621: The One About Morning Sunlight

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie, from wellnessmama.com. And this is the one about morning sunlight. This is part of a series of short episodes that attempt to provide a Feynman-type summary of my understanding of a topic, in an actionable way, and in less than 30 minutes. This is, of course, as with every podcast, not medical advice. I am not a doctor, and I don’t play one on the internet. So this is for educational purposes only. I am just a mom who cares very deeply about the future health of all of our children, and the future of health in our country, and who spends way too much time reading medical journals.
Also a reminder, we are each our own primary health care provider, as you are probably tired of me saying by now. But while we can work with great practitioners to help improve our health, at the end of the day, the responsibility and the inputs, and the responsibility for those inputs lie within each of us.
Before we begin, if you find value from this podcast, you can check out patreon.com/wellnessmama, if you want to support the podcast there. I will have monthly live question and answers within Patreon, and free resources that are not found on my website. Though everything at wellnessmama.com will always stay free, and you will always have access to those. You can also join my newsletter for a weekly roundup of recommended reading, articles, tips, and more. And that’s found at wellnessmama.com/newsletter.
Now, on to the topic of this podcast, all about morning sunlight, which you have probably heard me mention at least a few times in the history of this podcast. And I love that this has become such a popular topic, with even some of the biggest podcasters, like Dr. Andrew Huberman, talking about this very often. I also personally love Dr. Amy Shah’s recent recommendation on this podcast, the simple rule of “sky before screens” in the morning.
In this episode, I will discuss the science of why morning sunlight is beneficial, how much we actually need, what to do if you wake up before the sun or do shift work. And what to do with outdoor light is truly not an option in the morning. For instance, if you live somewhere where there is only a couple of hours of daylight a day.
In general, the advice to get morning sunlight is one of the very few pieces of health advice that I think is universally beneficial. And I have recommended this for over a decade because not only does it have profound benefits, but it is a no cost habit that truly anyone can do. And on a personal level, this is one of the few things that I try to do every single day, and I consider a non-negotiable. You’ve probably heard me say I don’t do anything every single day. And getting morning sunlight and telling my kids I love them are probably a couple of the only exceptions to that rule. I consider morning sunlight a foundational part of health that should be dialed in before trying anything more expensive or complicated, like supplements or bio hacks. Because as you’ll understand in a minute, this really is a foundational and pivotal part of health for many reasons.
So, why morning sunlight? Let’s look at some of the science. I actually find it a little funny that we need to turn to research to convince us of something that humans have likely done naturally for the entirety of our history. But the studies looking at morning sunlight shed some light, pun intended, on some fascinating aspects of circadian biology. So let’s look at it. When we are exposed to natural light in the morning, as soon as possible after waking, it is beneficial for many reasons, including, first of all, that this signals the pituitary gland to release hormones. Bright morning light signals the body to suppress melatonin, which we want while we’re sleeping, and increase cortisol production, which is good for us in healthy amounts. And there should be a natural rise of cortisol in the morning, though many people, this pattern can be a little skewed. And this morning light also helps us to produce dopamine and serotonin.
But the benefits extend beyond just that. You’ve probably heard of your circadian clock or your body’s master clock, that’s located in a region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. And this master clock is vital to the health and function of our body and our brains. And it’s involved in how we sleep, our focus during the day, our energy during the day, hormone function, and so much more. In fact, 80% of the genes in our bodies, and every organ in the body, runs on a specific 24-hour repeating cycle at the direction of this master clock. So simply, this clock is responsible for maintaining the timing of our cells’ most important life processes to keep our bodies functioning optimally. So basically, if we want to be healthy and happy, and have a well-functioning brain and support our metabolism, support our body, and reduce risk of chronic disease, cancer, diabetes, and sleep issues, we need to pay attention to and have a strong and consistent circadian 24-hour rhythm. We’ll talk about some of the other factors that come into this in a minute. But light is a really big needle mover when it comes to this 24-hour rhythm.
Now, many of the studies look specifically at the benefits of morning sunlight on things like sleep, mood, and hormone function. There’s a 2008 study that stated, “The melatonin rhythm phase advancement caused by exposure to bright morning light has been effective against insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, and seasonal affective disorder or SAD. The melatonin precursor serotonin is also affected by exposure to daylight.” And this is why this study and many studies point to morning light exposure as a really good needle mover for sleep, focus, and mood throughout the day. And I mentioned there are other triggers as well. Light, temperature, and food timing are three big factors when it comes to sleep quality. And light, especially morning light, seems to be one of the biggest needle movers for sleep quality and mood, specifically, because it impacts the body’s master clock so strongly. And according to Dr. Huberman, viewing sunlight in the morning can cause around a 50% increase in circulating cortisol, epinephrine, and dopamine. And in the morning, these leverage healthy increases in energy, immune system function, and mood.
