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Morning Light Exposure: Your Secret Weapon for Healthier Screen Time at Night

December 8, 2023

You’ve probably heard that blue light is the enemy of sleep and that you’re supposed to put away your phone an hour or two before bed. Electronics emit a type of light that can interfere with your circadian rhythm, and staring at a screen at night can make it harder to fall and stay asleep. 

But like with all science, there’s some nuance to the whole blue light thing. That means you don’t necessarily need to ditch your phone entirely to get the rest you need — and in fact, with the right approach, you can even enjoy a little PM screen time without harming your sleep cycle. The process starts first thing in the morning. 

Circadian rhythm 101

Your brain relies on external cues to figure out what time it is and whether to release hormones that wake you up or make you tired. Light is the most important one.

“Your brain is inside the dark cave of your skull, so it has no idea what’s going on other than through your senses,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., behavioral sleep psychologist, researcher at Duke University School of Medicine, and Hatch medical advisor. 

In the morning, light tells your body it’s time to wake up, and then your brain triggers the release of energizing hormones like cortisol that help you go about your day. At night, as your brain perceives the darker environment, it curbs the secretion of cortisol and starts secreting melatonin, a hormone that prepares your body for sleep. 

Blue light from your phone, tablet, or computer is known to interfere with this process, potentially disrupting your sleep. “When the light from your screen gets into your eyes, it tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime, which can suppress melatonin secretion,” says Dr. Wu. That’s why so many experts recommend putting away your electronics before bed as an essential component of sleep hygiene. 

But as we all know, a screen-free bedtime is easier said than done. Sometimes you need to text a friend or read an email, and it can be relaxing to scroll through social media as you wind down at night. If you can power off your tech before bed, that’s great! But if an all-or-nothing approach to screen time isn’t working for you, know thatyou’re not helpless to the effects of night-time blue light. 

How morning light can help

While your brain needs some outside help to figure out what time it is, it’s also really good at putting things into context. “There might be some light at night, but if there’s a lot more light during the day, the brain can still figure out there’s less light at night,” says Dr. Wu. In other words: Boosting your light exposure when you wake up can boost your threshold for blue light exposure before you go to bed. 

That doesn’t mean looking at your phone as soon as your alarm goes off. The best type of light to set up your circadian rhythm for success is broad-spectrum light from the sun. “When you go from horizontal to vertical, open up the blinds, and start moving, your brain starts to set your circadian rhythm for the day,” says Dr. Wu. “Adding more light is an extra potent signal.”

What does this look like practically? Ideally, aim for 20 additional minutes of extra light exposure in the morning, whether you take your dog for a walk around the block or sip your coffee on the porch. If you can’t get outside, sit in front of a bright window or invest in a lamp designed for light therapy. Early morning light, says Dr. Wu, sends a stronger signal to your brain, but any light exposure is better than none. 

Because the human body is wired to wake up as the sun rises, products that mimic the natural sunrise by gradually increasing the amount of light in your room, like the Hatch Restore, might also give you an early morning boost. But rather than regulating your circadian rhythm for the day, Dr. Wu says these products primarily make it easier to get out of bed if you have a hard time waking up to your alarm clock.

All this light input can help anchor your 24-hour rhythm, so blue light from electronics is less likely to mess up your sleep. But that doesn’t mean you should ditch your sleep hygiene habits altogether. If you do decide to use electronics, be mindful about what you’re doing and the content you’re consuming, because certain content can still rev you up independent of light exposure. It’s probably not a good idea to work before bed, for example. The same goes for scrolling through short, dopamine-hit videos, or reading or watching anything that makes you feel scared, angry, or worried.  

Dr. Wu also recommends setting a bedtime reminder or alarm on your phone so you don’t lose track of time. If you have a Hatch device, you can set a daily cue to remind yourself to unwind. Dr. Wu says that this feature is especially useful for those who get engrossed in reading or watching television at night. “The automated cue takes the burden of keeping track of time off,” she says, so you can relax and enjoy your evening while still getting a gentle reminder to wind down.

Whether or not you enjoy some extra screen time it’s a good idea to keep up with a predictable bedtime routine. Your body appreciates all the external cues it can get to prepare for a good night’s sleep — including your morning light exposure the next morning.