Thursday, 20 June, 2024
HomeEditor's PickExposure to light during sleep linked to health risks – Chicago study

Exposure to light during sleep linked to health risks – Chicago study

Researchers have found that sleeping with any type of light whatsoever, even dim light, can affect your health – and that any light exposure during sleep could be linked to a higher risk of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure in older adults.

The research, from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, which explored the link between light exposures during sleep and health risks, serves as a warning for the many people living in industrialised nations where light tends to be omnipresent, reports Medical News Today.

Corresponding author for the study, Dr Minjee Kim, said: “Whether it be from one’s smartphone, leaving a TV on overnight, or light pollution in a big city, we live among an abundant number amount of artificial sources of light that are available 24 hours a day.

“It appears that even a tiny amount of light has a noticeable effect on our body’s response,” Kim told Medical News Today.

“Previous animal and some human studies have suggested a potential association between mistimed light – not enough light during the day, too much light at night – and obesity. But there was little data on light exposure patterns in older adults.

“As older adults are already at increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, we wanted to know how frequently they are exposed to ‘light at night’ (or ‘LAN’), and whether light at night is correlated with CVD risk factors.”

It is not only older people whose health may be affected by not sleeping in deep darkness.

“In a previous study done by our group, even one night of dim light exposure during sleep raised heart rate and blood glucose in young, healthy adults who were brought into a sleep lab for an overnight experiment,” Kim said.

Dr Jonathan Cedernaes, a sleep expert from Uppsala University in Sweden, who was not involved in either study, told MNT:

“The fact that this is observed in older people may represent the more cumulative effects of such a mechanistic relationship, meaning that the adverse cardiometabolic effects of night-time light exposure may become more evident over time (meaning in more advanced age, if one maintains such a lifestyle or exposure pattern over years to decades).”

The study was published in the journal Oxford Academic SLEEP.

A real-world study

Unlike the group’s previous research, the latest study observed the real-world effects of LAN, tracking the sleep of 552 older men and women.

“In the current study, we measured light exposure and sleep in older adults (ages 63-84) for seven days using a wrist-worn device. Instead of bringing these older adults to the sleep lab, we collected data in their routine environments,” said Kim.

They found that less than half of these older adults slept in a pitch-black room for at least five hours.

“We were frankly surprised to find out that more than half of the older adults were sleeping with some light at night,“ Kim said.

“Adults who slept with some light during their sleep period were generally exposed to dim light.”

The researchers found that the likelihood of developing high blood pressure (hypertension) was increased by 74%, obesity by 82%, and diabetes by 100%. Participants were also tested for an increased risk of hypercholesterolemia, but no difference was observed.

The study lists three possible mechanisms behind light’s disruptive effect during sleep:
• Light is the main synchroniser of the body’s circadian rhythm or clock. Light during sleep may disrupt this rhythm and thus any clock-related physiological processes.
• The pineal gland produces and secretes melatonin, the “hormone of darkness” during dark periods. Light may reduce melatonin’s metabolic and circulatory function with its anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and vasodilatory properties. Lower melatonin levels correlate with an increased risk of diabetes in women and an increased risk of hypertension in young women.
• Light may trigger the autonomic nervous system’s Trusted Source sympathetic arm. During healthy sleep, the system responsible for fight or flight responses relaxes, slowing the body’s heart rate and respiration in a parasympathetic state.

When asked if more light equals a higher risk of disease, Kim replied: “We found a trend towards a stronger association – a higher rate of obesity and diabetes – with more light exposure at night. We hope to confirm this finding with future studies across a broader age range.”

Sleeping for better health

“While we cannot conclude anything beyond association because of the cross-sectional (‘snapshot’) nature of the study, I encourage everyone to try to avoid or minimise any light at night if possible,” Kim advised.

“It may be as simple as not using electronic devices near the sleeping place and blocking light with a sleeping mask.

“If people need to use a night light for safety, they should try to keep it as close to the ground as possible to minimise light entry to the eyes. If they need to use the bathroom at night, and it is dangerous to walk in complete darkness, try to use dim light for the shortest necessary period.”

It also appears that the colour of light in which a person sleeps matters.

“I would recommend using amber or red light for (a) night light over blue light. Amber/red light (longer wavelengths) is less disruptive to our circadian clock in the body than lights with shorter wavelengths such as blue light.”

"Certain groups are forced to work at night,” added Cedernaes, and must sleep in the day. “There are also ways to block light (e.g., specific filters in glasses), and more studies may be warranted to establish methods to counteract light exposure… (and) reduce cardiometabolic risks.”

Study details

Light at night in older age is associated with obesity, diabetes, and hypertension

Minjee Kim, Thanh-Huyen Vu, Matthew Maas, Rosemary Braun, Michael Wolf, Till Roenneberg, Martha Daviglus, Kathryn Reid, Phyllis Zee.

Published in Oxford Academic Sleep on 22 June 2022

Light at night (LAN) has been associated with negative health consequences and metabolic risk factors. Little is known about the prevalence of LAN in older adults in the U.S. and its association with cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors. We tested the hypothesis that LAN in older age is associated with higher prevalence of individual CVD risk factors. 552 community-dwelling adults aged 63-84 underwent an examination of CVD risk factor profiles and 7-day actigraphy recording for activity and light measures. Associations between actigraphy-measured LAN, defined as no light vs. light within the 5-hour nadir (L5), and CVD risk factors, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and hypercholesterolemia, were examined, after adjusting for age, sex, race, season of recording, and sleep variables. LAN exposure was associated with a higher prevalence of obesity (multivariable-adjusted odds ratio (OR) 1.82 (95% CI 1.26-2.65)), diabetes (OR 2.00 (1.19-3.43)), and hypertension (OR 1.74 (1.21-2.52)) but not with hypercholesterolemia. LAN was also associated with (1) later timing of lowest light exposure (L5-light) and lowest activity (L5-activity), (2) lower inter-daily stability and amplitude of light exposure and activity, and (3) higher wake after sleep onset. Habitual LAN in older age is associated with concurrent obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Further research is needed to understand long-term effects of LAN on cardiometabolic risks.


Oxford Academic Sleep article – Light at night in older age is associated with obesity, diabetes, and hypertension (Open access)


Medical News Today article – Why sleeping in total darkness may be better for your health (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Blue light may help with mild traumatic brain injury


Even minor changes in nightly sleep impact on next-day pain burden


Tinted glasses may help the tech-obsessed get better sleep


Light adapted to time of day improves ICU patients’ health


Disrupted circadian rhythm associated with later Parkinson's




MedicalBrief — our free weekly e-newsletter

We'd appreciate as much information as possible, however only an email address is required.