So, essentially, getting that little bit of sunlight exposure in the morning, can lead you to feel happier, more productive, and more awake during the day, as well as to sleep better at night. And we’ll get into the specifics of how much we need to start that cascade. But this morning sunlight also starts the clock for melatonin production at night, which is one of the reasons that we want to do this as soon as possible after waking, because that helps again, suppress melatonin production that is supposed to happen overnight, help increase cortisol, which we want to rise in the morning. And it starts that timer for when we’re going to start making melatonin again at night to sleep well. A very oversimplified way to think of this, the earlier in the day and the more daylight you are exposed to during the day, the better your body can produce melatonin at night. And intuitively, this is also the reason you want to avoid bright light and overhead light after sunset. But more on that in a minute.
This morning sunlight exposure also triggers the first dopamine release of the day. And due to this, morning sunlight is a pretty easy habit to integrate, because there’s a natural dopamine release. So you will get a positive feedback loop from your body for doing it. And it’s a small habit, since not much time is needed. And we talked before about habit stacking. I’ve mentioned this in a previous episode, but you can use this to help integrate the habit of morning sunlight.
So, for example, while I personally prefer to get protein before caffeine, if morning coffee is a reliable habit for you, just habit stack and make the simple switch to drink your coffee outside, and then you’ve integrated the habit of morning light. Or if like me, you want to do protein before caffeine, eat or drink some protein before your coffee, and do both outside in the morning. But back to the science for a minute. Morning sunlight also has an effect on serotonin. And we know that exposure to full spectrum sunlight in the morning signals the body to produce serotonin, which has been talked a lot about in the past few years because of the mental health implications.
And so this not only helps later on with nighttime sleep, but it improves mood throughout the day. And this is actually why bright lights are recommended as standard treatment for seasonal depression and seasonal affective disorder. Because outdoor light, even on a cloudy day, delivers considerably more lux than indoor light. And for people who ask, I’ve heard this question on social media quite a lot. Even on rainy winter days, there’s a lot more light outside. And even though it may look dark outside, you will still get much higher lux levels of 1000 or more, which is far greater than any inside light will produce. Except for light specifically designed to produce a more intense lux of light. On a sunny summer day, that morning sunlight can deliver light that is up to 1000 times brighter than indoor light. So they are not the same thing. Getting bright light exposure indoors is not going to be the same as getting morning sunlight. And if you are a shift worker, which we’ll talk about in a minute, or truly don’t have access to outdoor light, there are some things you can do that are not as good, but they’re going to be better than just normal indoor light.
But as I said, light is a very important signaling mechanism for the body. Some of the sunlight that enters our body in this morning time period reaches the hypothalamus, which is involved in regulating most of the functions, life sustaining, especially, functions, in our body. And that also initiate and direct our response to stress. And you can read, I’ll link in the show notes, called “Light Medicine Of The Future,” by Jacob Lieberman, for a more involved explanation on that. Another study looked at morning light exposure in relation to body weight, and found that those who got morning sunlight reliably weighed less. And this was a dose-dependent and time-dependent response.
So from that study, even after controlling for all non-light exposure factors, including food intake, sleep activity, the influence of morning light on weight was considerable. It accounted for roughly 20% of the subjects’ BMIs. Meaning, those with earlier light exposure weighed less, separate of all other factors. And the results of this study demonstrate that the timing of even moderate intensity outdoor light exposure is independently associated with BMI or body mass index. Which I’ve talked about before is an imperfect measure, but it is a reliable one in as far as general trends.
So specifically, from that study, having the majority of the average daily light exposure above 500 lux earlier in the day, was associated with a lower BMI. Or in practical terms, essentially, for every hour later, that sunlight exposure was delayed in the day, there was a 1.28 unit increase in BMI. So this is not an insubstantial difference. This probably speaks to all of the hormone things we’ve already talked about. But if you are trying to get leaner, this might be a very easy no cost thing to add to your toolkit to really start to move that needle hopefully.
