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Darkness matters: the effects of light on sleep

At 1am on the last Sunday of March (27th), the clocks will go forward one hour, ready for spring to make its long overdue appearance. With this in mind, the matter of daylight-saving time (DST) and its impact on our much-needed sleep is raised. After all, there’s nothing quite like unwinding in a pitch-black room, knowing a peaceful night’s slumber is ahead of you.  

Light exposure during the night can impede shifts between sleep cycles, which negatively effects the quality of sleep. Too much light can trigger repeated awakenings, disturbing the sleep cycle and lessening time spent in deeper and more restorative sleep. With illumination from every angle, whether it be streetlights, smartphones or the blinding morning sky, light is a constant part of our day-to-day lives, brightening homes and even the night-time sky. 

Fortunately, there are ways to remedy the matter. In fact, blackout blinds may just be the answer to savouring that extra and much-needed time in bed, when the spring sun begins to grace us earlier. As complete darkness lessens distractions, the design of blackout blinds means no matter whether the full moon is out, or your street is illuminated from top to bottom, your precious snoozing time remains uninterrupted.  

How Does Light Affect Sleep? 

Light most certainly has a significant impact on our sleep, and it influences the following: 

  • Circadian rhythm – 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock, working in the background to initiate vital functions and processes e.g. sleep-wake cycle.  
  • Melatonin production – a hormone that your brain produces in response to darkness e.g. helps the timing of your circadian rhythm and sleep. 
  • Sleep cycles – the transition between the slow-wave (deep sleep stage) and REM (stage after deep sleep where dreams and memory consolidation occur) phases of sleep.  

There are receptors in the eye that when subjected to light, send information to the circadian system. They inform on the time of day and whether to suppress melatonin (if it’s bright outside) or increase melatonin (if it’s going dark). 
Whilst light can disrupt sleep, being exposed to bright natural light is in fact linked to improved quality of sleep, the ability to fall asleep earlier and sleep deeper. So, make sure to get outside during the day, particularly if you work indoors under artificial light, to benefit from the positives of natural light exposure. 
Unfortunately, being exposed to artificial light works in the opposite way to natural light. Fluorescent bulbs, smartphones, laptops, and televisions do not have the same positive effects on sleep that natural light does. Artificial light can stifle melatonin production, as well as increase the amount you wake up during the night. This means that overall – a poor quality night’s slumber is on the cards.  

What Health Risks are Associated with Light Exposure During Sleep?

Your circadian system constantly being disrupted not only affects your sleep but your general health too, increasing the risk of numerous illnesses like breast cancer and diabetes. For instance, various studies have found links between people whose homes had high quantities of artificial light at night and an increased risk of breast and prostate cancers.  
Sleeping with light interruptions may also result in weight gain, noted in a study of over 43,000 women who slept with their television on throughout the night. Even minimal levels of light whilst sleeping can cause eye strain – resulting in soreness, tiredness, and eye discomfort, as well as more trouble focusing. 
With so many possible consequences that come with exposure to artificial light, it’s evident that light exposure not only throws off circadian rhythm but also plays a key role in promoting various aspects of physical and mental health. 

Which Bedroom Colours are Conducive to Sleep? 

Whilst keeping the lights on can interfere with sleep, some studies also show that turning on certain colours of light, for instance dark blue, can help lure you into a good night’s sleep. There are shades in the boudoir that may impact your sleep too, including those on your walls. Colours can affect our mood greatly, therefore being surrounded by the wrong hue could potentially affect us when trying to unwind at night.  

Colours to help you sleep 

Whilst we strive to paint our walls in colours that bring us the most aesthetic appeal, the hues may impact you psychologically, including ability to fall asleep. Some colours may induce relaxation, whilst others stimulate the mind and make it more alert. Generally, soft colours are best for bedroom walls, with blue, green, and yellow offering the most fruition.  

  • Blue 

Blue is arguably one of the best shades for the bedroom. Not only is it more muted, but blue tones tend to also have more soothing effects on the brain, demonstrated in a study in 2018 of blue walls in university accommodation 

All blue hues can evoke a tranquil ambiance but stick with lighter shades when it comes to your bedroom walls, in order to get the most benefit.  

  • Green 

The colour green is redolent of nature, which may help to inspire relaxation of the mind. For many, green can also be a harmonious and invigorating shade of choice. 

  • Yellow 

Whilst yellow isn’t always conducive to sleep, it can be beneficial to wake up in a yellow bedroom due to the colour’s cheerful connotations. Like blue and green, opt for lighter tones of yellow, that are less likely to disturb you from your sleep.  

Colours that hinder sleep 

As a general rule of thumb, excessively vibrant colours should be avoided in the bedroom, such as loud reds and oranges, as they’re considered lively and uplifting. In fact, a study in 2014 found that red can actually increase your fight-or-flight instinct, making you more alert and aware of everything around you.  

Whilst pops of colour can be fun to experiment with, in the bedroom, avoid bright or neon pinks and purples, as they too can be stimulating when trying to wind down for sleep. Although the more vivid shades may not be appropriate for the bedroom when it comes to sleep, it doesn’t mean the whole house needs to be void of colour. Depending on the layout of your home, you may still be able to integrate some of those more energetic hues in other rooms – your home office or child’s playroom are the perfect spaces for splashes of vibrancy. However, if you simply can’t do without bright and bold colours in the bedroom, instead opt for more subdued versions. For instance, swap a vivid purple for a delicate lavender, and a post-box red for a soft salmon hue.  

How Does the Clocks Changing Affect Sleep Routines? 

