by Marwan Hamed, MPH
Technology! Without it, you wouldn’t be able to read this article, but your biological clock would’ve also been better off. You see, back before we had the luxury of electricity, people lived according to changes in light and temperature between day and night as well as seasonal changes. Even when societies advanced to the use of candles fueled by fire, people still lived, worked, and slept based on the natural changes in their environment.
But these days, we just can’t live like that. Not with the internet and massive TV screens and the sounds of cars and trucks as they pass our homes through all hours of the day and night! But is it really all that bad? And moreover, can anything be done about it? Can we live with more comfort, more productivity, and less stress?
A big part of the answer lies in our chronotypes!
Anna Wirz-Justice PhD — a founding member of the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms and the Daylight Academy, and Board member of the Center for Environmental Therapeutics — introduced light therapy to Europe and now focuses on the applications of chronobiology in architecture and daily life.
Dr. Wirz-Justice has been working with a new concept — chrono-ecology — which tries to better understand the relationship between our individual biological clocks and the environment around us.
Chrono-ecology recognizes how people have very different lifestyles, some of us working during the day, night, or without a regular schedule, and some preferring to stay indoors or outdoors, among many other individualized aspects of our lives.
But many of these personal lifestyles, whether by choice, habit, or otherwise, carry consequences for both the individual and society, especially as they pose risks for our sleep, energy, and mood. Some examples are poorer learning, functioning, and memory, as well as higher risk of accidents and mental and physical health conditions. These problems often reflect our tendency to counteract the natural order of seasonal temperature cycles and light availability with artificial cooling, heating, and illumination well past sunset. But this may be only a response to pushing away from the natural order of living through the cold of winter or the heat of the summer with our cooling and heating regulated homes and the lights that keep us up well passed the setting of the sun.
Is this necessarily bad for us? Should we stop taking advantage of technological advances? The simple answer is no. After all, our physical growth has dramatically increased and our lifespan is far longer than when our ancestors coped without electricity and technology. Also, technology and electricity have enabled medical advances that are extending and saving lives.
So, what can be done in the modern world to improve our mood, mental sharpness, and overall health?
For starters, learn more about your chronotype by taking CET’s Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ).
You can also learn more about how your work shift may be affecting your life, and figure out how to find a match to your chronotype.
There are also practical steps you can take to bring missing outdoor signals into your home. Learn about the benefits of using a bright light therapy lamp, an effective way of structuring a natural sunlight pattern keyed to your work schedule, or a dawn-dusk simulator, which mimics the dimmer outdoor lighting transitions that couched our ancestors’ sleep cycles. These simple moves can significantly address common modern-day challenges to our physical, mental, and emotional health.
Marwan Hamed is a freelance writer for CET.