And anytime I mention morning light, a lot of questions come up on how much do we need, how to do it. The estimates range a little bit and how much we need, especially based on what part of the world you live in, what time of year it is, if it’s cloudy or not. On the very low end, it could be as little as two minutes in very bright climates. But I always personally aim for at least five, to sort of hit that minimum effective dose. And up to half an hour in general is going to kind of optimize the effects. But in general, the more time outside, the better. But that minimum effective dose is so important. If it’s a new habit for you, maybe aim for only 5 to 10 minutes, but just try to make it a reliable habit.
Now, a note here on the how to. This exposure does need to be fully outdoors and not through a window. Though, in theory, you could be under a porch, as long as you are outside and exposed to the light. But as Huberman explained in a recent podcast, when you look at sunlight through a window, it’s 50, 5-0, times less effective than if the window were to be open. Mostly because the window filters out a lot of wavelengths of blue light that are actually essential for stimulating the eyes and starting this wake-up signal that we talked about. And this is why bright light all throughout the early part of the day is important.
Ideally, we want as much outdoor time as possible. I know that’s often difficult in our modern world. But if you can absolutely get that first thing in the morning. And if you are indoors the rest of the morning, you can consider using bright overhead lighting, or even a 10,000-lux light box, which I have. And a note here, if you want to get really tactical with this. Instead of just having it on your desk or at eye level, if possible, have it above your head. And I’ll explain a little bit more about that in a minute. But basically, the idea is, those types of bright light in nature come from above us, not at eye level. And I’ll actually give some specific tips for optimizing the light in your home in just a minute. But if you’re going to invest in a light box, of which there are some relatively inexpensive ones I will link to in the show notes, if possible, have that light coming from overhead while you’re working in the morning.
Now, as I said, this particular podcast is primarily focused on morning sunlight, and its need to reach the eyes to achieve all of these benefits. It is by no means the only sunlight we need to function optimally, but just the one we’re talking about today. Very briefly, midday sunlight serves its own purpose. And while morning sunlight, it’s important for it to hit our eyes, midday sunlight should ideally reach as much of our skin as possible. And I will do an entire separate episode on this. But the benefits, of course, of midday sun also then extend to vitamin D exposure, as well as potential increase of important hormones like testosterone, and estrogen, and mood enhancing benefits as well.
But for those who are curious, this morning sunlight, while it’s always great to get sunlight exposure on the skin, the really important mechanism is that your eyes are exposed to the light. Whereas midday sun, the skin aspect is more beneficial, because you’re also not going to make as much vitamin D from morning light exposure as you are midday sun.
And in the same way… This is a topic for another podcast as well. But for all the reasons bright light is great early in the day, it is counterproductive in the late afternoon, or evening and beyond, because it does the opposite of what you want at that time. So it suppresses melatonin production. And we want melatonin production to go up after it gets dark, and as we get close to bedtime. And if we get bright light exposure at night, this can then affect mood and impair sleep, but affect our mood even the next day. So Huberman, I believe, has a suggestion to completely avoid all bright light from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., for this reason. And I personally try to minimize bright light or even indoor light exposure as much as possible after sunset.
Now, I know this question will come up. What about shift workers? And this is a nuanced situation that does depend a lot on how much you’re varying from normal circadian rhythm, and from the normal life cycles. Research suggests that shift work is associated with insomnia, lower performance, and an increased risk of workplace injuries, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, autoimmune hypothyroidism, and specific types of cancer. Which actually makes sense when we understand all of the things I’ve already talked about, and how this signals our master clock.
So, this obviously isn’t ideal, yet we all benefit, and I’m extremely grateful for the people who do this important work. There have been amazing people doing shift work that have been there when I’ve had babies in the middle of the night or had medical emergencies in the middle of the night. And I’m so grateful that these people are willing to do that. There are some things that shift workers can do that help sort of mitigate the problems with not lining up with the normal light cycles of the planet.
So anytime someone needs to adapt the sleep and light cycle that isn’t in line with the natural cycles of the sun, it does present some challenges. There are some things you can do to make it easier. And based on what I’ve already said, you can probably guess most of them. But it would be things like using bright light, even those artificial 10,000 lux or higher forms of light, if needed, at the part of the day that is the morning for the person doing the shift work. So the first part of the day for this person. Also, it would be very important to keep sleep environment completely dark, even if this person is sleeping during the day. And you can use things like blackout curtains, etc., to keep the sleep environment as absolutely dark as possible.
There’s also factors like syncing up light and food as much as possible to the schedule that the person needs to follow. And perhaps most difficult, staying on the routine as much as possible. Even though it’s not ideal to be on a different light cycle, it’s the switching back and forth that can be the most difficult if it’s done throughout the week, and kind of signal the most chaos in the body. So as a reminder, using brighter light in the first half of shift work, and then if possible, dimming light as it gets close to sleep time can be helpful. And of course, if someone’s working in a hospital environment, this person may have no control over the lighting. That’s obviously a challenge. But in that case, keeping food timing and other factors lined up as much as possible, and then keeping the sleep environment very, very dark.
