Electricity has been terrible for the quality of our sleep. For most of human evolution, the only light that humans saw after sundown was the comforting orange glow of a fire. As a result, blue light, like that from a sunlit sky, suppresses the sleep chemical, melatonin, that our brains produce in the evening. Unfortunately, lightbulbs, too, produce the blue spectrum of a sunny day. Their invention caused our brains to act as though it should be awake constantly.
The negative impact of artificial nighttime light has been rightly called “light pollution” and is implicated in everything from the onset of breast cancer to the destruction of nocturnal animal habitats. This problem is only getting worse: A recent study found that people who fall asleep to e-readers have stunted high-quality REM sleep, which is associated with daytime cognitive performance.
Fortunately, lightbulb innovation may be finally on the verge of correcting the problems — but it only works if everyone adopts it. “Smart” bulbs, such as the kind launched by Misfit Wearables this week at the Consumer Electronics Show, can change color automatically with the setting of the sun.
Blunting the sting of lightbulbs is as simple as tinting them orange (which filters out some of the blue light). “Excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders, especially in children and adolescents. This effect can be minimized by using dim red lighting in the nighttime bedroom environment,” wrote the American Medical Association [emphasis added, PDF].
It concluded in a policy paper that it officially supports the need for “developing lighting technologies at home and at work that minimize circadian disruption, while maintaining visual efficiency.”
There’s already a number of products, in addition to lightbulbs, that tint light for cheap. For instance, f.lux is a software program that dims computer screens after sundown. “Blue blocker” orange-tinted sunglasses are also known to improve ADHD in sleep-deprived adolescents.
But here’s the catch: Any non-smart bulb will disturb our sleep and wreak havoc on other living organisms that we depend on. Street lamps, car headlamps, and lighted retail shops flood our homes with sleep-paralyzing blue light. They can only produce one color all day and all night long. That is, other people’s decision not to use smart bulbs affects everyone’s sleep. It’s nearly impossible to escape.
Banning harmful lightbulbs has precedent. Governments began phasing out some incandescent lights to minimize their negative environmental impact. Sleep deprivation and its impact on the economy are every bit as severe. “The economic consequences of inadequate sleep are surely huge,” wrote Harvard Professor of Economics, Sendhil Mullainthan. One study found that sleeplessness cost Australia over 4 billion dollars a year (or 0.8 percent of its GDP).
Our sleep and sanity are worth a national effort to improve. We can make all lightbulbs smart bulbs — and, we should.