By Dr. Mercola
Hopefully, you have never spent much time in a hospital, but if you have you likely experienced frequent disruptions to your sleep.
Aside from the beeping machines and nightly checks from hospital staff, your room was probably dimly lit with artificial light both day and night -- a major impediment to proper sleep and well-being.
As a new study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing1 revealed, the lighting in many hospital rooms may be so bad that it actually worsens patients' sleep, mood and pain levels.
Hospital-Room Lighting May Lead to Disrupted Sleep Cycles, Increased Pain and Fatigue
The study found that, on average, hospital patients in the study were exposed to about 105 lux (a measure of light emission) daily. This is a very low level of light; for comparison, an office would generally provide about 500 lux and being outdoors on a sunny day could provide 100,000 lux.2
The rooms were so dimly lit that many hospital patients had trouble sleeping. Your body requires a minimum of 1,500 lux for 15 minutes a day just to maintain a normal sleep-wake cycle, but ideally it should be closer to 4,000 for healthful sleep.3
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the patients' sleep time was "fragmented and low," with most averaging just four hours of sleep a night.
Those with the lowest exposures to light during the day also reported more depressed mood and fatigue than those exposed to more light. The researchers noted:4 "Low light exposure significantly predicted fatigue and total mood disturbance."
Why You Need Exposure to Bright Light During the Day
When full-spectrum light enters your eyes, it not only goes to your visual centers enabling you to see, it also goes to your brain's hypothalamus where it affects your entire body.
Your hypothalamus controls body temperature, hunger and thirst, water balance and blood pressure. Additionally, it controls your body's master gland, the pituitary, which secretes many essential hormones, including those that influence your mood.
Exposure to full-spectrum lighting is actually one effective therapy used for treating depression, infection, and much more – so it's not surprising that hospital patients deprived of such exposures had poorer moods and fatigue.
Studies have also shown that poor lighting in the workplace triggers headaches, stress, fatigue and strained watery eyes, not to mention inferior work production.
Conversely, companies that have switched to full-spectrum lights report improved employee morale, greater productivity, reduced errors and decreased absenteeism. Some experts even believe that "malillumination" is to light what malnutrition is to food.
In a hospital setting, this has serious ramifications, as patients are already under profound stress due to illness and may be further stressed by a lack of natural bright light.
Your 'body clock' is also housed in tiny centers located in your hypothalamus, controlling your body's circadian rhythm. This light-sensitive rhythm is dependent on Mother Nature, with its natural cycles of light and darkness, to function optimally.
Consequently, anything that disrupts these rhythms, like inadequate sunlight exposure to your body (including your eyes), has a far-reaching impact on your body's ability to function and, certainly, also on its ability to heal.
Nighttime Light Exposure Is Also Detrimental
While the featured study didn't focus specifically on hospital patients' nighttime light exposures, they're likely to be significant. Most hospital room doors remain ajar all night, allowing artificial light from the hall to flood the room. There are also lights on medical equipment and monitors, and if your room is not private you may also be exposed to light from a roommates' television or bathroom trips.
This is important because just as your body requires bright-light exposure during the day, it requires pitch-blackness at night to function optimally – which is all the more critical in the case of a hospital stay when bodily self-healing is most needed.
When you turn on a light at night, you immediately send your brain misinformation about the light-dark cycle. The only thing your brain interprets light to be is day. Believing daytime has arrived, your biological clock instructs your pineal gland to immediately cease its production of the hormone melatonin – a significant blow to your health, especially if you're ill, as melatonin produces a number of health benefits in terms of your immune system. It's a powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenger that helps combat inflammation.
In fact, melatonin is so integral to your immune system that a lack of it causes your thymus gland, a critically important part of your immune system, to atrophy.5 In addition, melatonin helps you fall asleep and bestows a feeling of overall comfort and well being, and it has proven to have an impressive array of anti-cancer benefits.6 So unnaturally suppressing this essential hormone is the last thing that a recovering hospital patient needs.
If a Loved One Is In the Hospital, Let the Daylight Shine In
The best way to get exposure to healthy full-spectrum light is to do it the way nature intended, by going out in the sun with your bare skin – and 'bare' eyes -- exposed on a regular basis. If you or a loved one is confined to a hospital room, however, the next best option is to move to areas with brighter natural light as much as possible, or alternatively bring in some full-spectrum light bulbs.
At night, the opposite holds true. You should turn off lights as much as possible, keep the door closed and close the blinds on the window. Wearing an eye mask is another simple trick that can help to keep unwanted light exposures to a minimum if you're spending the night in a hospital. Taken together, these are simple ways to boost mood and improve sleep and fatigue levels among hospitalized patients.
The Other Major Risk of Spending Time in a Hospital
No matter how important it is, poor lighting may be the least of your worries if you find yourself hospitalized, as once you're hospitalized you're immediately at risk for medical errors, which is actually a leading cause of death in the US. According to the most recent research7 into the cost of medical mistakes in terms of lives lost, 210,000 Americans are killed by preventable hospital errors each year.
When deaths related to diagnostic errors, errors of omission, and failure to follow guidelines are included, the number skyrockets to an estimated 440,000 preventable hospital deaths each year!
One of the best safeguards is to have someone there with you. Dr. Andrew Saul has written an entire book on the issue of safeguarding your health while hospitalized. Frequently, you're going to be relatively debilitated, especially post-op when you're under the influence of anesthesia, and you won't have the opportunity to see clearly the types of processes that are going on.
For every medication given in the hospital, ask, "What is this medication? What is it for? What's the dose?" Take notes. Ask questions. Building a relationship with the nurses can go a long way. Also, when they realize they're going to be questioned, they're more likely to go through that extra step of due diligence to make sure they're getting it right—that's human nature. Of course, knowing how to prevent disease so you can avoid hospitals in the first place is clearly your best bet. One of the best strategies on that end is to optimize your diet. You can get up to speed on that by reviewing my comprehensive Nutrition Plan.
It's Important for Virtually Everyone to Optimize Light Exposure: 5 Top Tips
Getting back to the issue of lighting, this isn't only an issue for hospital patients. Virtually everyone requires exposure to bright light during the day and darkness at night for optimal health. Toward that end, here are my top tips to optimize your light exposure on a daily (and nightly) basis:
- Get some sun in the morning, if possible. Your circadian system needs bright light to reset itself. Ten to 15 minutes of morning sunlight will send a strong message to your internal clock that day has arrived, making it less likely to be confused by weaker light signals during the night. More sunlight exposure is required as you age.
- Make sure you get BRIGHT sun exposure regularly. Remember, your pineal gland produces melatonin roughly in approximation to the contrast of bright sun exposure in the day and complete darkness at night. If you work indoors, make a point to get outdoors during your breaks.
- Avoid watching TV or using your computer in the evening, at least an hour or so before going to bed. These devices emit blue light, which tricks your brain into thinking it's still daytime. Normally your brain starts secreting melatonin between 9 and 10 pm, and these devices emit light that may stifle that process.
- Sleep in complete darkness, or as close to it as possible. Even the slightest bit of light in your bedroom can disrupt your biological clock and your pineal gland's melatonin production. This means that even the tiny glow from your clock radio could be interfering with your sleep, so cover your alarm clock up at night or get rid of it altogether. You may want to cover your windows with drapes or blackout shades, or wear an eye mask while you sleep.
- Install a low-wattage yellow, orange or red light bulb if you need a source of light for navigation at night. Light in these bandwidths does not shut down melatonin production in the way that white and blue bandwidth light does. Salt lamps are handy for this purpose.