things in common with us when it comes to feeling blue.
For example, when we’re depressed we tend to take less pleasure in the things we normally enjoy like eating our favorite foods. Depressed hamsters do the same; drinking considerably less of one of their favorite treats—sugar water.
Sleeping in a room with light led to brain changes
Not only did the hamsters that were exposed to the dim light show more signs of depression than did their counterparts who got to sleep in darkened rooms, but when the researchers examined an area of their brains called the hippocampus (a key player in depressive disorders), they spotted something strange.
The hamsters had a significant reduction in the density of the hair-like growths, called dendritic spines, that the brain uses to send chemical messages from one cell to another.
The researchers believe that the changes in the hippocampus—and the resulting depression—are tied to the production of a hormone called melatonin.
Melatonin alerts your body that it’s nighttime, but being exposed to light at night suppresses the amount of the hormone being secreted, and that could be responsible for the brain changes the scientists saw in the hamsters.
Considering that poor sleep quality has already been linked to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes the truth is that sleep-disturbing light in the bedroom at night is not just an inconvenience…it’s an actual threat to your health.
Keep in mind that the level of light these hamsters was exposed to was quite dim, so even light from an adjacent hallway or from a streetlight outside your window should be considered when light-proofing your bedroom.
Be sure to turn off all the lights and light-producing electronics in the house at night…especially the TV…and put up light-blocking curtains if you need them.
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