It’s well-established that sleep is essential to our physical and mental health. But despite its importance, a troubling percentage of people find themselves regularly deprived of quality sleep.
If you find yourself lying awake in bed tossing and turning until the early hours, you may need a sleep reboot. According to Dr Andrew Huberman, tenured Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine, the answer could lie in what you do as soon as you wake up.
A good night’s sleep starts first thing in the morning
On his podcast, Huberman Lab, Dr Huberman says, “what we do in the waking state determines when we fall asleep, how quickly we fall asleep, whether or not we stay asleep, and how we feel when we wake up the next day.” He states that the key to setting up your body for a good day is getting outside within the first hour of your morning.
Aside from promoting better sleep, getting sunlight exposure in the morning also:
- Produces vitamin D — vital for many aspects of health
- Crucial in regulating all bodily functions, including hormone levels and metabolism
- Improves wellbeing and boosts mood
- Can improve focus and productivity
3 is the magic number: Cortisol, melatonin and serotonin
If you’ve had a bad night’s sleep you’d be forgiven that getting up and going outside is one of the last things on your mind — but before you write off the idea, let’s look at why going outside could be the answer to curing your sleep deprivation.
It’s all to do with waking up the nervous system and the chemical reactions that happen from being exposed to the sun which reinforces your natural circadian rhythm (body clock) and causes the production of three very important hormones.
1. Serotonin. Known as one of your happy hormones, serotonin is responsible for regulating moods, appetite, memory and most importantly — sleep. Every morning, if your body, face and eyes are exposed to sunlight your body will increase its production of serotonin.
This can help stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and sun exposure can also help people with anxiety and depression, especially in combination with other treatments. But how exactly does serotonin help us sleep? Well, serotonin is a precursor to melatonin.
2. Melatonin. Morning sunlight exposure boosts the amount of raw material needed to make the sleep hormone melatonin — a central part of the body’s sleep-wake cycle.
So by exposing our bodies to morning sun, our serotonin cycles stay aligned with day and night — peaking midafternoon and dropping off after dark, making us feel tired and sleepy.
However, when these two hormones are not doing what they are supposed to, our bodies start to have adverse effects.
For example, no morning sun exposure determines inadequate serotonin production which causes poor levels of melatonin, resulting in poor sleep.
3. Cortisol. Known as your stress hormone, cortisol and melatonin are in an opposite relationship — when melatonin is high, cortisol should be low and vice versa. When either of these gets out of balance, our ability to sleep is affected.
Why is morning cortisol so important?
“Bringing that cortisol pulse earlier in your wakeful period has positive benefits, ranging from lowering blood pressure to improving mental health,” Dr Huberman explains.
“It makes you feel alert, it makes you feel able to move and want to move throughout your day for work for exercise, school, social relations, etc.” He goes on to say that like serotonin, exposure to bright light causes cortisol to set off a timer in your nervous system that dictates when melatonin will be secreted — which in turn drives wakefulness during daytime hours and results in better sleep at night.
Dr Huberman explains that our eyes and how they react to sunlight are pivotal to activating these hormones.
“When we wake up, our eyes open. If we’re in a dark room, there isn’t enough light to trigger the correct timing of this cortisol and melatonin rhythm. At day break, when the sun is low in the sky, there’s a particular contrast between yellows and blues, and that triggers the activation of cortisol.”
Maximise your exposure
Get out in the morning
First thing every morning is to go outside, with no sunglasses, eyeglasses or contacts (as they filter out light). Look towards the sun so that sunlight hits your face. Dr Huberman recommends anywhere from two to 10 minutes of sunlight exposure will work well for most people.
He says, “If it’s a bright day with no cloud cover you’ll have a lot of photon light energy arriving on your retina, so it probably only takes 30 to 60 seconds to trigger the central clock and set your cortisol and melatonin rhythms properly.”
Take exercise outside
Dr Huberman says that light – particularly sunlight – is 1,000 to 10,000 times more effective than getting up in darkness and just exercising. While there’s no denying exercise makes you feel good and it’s useful for the body’s circadian rhythm, light still remains the most important factor.
Combining the pair can be the best way to improve your wakefulness — which might mean taking your training outside for a morning run, or simply walking to your gym so you can take in more light.
Come rain or shine
Dr Huberman notes that even when it’s cloudy, it still sets your biological clock. He says that “in higher latitudes in the depths of winter, it may be too dark, but in most places most of the time, there’s still plenty of light energy.”
If the weather’s a problem — as it often is in the UK, get yourself as close as you can to a large window and soak up the rays. You don’t have to be able to see the sun.
Go out in the afternoon too
Although morning sunlight is key, Dr Huberman noted that it helps to get some sunlight in the late afternoon or evening too. Evening light has been shown to help anchor our clocks and encourage the correct level of melatonin.
If you can get in another 20 minute walk, even if it’s overcast and drizzling, you’ll be exposing yourself to a different wavelength of light than you did first thing in the morning.
For your best chance at sleeping well, it’s important that you also practise the following healthy sleep habits.
- A consistent sleep schedule
- No blue light 30 minutes before you go to sleep
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol
- Bedtime routine such as a warm bath, reading a book, or meditation
A basic need
Sunshine isn’t just a figurative and clichéd way to welcome a new day — it’s a real, physiological human requirement. The process of rebooting your biological clock is not just about repairing your sleep schedule, but also about improving your health and boosting your wellbeing.