Darkness and Light


August 21, 2016 by Jean

This morning, I heard a fascinating interview on the Public Radio program Living on Earth with Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night (Little, Brown 2013). The interview focused on the issue (which I was already aware of) of light pollution and the health problems (which I was not aware of) created by the lack of darkness in our lives.

I am a lover of natural light – and natural darkness. One of the things that delights me about living in rural Maine, just below the 45th parallel, is the way the quality of light and darkness change through the seasons. In summer, I revel in those long hours of light; and in winter, I love the rich star-filled nights. Because I live in a rural area, there is relatively little light pollution and I can really see the stars; and because I live at the end of a dirt road, I feel free to have curtain-free windows that let in sunlight, moonlight, and starlight.

I have been concerned about light pollution for some time, mostly on a personal level. I hate those dusk-to-dawn lights, and I decided not to install solar-powered lights along my steps and garden paths when I learned that they would stay on all night. It annoys me (a lot!) when a neighbor leaves on an outside light all night. What struck me most about this interview, however, was the focus on the negative health effects of too much light. I was aware that too little light could cause health problems (as in Seasonal Affective Disorder, which a number of my friends suffer from), but I had not heard much discussion of the negative consequences of too much light, particularly the impact on the production of melatonin and on sleep patterns. It turns out that we need dark – real dark, the kind that’s not available anymore in many places – to sleep well. And not getting good quality sleep has a cascade of other negative health effects. And it turns out that blue light, the kind that is transmitted by LED lights and by all our glowing screens, is the most disruptive.

The paradox in all of this is that many older people suffer from insomnia. But just at the time of life when we find it more difficult to get good quality sleep, we are advised (for our own safety) to fill our nights with light. We are told to keep night lights on and to turn on a light if we have to get up during the night to go to the bathroom. This is the exact opposite of the advice on how to avoid the negative health effects of too much light!

This has me re-evaluating my own practices. When I built the new addition on my house, I mostly added LED light fixtures (for environmental conservation reasons). And, since I moved into my new master suite, I have been keeping a night light on in the bathroom. I don’t feel unsafe without the night light, but I feel that I should be cautious about potential injuries because I live alone. I don’t generally have trouble sleeping – although, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been finding it more difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position and I get up more during the night. I’m going to try turning off all the screens and LED lights at least 30 minutes before I go to bed, and I’m going to try doing without the night light (also LED!). If I can improve my long-term health by improving the quality of darkness in my home, I want to take advantage of that possibility.

17 thoughts on “Darkness and Light

  1. Sue McPhee says:

    Jean: I’m with you! As would-be astronomers, Rick and I are grateful for the lack of light surrounding our property. Sometimes the across the street neighbor, whose property is barely visible from our house, will have a light on all night on the outside of her shed. We are not sure why, but it will often interfere with our deep space viewing, our ability to marvel at he Universe we are a tiny part of. Sometimes we travel around, either in this area or further north, to seek out the darkest of skies and open areas where we have good views in all directions. Our place is nice, but we do have a tree line that prohibits seeing the deep sky objects that are on the horizon. Beyond our yen for star-gazing, I am also aware of the deleterious effects of electronics, blue light, high-tension wires (and all the EMF’s they exude), as well as the other entrapments of technology. I am pretty happy that we don’t live near high tension wires. When I lived and worked in NYC in the late nineties, I could feel my health deteriorate. Just a few subtle changes here and there, but they add up. My job was to provide home care physical therapy to infants and children with disabilities. They pretty much all lived in those high rise New York City Housing tenements. And it occurred to me how much I was exposed to electronic emissions as I walked those ghetto streets and went in and out of those apartments. The children too. I was quite taken aback by the inordinate amount of premature births in that city. Yes, it’s a numbers game; more people, more of everything. But this was off the charts and we didn’t have anywhere near enough therapists to work with these kids. What a contrast to where I am now… fresh air, quiet., low light pollution… I do understand the need for safety as we prowl around the house at night. Even though we know the layout of the house, one could easily get tripped up. I have the tiniest of night lights, no LED, just a plain old tiny Christmas tree kind of light and it only shines in the bathroom. Maybe we should ditch that one too? I don’t know. At least minimizing the exposure to artificial light should be the goal. (I write this as the moon has risen.) Thank you for an informative blog post on this subject.

