Bright bathroom lights can stimulate the body and prevent sleep, claims Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University
The secret of a good night’s sleep could be as simple as brushing your teeth in the dark, an Oxford Neuroscientist has claimed.
Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience, claims that the bright fluorescent light of bathrooms wakes the body up just when it should be switching off.
He believes that simply brushing teeth in the a dark room could allow sleep to take hold more quickly.
“Sleep is the single most important behaviour that we do. Across our lifespans 36 per cent of our life will be spent sleeping,” he said following a lecture on sleep at The Royal Society in London.
“Often people will turn their lights down at night which helps to get the body ready for sleep, but then they will go and brush their teeth and turn their bathroom light on.
“That is very disrupting. I often think someone should invent a bathroom mirror light which has a different setting for night-time.”
Sleep is vitally important for clearing toxins, repairing tissues and replacing energy and restoring metabolic pathways. Lack of sleep is known to reduce cognition and creativity as well as suppressing the immune system and raising the risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer and mental illness.
But Prof Foster said that people often struggle to regulate natural sleep patterns in the winter because they spend so much time in ‘dimly-lit caves’ which confuse the body about the time of day.
Humans, like all other animals, have evolved over millions of years to respond to light levels with genes switching on and off depending on the time of day.
But the invention of the lightbulb has meant that bright light is available 24 hours a day which can confuse the body’s natural rhythm and cause genes to switch at the wrong time.
A recent study by US scientists found that sitting too far from a window at work can knock 46 minutes off a normal night’s sleep. A sunny day is equivalent to about 10,000 lux of light. However indoor office lighting typically provides only about 300 to 500 lux.
“We have this master clock ticking on the brain and each individual cells have their own little clock, so it’s rather like the conductor of an orchestra producing a signal which the rest of the body takes a cue from. There is a beautiful symphony of rhythms.
“But we live in these dimly-lit caves, both at home and in our offices, which are far less bright than natural light, even on a cloudy day. So it is so important to get outside, particularly in the morning to reset the body clock.
“Societal attitudes are very different to how we viewed sleep in the pre-industrial era. Thomas Edison commercialised the light bulb which allowed us to invade the night and sleep was the first victim.
“Edison’s attitudes have framed how we view sleep, which he said was a criminal waste of time and a heritage from our cave days. But it is hugely important
“It may be why Margaret Thatcher’s decision making was erratic in later years. She boasted of only needing four hours of sleep a night but I don’t think anyone can get by on four hours sleep a night without a detrimental impact.”
Also speaking at the Royal Society event Jonathan Coe, the House of Sleep author, said that he thought that sleep deprivation was not helpful for creativity.
All these moments when your half awake, half asleep. I often think that is going to be a creative time, but when I look at what I’ve actually come up with I usually reject it,” he said.
“The ideas that come to you in those moments are not always as good as you think they are.”
But Prof Foster said that dreaming was important to help the brain make new connections.
“During the day there is all this information is flowing in an you can’t adequately process that information so you park it,” he added.
“In sleep the options open out and it’s like lots of jigsaw pieces flying out. You might come up with a solution to something that has been bugging you.
“It can make you think differently about a subject. I does give you a distorted view of the world which can be helpful. I have woken up and thought, yes, I have a solution to that problem.”