February 27, 2010
Science Daily/Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
The first field study on the impact of light on teenagers' sleeping habits finds that insufficient daily morning light exposure contributes to teenagers not getting enough sleep.
"As teenagers spend more time indoors, they miss out on essential morning light needed to stimulate the body's 24-hour biological system, which regulates the sleep/wake cycle," reports Mariana Figueiro, Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Program Director at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center (LRC) and lead researcher on the new study.
"These morning-light-deprived teenagers are going to bed later, getting less sleep and possibly under-performing on standardized tests. We are starting to call this the teenage night owl syndrome."
Disrupting Biological Rhythms
The problem is that today's middle and high schools have rigid schedules requiring teenagers to be in school very early in the morning. These students are likely to miss the morning light because they are often traveling to and arriving at school before the sun is up or as it's just rising. "This disrupts the connection between daily biological rhythms, called circadian rhythms, and the earth's natural 24-hour light/dark cycle," explains Dr. Figueiro.
In addition, the schools are not likely providing adequate electric light or daylight to stimulate this biological or circadian system, which regulates body temperature, alertness, appetite, hormones and sleep patterns. Our biological system responds to light much differently than our visual system. It is much more sensitive to blue light. Therefore, having enough light in the classroom to read and study does not guarantee that there is sufficient light to stimulate our biological system.
"According to our study, however, the situation in schools can be changed rapidly by the conscious delivery of daylight, which is saturated with short-wavelength, or blue, light," reports Dr. Figueiro.
The new research has applications for more than 3 million shift workers and Alzheimer's patients who suffer from lack of a regular sleep pattern.
Studies have shown that this lack of synchronization between a shift worker's rest and activity and light/dark patterns leads to a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, seasonal depression and cancer over decades.
As evidenced in prior studies by Dr. Figueiro, light therapy can also be used to improve sleep in Alzheimer's patients, who usually display uneven sleep patterns. "By removing light at certain times of day, and giving light at other times, you can synchronize the sleep/wake patterns of Alzheimer's patients with the light/dark pattern, providing them with more consolidated sleep," says Dr. Figueiro.