Illustrations: Alexis Jamet

Elemental Light Week

In Praise of Morning Light

Why early sunshine is a cure-all

This story is a part of Elemental Light Week, a five-day series on what light does for your body, brain, and well-being.

MyMy toddler son had a habit of waking at 5:30 a.m. for a two-year period. In the darkness, I’d run to his crib to stop his cries, rock him back to sleep, and carefully tiptoe out of the nursery and back into my bed.

Inevitably, four hours later, my son’s cry for breakfast would tear through whatever dream I was having, and I’d bolt up, half-awake. Even though I had caught up on some much-needed late-morning sleep, it didn’t matter. For the entire day I felt like I was dreaming.

“There’s no amount of coffee that can shake me out of this stupor,” I’d text my best mom friend, who no doubt was guzzling down her third latte. “I feel like I’m watching my life happen from behind glass.”

General sleep deprivation could account for a large part of my stupor. But there was another, seemingly smaller but still significant factor: I almost never woke up with the morning light. As a new mom desperate for shut-eye wherever I could find it, I pretty much always missed this page-turning phenomenon — which meant I was pretty much always groggy.

Sunshine isn’t just a symbolic and cheery way to welcome a new day. It’s a real, physiological human need. A 2019 study found that exposure to morning sunlight results in greater alertness. Morning light exposure can also lead to better sleep, which can have a cascade effect on mood the next day. According to a 2017 study published in the journal Sleep Health, people who are exposed to sunlight in the morning sleep better at night and feel less stressed and depressed than people who don’t get access to morning sunlight.

Kelly Glazer Baron, PhD, director of the behavioral sleep medicine training program at the University of Utah, says if people don’t get the right cues for wakefulness, the body will feel out of sync. The body’s circadian rhythm — basically, its internal clock — is naturally a little longer than 24 hours. That means many of the bodies’ processes, like sleep, hormones, mood, and appetite, naturally rise and fall over a 24.1-hour timespan. Exposure to morning light is one way to lock the body into a 24-hour schedule the entire world runs on, which means better sleep at night and more alert, energetic mornings.

“When those rhythms are off, you might have trouble getting out of bed in the morning and then have trouble falling asleep at night,” she says. “That happens to a lot of us on the weekends when we stay out late, then sleep in and miss the morning light exposure — then, when bedtime comes, we’re not sleepy.”

Sunshine isn’t just a symbolic and cheery way to welcome a new day. It’s a real, physiological human need.

Exposure to any daylight is better than none for regulating the body’s internal clock, but there’s something special about the morning light. Dr. Nathaniel Watson, director of the Harborview sleep clinic in Seattle, says that getting light exposure first thing in the morning plays an important role in regulating the secretion of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone the body releases at night. Light suppresses melatonin secretion, which wakes the body up.

That’s why morning light feels medicinal for people with disrupted sleep schedules — for example, someone who works overnight shifts and sleeps during the day. “If someone is going to bed later and waking up later, exposure to light is one way to push that schedule back so they’ll go to bed earlier and wake up earlier,” Watson says.

When exposed to morning light, the body also releases hormones that are linked to an improved mood, experts say. Dr. Emmanuel During, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, says the pathways in the brain that control sleep and mood overlap up to 90%. When light tells the brain to shut down melatonin production, the brain also releases more wake-promoting neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and histamine, which can make people feel good.

To stave off grogginess, During recommends that people put themselves in the path of bright light, but also, that they partake in a routine each morning, like walking to a coffee shop to get some fresh air, exercise, and social interaction. “These all combine together to help people turn on their engines and start their days,” he says.

These days, my routine is pretty simple. The best way for me to dodge the mental fog that comes with sleeping in is to wake up before my kids, who thankfully sleep past the sunrise now. It’s still dark out when I make my coffee, but by the time I sit down to enjoy it, the pitch-dark sky is turning shades of pink. With my latte in hand, I watch the sun slowly peek from behind the horizon, and I remember what it’s like to feel awake.

This story is a part of Elemental Light Week, a five-day series on what light does for your body, brain, and well-being.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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