    • Jean says:

      Sue, I’m amazed how many things in my house glow with blue-green LED lights — clocks, smoke alarms, light switches. For the past several nights, I’ve left the night light in the bathroom off and found that the light from the smoke alarm high on the wall outside the bathroom and the light on the switch for the fan inside the bathroom are easily enough to see by.

      • Sue McPhee says:

        It is amazing how much “light” there is when you are looking for darkness. As the eyes adjust to darkness, you become increasingly sensitive to the slightest little bit of light.

  2. Jean R. says:

    I am guilty of light pollution. I have a night light in every room of the house including the garage, walk-in closet and basement—except for the bedroom. Not that I need it in all my rooms because I have a streetlight in front of my house and solar lights along my sidewalk and near my other two doors going outside. (When there is a power outage, they come in handy to bring inside.) At least I don’t have many LED lights in the house and my computers are not in my bedroom. I turn the alarm around so I can’t see the screen at night. I feel safe against falling when I walk around without turning on overhead lights, and knowing nothing is hiding in the dark makes me feel good. I’m not sure I could make the pivot to get rid of my nightlights even knowing it would be healthier. I could, however, make an effort to turn off the computer a half hour before bedtime. Interesting topic!

    • Jean says:

      Jean, It is an interesting topic. I imagine that, living in a city, light pollution is just part of daily life. Do you use room-darkening shades to keep the streetlight out while you sleep? I think because I live in the country (where I often don’t bother locking the doors) and because I’ve lived alone for decades, I don’t worry about things/people hiding in the dark. (Well, I do worry about the mice when the move into the house in fall and winter, but it’s when they don’t hide that they freak me out!)

  3. Charlie Emmons says:

    I have learned from my wife Penelope to wear an eye mask to shut out the light while sleeping. That way you can still have the night lights on etc. It works great!

  4. Diana Studer says:

    I have read about a link between night owls – melatonin – and breast cancer.

    For the bathroom we have fitted two light switches. One for three bright lights. The second for a gentle light I bath by, and to click on at night if needed. Grateful that our bedrooms are away from the streetlights.

    And yes, I loath lights that burn all night. Most of our neighbours are kindly dark at night.
    Also no green glowing alarm clocks, or little pilot lights in the bedroom, thank you.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, This was the first time I’d heard about the link between melatonin and breast cancer. I have the same kind of light arrangement in the light/exhaust fan in my bathroom, but I’ve never gotten around to putting in the little bulb for the night light. I do have a surprising number of pilot lights in the bedroom (cordless phone, smoke alarm) as well as a green glowing alarm clock.

  5. Honey Bee says:

    Hello Jean,

    Thank you so much for posting this. Not only was it interesting, but in just the few days since reading this post, I have noticed a difference in the number of times I stop breathing each hour due to sleep apnea.

    I live in Canada’s largest city so have an abundance of light day and night.

    But after reading your post, I pulled down the shade, as well as closed the curtain, and my AHI reading was much lower, in the optimal range, and I am much encouraged.

    So thank you so much for this helpful post which is already making my life better.

    Honey Bee

    • Jean says:

      Honey Bee, I’m so happy that this was helpful to you. I was intrigued enough by the interview with Paul Bogard that I now have his book out of the library.

  6. Jean R. says:

    As per a comment by one of your followers, I bought a sleep mask and I think it’s going to make a difference on my ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. I haven’t had enough to know for sure yet but I’m tracking my sleep on my Fitbit and it’s looking promising. Much better than having a totally dark house…for me anyway.

  7. Sue McPhee says:

    Jean: Thought you might be interested in this current article on the effects of light pollution, sent to me by a member of our astronomical society. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-00665-7?utm_source=twt&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=naturenews&sf179329810=1 Our rule off thumb is no lights or red lights only.

    • Jean says:

      Sue, Thanks for sharing this. I have stopped using night lights and find that I can see fine without them when I need to get up in the night. There are some green-colored LED “pilot lights” in my bedroom and bathroom (heat pump, smoke detector and bathroom light switch) that I can’t turn off. I like having a lit display on a clock radio by my bed, but this suggests I should switch out my green-lit clock for a red one.

  8. […] I read Bogard’s book several years ago (see Darkness and Light), I focused primarily on the health and sleep issues. I decided to unplug the LED nightlights in my […]

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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