Seeing the Light
I pride myself on my expertise when it comes to the implementation of efficient biomechanics in training, but I am fascinated by improving health more broadly. Perhaps one of the more overlooked aspects of health is light.
With the shadow of Covid ever-present, one of the main risk factors of catching Covid, and being very sick with it, is vitamin D deficiency (not that you'd know this given the media coverage and the habit of health officials in certain parts of Australia, and around the world forcing people into their homes all day). With this in mind then I have lately been trying to get out in the sun more.
As a pasty white Brit, you might think getting more sun in tropical Australia is fraught with danger. Most weather websites, however, will carry a UV warning of the times of day they recommend to cover-up or wear sunscreen. As long as you get out there before and after these times, you are good to go without sun protection, which is great because I really hate wearing sunscreen. If you can't avoid being out in the sun for long periods middle of the day without regular bouts of shade, obviously (especially if you are pale-skinned) you need to protect yourself, especially in my neck of the woods.
If you are only concerned with vitamin D, perhaps it is actually better to get the midday sun, just for 15 minutes or so to get your dose as quickly as possible, but I have recently gone beyond a bit of morning sunbathing, and started to learn more about the role light plays in regulating your sleep/wake cycles. Dr Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University has a few excellent podcasts on this topic (see video below).
In previous posts I have talked about the possible benefits of grounding (connecting to natural ground, e.g. grass, sand, rock, etc, with your skin) , though much of the reasoning behind this is unproven, I just think it feels good as do many others. The science on light and the importance of it setting your daily clock, and the health benefits this provides seems extremely well-supported. One wonders why it is not common knowledge, though good health practice seems rather poorly promoted in society, and therefore not generally well-understood, for some reason.
There is some complicated aspects to this topic, but in a nutshell, exposure to early morning natural light (within an hour or two of sunrise) for as little as 2-10 minutes, can help set your internal body clock, which helps you feel more awake during the day, and helps you sleep more soundly at night. If you then expose yourself to the diming natural light at the end of the day, you see an even greater effect on health in these regards. The great thing is that it doesn't have to be a perfect sunny day either; even when it is cloudy you'll reap the rewards. I won't get into the details too much, see the video below if you want to explore more:
2-10 minutes, that's all, and all the data suggests that this can have profound benefits on health, so why aren't people making this a regular part of their daily routine?
Living in Cairns has trained me to be more aware of time spent inside, simply because the weather is so damn good most of the time, especially first thing in the morning and in the late afternoon and evening.
I spent nearly a year of my life back in 2018 travelling around Australia and New Zealand by bicycle, wild camping most of the way. I felt extremely happy, relaxed, and healthy during that time. Of course there could be many factors about travelling this way that influenced me. Physically (biomechanically at least), I actually didn't feel that great; I'd often have a sore back, neck and shoulders from being on the bike all day, but mentally, I was so fresh and I slept like a baby every night in a tent on a thin mat, often on uneven ground - no ultimate sleep-busting mattress for me. I do wonder, looking back, how much of this was down to my daily routine. For a whole year, I saw almost every sunrise and sunset (or at least was outside at the time). I'd wake up when the sun rose in the morning, and settle into the tent and get sleepy almost as soon as it got dark. In the respect of being outside, I lived the life of my hunter-gather ancestors for a year, and I learned a lot from that experience.
Depending on what part of the world you reside, if you are conscious of how you spend your time you might notice that it is surprising just how little you spend outside. If I think back to life in my country of birth, the UK, I can think of many a summer's day spent outside and watching the sun go down after a game of cricket, but in much of the rest of the year, I usually did not spend much time outside at all. If I did, I certainly did not do it with any regularity. Even though we are talking about damp and sometimes dreary England, it would have been easy to do 2-10 minutes, if only I'd known.
Even if I had known, however, there were times in my life where I was messing with my body clock no end, and most people - especially when they are young - do this all too often when they go for a night out on the town or stay up watching TV. All those positive effects can be wiped-out if you have too much artificial light at night, especially between the hours of 11pm and 4am.
Most people have heard of the negative effects of blue light from artificial light sources. Blue light is necessary during the day, and is at it's most potent naturally through the sun, but at night it is simulating the effect of the sun, and it throws our clock right off. Interestingly, the light from fire doesn't have the same damaging effects as artificial blue light. Campfires and candlelight (and red light) do not have any affect, even late at night.
Sleep is an Overlooked Aspect of Health
Not only is sleep overlooked by many, but scientists are increasingly finding that sleep is one of the most important aspects of health. If you are not getting 6-9 hours of quality sleep every night (depending on the person) on a regular basis, it is likely that you will have many negative health consequences. Good sleep is extremely curative and rejuvenating for body and mind.
Light is simply one aspect of getting good sleep, but it's importance doesn't end there. With some simple changes in our lifestyle, which are much easier to do than, say, changing our diet or getting more exercise, we can be more alert and productive during the day and live a much less stressful life, with less negative health consequences.
Working-in a simple morning and evening routine of getting outside regularly has to be the easiest change in lifestyle I have ever tried. I am no neuroscientist, but do the research, the science is in, and this is one of those quick and easy daily routines that really does stand a genuine chance of making a huge difference to your life, especially if you do have issues with sleep, energy levels during the day, or depression. Give it a try and spread the news!