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How to Heal with Light

Transforming from night owl to early bird.

Key points

  • Rising and resting in keeping with the sun is essential when seeking optimal health.
  • Sleep, hormonal regulation, and well-being work in concert with sunrise and sunset.
  • Answering to a community can help you reset your routines.

Years ago, I transformed myself from a night owl to an early bird. I've since taught other people to do the same. Here's how to alter your routine, too.

A decade ago, I represented a Silicon Valley sleep doctor who treated type-A, C-suite leaders who burned the candle at both ends. They skirted sleep to complete work, a skill still revered in American culture. While I executed the doctor's PR campaign and pitched producers and journalists sleep facts from his book, I reflected on how I had become a night owl and pondered the question for myself, "Was this habit? DNA? Or what?"

His book is now outdated, but I haven't stopped researching sleep and the brain's ability to adapt.

I remembered that my mother had told me I was born right after dinner on a hot summer day. That fact led me to be a self-proclaimed night owl, as if working well at night was something to be lauded. I've completed my best work in the evening hours most of my life; however, it was wrecking my health.

Sitting at a desk during the day and staying at a laptop well into the evening hours not only led to what I lovingly call "blogger butt" but it also affected my natural circadian rhythms severely, disrupting hormones and sleep patterns.

My curiosity was piqued when I pondered the other creatures in our homestead and their relationship to natural light.

I saw my dog looking at me while I rocked on my front porch staring at my phone. I imagined what my dog must be thinking. "My human can't stop looking at that box of light." These light boxes— televisions, phones, laptops, desktop computers—capture my attention. I'm certain my dog wonders why her human companions are so obsessed with them. My husband and I often find her nose under our hands attempting to pry us away to pet her instead. Unfortunately, she cannot pry our attention away. We are like moths, obsessed with light at night.

I learned from my research into optimal sleep and health that it's best to organize your schedule around sunlight. So I started teaching fitness classes at 6 am during the weekdays to force myself into being an early bird. I had been so used to being a night owl that, at first, I would come to class drained and simply painted a smile on my face. Slowly, week after week, my body got tired earlier in the evening; soon I craved sleep at 10 pm versus midnight. Now my body naturally wakes up in the morning, ready for a workout.

The early-bird exercise routine led to having a resting heart rate of 47. The exercise also starts my day with feel-good hormones that last throughout the day, helping me stay balanced and able to respond, instead of sharply reacting to another's emotional state.

Here are my tips if you want to alter your schedule and health, too.

Schedule Days to Sleep In

If you're naturally a night owl like me, schedule days you can sleep in. For example, I teach fitness classes at 6 am Monday, Wednesday, Friday. On Saturday. Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday I sleep in. This satisfies the night owl in me, while the early bird can get my blood pumping for optimal health.

Join a Community

I recognized that I wouldn't get out of bed just for myself. But if other people are waiting for me to teach them a fitness class, I'd not only get to the gym, I'd get there early. I'd even lay out clothes the night before and tell others, "Gosh, I can't stay up late and have another glass of wine with you because I have to teach a fitness class at 6 am." Without a group of other humans waiting for me, I will sleep in. If you can't find a community of people, join mine.

Follow the Sun

Every day, surround yourself with light when the sun is up and minimize your light exposure with blue blocker glasses or darkness when the sun is down. When I add light to the chicken coop in my backyard, the birds start or stop laying eggs. It's very clear sunlight affects hormones. It's the same with our bodies.

Trouble sleeping, cycle changes, and even mood fluctuations are all indications you may be out of sync with sunlight. When our eyes see darkness, melatonin production surges naturally in our bodies. If you don't let yourself experience darkness, your body's health cycles will be affected. So, when the sun is out, play. Walk outside in the morning and in the afternoon and let your face experience the sunlight for a few minutes. When the sun is down, rest.

Test Your Vitamin Levels

I was such a night owl earlier in my life that I developed a vitamin D deficiency, which led to spine issues and chronic pain, which are now kept at bay. Work with a trusted doctor to check your vitamin levels and, if necessary, supplement. Sunlight encourages your body to make vitamin D; without it, you may become D-deficient. A test ensures that you h ave adequate levels. I always ask my doctor to check those levels at my annual physical.

I still call myself a night owl. I just add the fact I reinvented myself as an early bird for health reasons. As a treat, I'll stay up late, and it feels decadent, just like a piece of German chocolate cake. You wouldn't have cake every day if you were seeking optimal health, right? For the same reasons, I altered my routine—and you can do it, too.

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