The DST change springs us forward, giving us those long-awaited extended summer evenings. However, whilst it may only be 60 minutes, waking up the following Monday after the time change may not be so easy. This transition may cause loss of valuable sleep and perhaps a drive to work which requires an extra spoonful of coffee. These disruptions to sleep can last up to a week after the clocks change.  

Moving our clocks in either direction, whether an hour forward or back, affects the main time cue – light – for setting and resetting our 24-hour natural cycle, or circadian rhythm. This means our internal clock essentially becomes out of sync with our existing day-night cycle. Therefore, the transition between DST and Standard Time means our sleep-wake cycle becomes delayed, making us feel more fatigued in the mornings and alert in the evenings. In fact, we’re most at risk of sleep deprivation in early March, when the transition from Standard Time and DST occurs. Research regarding this observed that the average individual gets 40 minutes less sleep on the Monday following the clocks going forward, in comparison to other nights of the year. 

How Can the Effects of Light be Combatted?  

To fine-tune your sleep-wake cycle ahead of the clocks going forward, your bedroom should be free from any light, so you can doze off quicker and get those all-important extra minutes of sleep in. In fact, this should be to the point where you can’t see the details within your room, even after your eyes get used to the darkness. Having said that, how do we block out something that’s everywhere? Think charging electronics, hallway night lights and the sunrise. As with individuals who choose to fall asleep with the television on in the background – in this sense humans can be self-sabotaging of their own precious sleep. 

The greater the contrast between night and day, the better you’ll sleep. Here are some of the ways you can make that happen: 

  • Adjust your evening light – being exposed to bright artificial light in the evening can disturb sleep. Dim overhead lights or turn them off completely and instead use a small side-table or nightstand lamp, as these can help transition to bedtime and pitch darkness.  

  • Limit electronics before bed – try to reduce sleep-delaying blue light too, not only from lamps but also from the main offenders like laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The little blue lights from such devices are especially impactful when it comes to disrupting our internal clock. From bulbs that gradually dim down to bulbs that remove blue light, there are many sleep promoting products available. But to avoid temptation once you’re in bed for purposes of unwinding, ensure your bedroom is a gadget-free zone. 

  • Use red emitting nightlights – some people may need light to help them sleep, namely children who may be scared of the dark. If this is the case, try a red-emitting nightlight instead. Research suggests that red light exposure during the night does not adversely affect sleep. 

  • Purchase a sleeping mask – these are relatively inexpensive, comfy, and can be found in most shops or online. 

  • Switch to soft light bulbs – if you have dazzling LED light bulbs in your nightstand lamps, replace them with a softer and warmer incandescent bulb. This is particularly beneficial if you want to read before bed but don’t want to be surrounded by  
    bright light just before dozing off. 

  • Invest in blackout window dressings – darkness promotes relaxation and stimulates the production of melatonin which helps sleeping patterns. Blackout curtains or blinds can be ground-breaking when it comes to darkening your bedroom. They’re normally made of thicker fabric, designed to block light, and therefore allowing you to fall asleep and stay asleep without being disturbed by environmental light.  

The Benefits of Blackout Blinds for Sleep 

What can you do to combat the effects of light and have a good (and interrupted) night’s sleep? Embrace the blackout! For those sensitive to light exposure, as well as those who struggle to sleep, blackout blinds can be transformative in darkening the bedroom completely.  

  • Light blockers – with DST on its way, and the sun rising earlier, the morning sunshine sends a signal to our brains that it’s time to get up and begin the day. Therefore, for those who follow the motto early bird catches the worm, sleep experts believe blackout blinds can be the simplest antidote 

  • Optimise temperature to save energy and money – as a bonus, on top of stiff-arming light, blackout window treatments also protect against another classic culprit when it comes to sleep – temperature. As the days get warmer in spring, and sizzling in summer, blackout window dressings will also work to keep heat at bay. Aside from optimising the temperature of your bedroom to a comfortable level, energy bills could possibly be lowered too – meaning perhaps more money in your pocket.  

  • Noise reduction qualities – another fantastic benefit is their ability to reduce noise. This means no more disruptions from outside noise, so you can rest peacefully, no matter the time of the day. 

  • Beneficial for individuals in certain professions – for those who tend to work night shifts, for instance nurses, police officers, and firefighters, blackout window coverings are ideal. A quality and comfortable sleep awaits you, to prepare you and rejuvenate you for your next night shift.  

Blackout curtains and blackout blinds are available in a variety of fabrics, such as polyester, felt or suede. And for the style-conscious homeowners, these window dressings come in a selection of colours and styles too, like the flower imprinted Ascot blackout curtain or the geometric Rose Bud blackout blind. Pair either of these with muted colours on the wall. Not only will they be eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing but they’ll also work to create a setting conducive to a peaceful night’s sleep. Remember – a comfortable bed, a supportive pillow and bedding suitable for the season wouldn’t go amiss either.  

The bottom line is that the only light in your bedroom should be natural light – and even that’s only for when you’re ready to rise and shine. Basking in your sweet cocoon of pitch darkness all night is essential for not only an uninterrupted night’s rest but health too. When designing the layout of our bedrooms, we often focus on the more obvious, tangible aspects of sleep – the snug mattress toppers, fancy sheets and memory foam pillows. However, optimising our evening slumber starts with environmental conditions such as light. The disappearance of light in the evening tells the brain that it’s time to wind down for a quality night’s sleep, which in turn prepares a well-rested mind and body, that’s ready to seize the day the next morning.   

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