Consider the humble lightbulb. Since the late 1800s, it's been regarded (along with sliced bread and indoor plumbing) as one of the paramount conveniences of the modern age. Electric lights are so common in industrialized nations that we rarely think about them.
That might be changing. It turns out that the sheer ubiquity of artificial light is causing as many problems as it's solving. Since the Industrial Revolution, our sleep habits have changed significantly and, according to some experts, the shift is wreaking havoc on our minds and bodies—often without us realizing it.
The effect of light on sleep
In the morning, the sun rises, and the sky grows bright. In the evening, the sun sets, and the sky grows dark. (In case you hadn't noticed.) Most scientists believe that humans have evolved in response to this natural change, developing sleep habits that follow the diurnal cycle. But for many of us, the evenings are not so dark anymore.
Researchers have found that being exposed late in the day to bright artificial light prevents our bodies from preparing effectively for sleep. Specifically, bright light suppresses melatonin, one of the hormones that regulates our circadian rhythm. This means we don't feel as sleepy as we should at bedtime.
We've known for some time that digital displays—LCDs and LEDs—play a crucial role in our worsening sleep. That's why many devices now include a “night shift" setting, which aims to reduce blue light (the most harmful part of the spectrum) in the evenings. The idea is to mimic the night sky, which grows darker and more red as the sun sets.
It's no secret that consumer sleep tech isn't always as helpful as its manufacturers claim. In fact, some new gadgets even exacerbate the problems they were designed to solve, as in the case of orthosomnia, a condition wherein consumers who wear sleep tracking devices become convinced they're not sleeping well, despite all medical evidence to the contrary.
Doctors and scientists have generally expressed reservations about the claims made for certain sleep gadgets. However, there's broad agreement that artificial light—whether from the garish fluorescent bulbs of your office or the LEDs that adorn our phones and tablets—seriously messes with our sleep, and something needs to be done. (Here's a closer look at what happens to your body when you don't get enough sleep.)
New horizons in lighting
Lighting manufacturers are keenly aware of this conundrum. Companies such as GE and Philips have developed "smart bulbs" that more closely follow the natural ebb and flow of daylight. These LEDs connect to a hub that uses software to track the position of the sun, estimating and mimicking the intensity and temperature of natural light throughout the day. (In broad terms, color "temperature" refers to light's appearance, with warm temperatures at the red end of the spectrum and cool ones at the blue end.)
The idea is that by controlling artificial light's appearance, we can mitigate its negative consequences—and vice versa. Many trendy new offices are now outfitted with advanced smart systems that reproduce everything from alertness-stimulating sunlight to cozy firelight warmth. The benefits, lighting companies contend, are happier and more productive employees and increased overall well-being, including better sleep. While most of these companies stop short of positioning their lights as health products, it's hard to deny that natural lighting is simply more pleasant, especially in work environments, than old-fashioned harsh fluorescent tubes.
A smart bulb in every home
Natural lighting isn't limited to enterprise clients. Many manufacturers now offer residential packages, allowing homeowners to fine-tune their domestic lighting to be warmer and less harsh in the evenings. Coupled with a hub, a series of "smart bulbs" can instantly change the feel of a room at the touch of a button. You can schedule your lighting profiles to gradually shift throughout the day, or switch them on a whim.
Unfortunately, smart LEDs are still pretty expensive. A “starter pack" of four bulbs and a hub from a leading brand could set you back $200. High-end commercial systems run into the thousands. However, given the better quality, increased longevity and potential health benefits of natural lighting products, the cost might be justified. Luxury light—much like a luxury mattress—could be a sound investment in your sleep.
A more affordable solution
Even if you can't afford smart LEDs, consider outfitting your bedroom with standard bulbs that output warmer light. Even an ideal home lighting setting won't negate the effects of other light pollution you may encounter during the day, but warm, low light could help our bodies prepare for bedtime. Look for products that emit light in the 2000-2500 Kelvin (K) range.
It's also worth noting that the intensity of light matters just as much as the temperature, so turn off as many household lights as you can in the evening. And, if you can help it, keep screens out of the bedroom!