Being able to get a good night’s sleep makes an important difference in how you feel the next day. It helps you think clearly and perform well on both physical and mental tasks, and getting enough sleep on a regular basis is important for your overall health and well being. But all too often we do small things that interfere with our ability to sleep. You know what I’m talking about – little things like having a cup of coffee too late in the afternoon, or staying up and playing on our electronic devices far too late. But chances are your list of self-defeating activities doesn’t include something that most people are doing — getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and switching on the light along the way.
According to Dr. Michael Grandner of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania, turning on the light in the middle of the night may be something you do automatically, but it is a big mistake. “One of the worst things you can do is turn on a bright light. That light can end up making it much harder to get back to sleep.”
We reach for the light switch instinctively when we enter the bathroom, and as we get older we may even do it for safety purposes. But when you flip that switch and expose your eyes to bright light in the middle of the night, you’re sending an important message to your brain. “Light hits the eyes and it travels from your eyes to the brain. In your brain there’s a clock that uses this information from light to try and set all the different rhythms in your body. It’s expecting it to be dark at night and bright during the day, and it uses that information. But when it gets information that it’s not expecting, it can throw off the clock … you know better, but your brain doesn’t always.”
So what can you do to make sure that you can see when you’re in the bathroom but still keep your brain in its middle-of-the-night mode? Try using a nightlight instead of a full room light, and if possible try to use one that has a red or orange bulb.
According to Grandner, the light bulb color can make all the difference in the world. “The reason why the reddish, yellowish, orangish light is better is because the light that your eyes use to tell daytime versus nighttime is blueish-greenish light. But in reddish-orange light, you don’t have those frequencies, so it won’t give as much of a daytime signal.”
Grandner also warns strenuously against using your tablet of smart phone before going to bed, as the particular blue light emanating from those devices is not only bright, but works against your ability to get to sleep in the first place. “The light that’s coming from them is pretty bright, but not extremely bright. The only problem is it’s so close to our eyes. If you’re going to be doing that at all, you want to lower the brightness all the way.”