With an abundance of electric lighting in urban areas and the ability to purchase tablets, laptops, and TVs at reasonable prices, most of our evenings are bathed in LED entertainment and bright lights that affect our natural sleep cycles. Some believe that artificial light at night is harmless; however, many scientists are concerned about how excessive exposure to light is affecting our health.
There are a variety of factors that can affect sleep patterns, ranging from the temperature of your room to the type of mattress you use. Even if you were to purchase the best hybrid mattress money can buy, such luxury is only effective when other environmental factors are considered. These factors, such as sound and light, are likely to disrupt a good night’s sleep, which is bad news for urban areas since within cities they are ubiquitous.
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At night the sky within cities is tainted with light pollution. It tends to block one of the most beautiful and natural sights in the world—a sky full of stars. Light pollution is defined as artificial and excessive light often found illuminating advertisements, offices, streetlights, and building exteriors. The International Dark-Sky Association is a group of astronomers who research and educate others about how and why we need to preserve the night sky. The IDA has defined different types of light pollution as such:
- Glare – Excessively bright light that causes visual discomfort.
- Skyglow – The night sky is visually lighter over inhabited areas.
- Light Trespass – Unintended or unnecessary light.
- Clutter – Light sources bundled together that are excessively bright and confusing in appearance.
They also describe the impact of such light:
- Energy Consumption – The IDA’s research reveals 15 million tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere due to US homes using outdoor lighting.
- Ecosystems – Artificial light disrupts wildlife cycles that depend on light and dark to instigate natural processes, such as sourcing shelter and protection from predators, sleeping, reproduction, and feeding.
- Human Health – Artificial lighting affects our internal biochemical rhythms that are governed by natural light and dark. Over time, overexposure to light at night, commonly experienced in urban areas, can lead to potentially dangerous health problems such as depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, obesity, and breast cancer. For more information on how unnatural lighting affects our health and sleep, we delve into the importance of the circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm organizes each person’s sleep and wake cycles based on the presence of daylight and night time. Our circadian rhythms regulate our energy levels throughout the day. Our body regulates our day in other ways too, such as with urine production. In the absence of light and during sleep, our bodies produce less urine while we’re unable to attend the bathroom.
Exposure to abnormal light after the sun has set affects your internal clocks. Normally, your body recognizes when to prepare for sleep and produces melatonin; however, it will suppress this production if it believes it may not be nighttime.
One particular type of lighting which appears to have the most devastating impact on people’s sleep-wake cycles in urban areas is blue light. This type of light, used in LED lighting, is a favored source of illumination used by manufacturers in products such as televisions and mobile phones. Its use has also extended to commercial, industrial, and residential lighting mainly due to its energy efficiency.
According to Dr. Liji Thomas, in her article, Artificial Light Exposure and Circadian Rhythm, she explains “untimely light exposure can bring on a host of disorders ranging from insomnia to cognitive deficits”. Blue light alters the circadian rhythm as the body perceives it as natural light.
However, blue light may have some health advantages. It is often used to help Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where the body requires more melatonin production. This is also believed to be beneficial for people who work within an office setting that has no exposure to natural light. However, once the exposure moves beyond the sunset, the arousal of blue light at night harms people’s sleep patterns.
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Our urban environments are constantly illuminated. Even if we manage to escape into our homes, the lifestyle that is associated with city living is one of being switched on and connected to screens. These environments are not built to support a healthy sleep cycle and, for most, it is imperative to take sleeping well into our own hands
There are some cities across the globe that are taking steps to reduce their light pollution; however, these are often smaller cities, as opposed to sprawling areas that pose a more significant problem, such as Las Vegas and Tokyo.
The Purpose of Artificial Lighting
As with most inventions and energy sources, people are unsure of whether it possesses damaging effects until extensive studies reach an agreed conclusion. Artificial lighting in urban areas is often said to be necessary for the greater good; however, according to a 2015 study by Epidemiology and Community Health, while street lights were installed to improve safety for the public and deter crime, it has not proven to have worked. Despite being created to support a safer neighborhood, it could be argued that they cause a greater impact on our rest.
Improve Sleep Patterns in Urban Areas
Below are a few steps that can be actioned by you to help your body adhere to natural sleep patterns that are normally governed by day and night, and not by abnormal lighting.
- Sleep experts suggest switching off electronic devices an hour before bed. Turn off your mobile phone, lights, and TV to give your circadian rhythm the full effect of complete darkness.
- Switch off external lighting on your home that could tamper with yours and other people’s sleep patterns. Indirect, excessive light is not only harmful to the environment but can also impose health risks on others who are trying to sleep.
- Buy dimmers and warm-colored lighting to adjust the ambiance within your home at night. Low, mood lighting is better than bright white light that will provoke your circadian rhythm to believe it’s day time.
One individual is incapable of bringing back the natural night sky alone. However, each person can make small but significant changes to take better control of their sleep health, support the wildlife in their gardens, and reduce their carbon footprint.
As our second lead editor, Anna C. Mackinno provides guidance on the stories Great Lakes Ledger reporters cover. She has been instrumental in making sure the content on the site is clear and accurate for our readers. If you see a particularly clever title, you can likely thank Anna. Anna received a BA and and MA from Fordham University.