I’ve been working from home since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early March, but I still leave the house every morning. My Chihuahua-Jack Russell mix insists that I walk him around the neighborhood for at least 45 minutes after breakfast.
That routine may well be the reason I’m sleeping fine and feeling little stress while sheltering in place, said Andrew Huberman, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology and of ophthalmology.
First, that morning walk calms me through something called optic flow. “The actual movement of objects past us as we walk quiets some of the circuits that are responsible for stress,” Huberman said. If taking an outdoor trek isn’t safe, he added, moving around indoors can also create optic flow.
Natural light for better sleep
When it comes to sleep, he told me, the important thing is to get sunlight on your eyes upon waking: “Even when it’s cloudy, that sets your biological clock,” he said. “In higher latitudes in the depths of winter, it may be too dark, but in most places most of the time, there’s still plenty of light energy.”
Huberman explained it to me this way: If sunlight reaches your eyes soon after you wake, it triggers a neural circuit that controls the timing of the hormones cortisol and melatonin, which affect sleep. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a night owl or a mourning dove, he noted — the important thing is to get some sun for at least a few minutes soon after getting out of bed. Going outside for the light is better than sitting by a window because glass filters out some of the ultraviolet light that assist the clock setting. For the same reason, you’ll want to leave the sunglasses behind. (Of course, never stare at any light so bright it hurts.)
Artificial light, including the kind that emanates from phone, television or computer screens, is not the same as sunlight and does not have the same effect, especially in the morning, he noted.
Lack of sleep is linked to many physiological and psychological problems, such as poor memory, mood disorders, lowered immunity and disrupted blood sugar regulation, Huberman said. “Depriving someone of sleep is one of the quickest ways to pull them apart.”
What you can do in the evening
Huberman has a few more tips for accessing better sleep during the pandemic: Turn lights down after 10 p.m. “You don’t have to turn your house into a cave,” he contends. Keep the overhead lights dim, go for amber light over blue light and place lamps physically low in the room.
Avoid checking your phone in the middle of the night. The eye and brain clocks are very sensitive at night, he said, and the light signals to the body that it’s still daytime, which can alter your sleep for several days. It’s like jet lag: “If you’re looking at your phone at 1 a.m., you might as well have flown to Abu Dhabi.”
Finally, while morning sunlight is key, he noted that it helps to get some sunlight in the late afternoon or evening. Evening light has been shown to help anchor our clocks and encourage the correct level of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone.
“We were designed to get a lot of ultraviolet light on our eyes during the day and little during the night,” he said. “The more of these cues to the time of day and night you can give your body, the better off you’ll be.”
Using sunlight to help set the sleep clock “is grounded in a lot of peer-reviewed, published science in humans and animals,” he added. “It points to some simple, cost-free tools that can shift everything in the right direction.”