I also want to talk about some circadian-friendly home lighting suggestions, in light of understanding how these light cues work. Because I’ve hopefully established that outdoor light is beneficial, especially in the morning, and especially as soon as possible after waking up or after the sun rises. More time outdoors seems generally beneficial. And fascinating work like the Camping Study, shows that even just a few days away from artificial lighting can drastically shift and improve our circadian cycle. Which makes sense when we understand how much light regulates the master clock. But since many of us do have to spend time indoors as part of our daily lives, there are some things we can do to help optimize the indoor environment when we are inside, specifically. We can make sure our sleep environments are free of all artificial light. I personally use blackout curtains in my room, and I don’t have any devices or anything that has even a small light in my sleep environment. We can also optimize other parts of the house for non-sleep times. And this can be guided by looking at what happens naturally outdoors, and then mimicking it as much as possible indoors.
So for instance, bright outdoor light and blue light hues, most often in nature come from above, as the sun is highest in the sky when it is its brightest. Sunrise and sunset, the sun is lower and it has more red and orange hues. So, to mimic this in my house, I use bright daylight full spectrum bulbs in the ceiling lighting and overhead lighting. And I mentioned I have a 10,000 lux light that I hang above my desk instead of having it at eye level. I also have many lamps in my house that are at eye level or below. And these have low or no blue light bulbs. And these are what go on in my home after sunset. I will link to some of the specific ones I use in the show notes. But you just want to find for the ceiling, some really bright high spectrum lighting. And then for lamps at eye level, the lower blue light dimmer lights. And if this is a lot to remember, you can put timers on the lamps so that they go on and off at the right time. And that’s also the cue to turn off the overhead lighting. And at my house, this happens at sunset. It’s not ideal, but if you are going to be looking at artificial light at night, this would be a time you could use blue light blocking or reducing glasses, if you’re gonna be looking at screens. Though, in a perfect world, we would just avoid artificial light and screens after dark.
Now, a few caveats and reminders. We want to get morning light and it must be outdoors, because through a window is much less intense, and it will take much, much longer to have the same benefit. That morning light is as much as 50 times brighter. If possible, you want to avoid glasses. So if you wear glasses, if possible, take them off even for just a couple minutes in that morning period while you’re outside. But certainly avoid sunglasses during this phase, or looking through a window. And this bright light exposure is beneficial even on cloudy or gloomy days.
I know I will get a lot of people asking, so if you wake up before sunrise, just make it a point to get sunlight as soon as possible after sunrise. It’s a topic for another episode, like I said. Midday light is also very important for other reasons. And viewing the sunset has its own set of benefits as well. But this episode is primarily focused on the importance of morning sunlight. Also, as I said, this early morning light is not about vitamin D. That is also a topic for its own episode. Early morning isn’t actually the best time to get vitamin D. But as I’ve established, this morning sunlight exposure is important for all the other reasons we’ve discussed. Because morning light hitting large areas of skin can still be beneficial. But the most important thing is for the eyes to get the exposure.
Now, this does not mean we need to look directly at the sun. And in fact, we shouldn’t. We just want to be outdoors without windows or glasses in the way of these receptors in our eyes. I hope that the information in this podcast has also pointed to a general trend of spending more time outdoors, and the importance of natural light, and how good that is for us, in general. My kids are actually doing, right now, a challenge called 1000 hours outside. And they are tracking this on a paper on our fridge. They’re trying to get 1000 hours in one year, which equals roughly a few hours a day.
And the same things that make morning sunlight beneficial are the reasons to avoid bright light and blue light at night. Again, another episode on that. But I hope that this short episode has convinced you that adding morning light exposure to your routine, if you aren’t already doing this, is one of the easiest and possibly most profound things you can do for your health, your mood, your sleep, and your stress.
I love finding habits that are a relatively easy thing to implement, and that can have very noticeable and compounding effects over time. And I think light is an important place to begin this discussion. As a reminder, aim for at least five minutes as soon as possible, after waking or after the sunrises, not through a window and not while wearing glasses or sunglasses.
And I’m curious, is this a habit you already have? If not, will you try it and try to make it a habit? I would love to hear your feedback in the show notes at wellnessmama.fm, or you can message me directly on Instagram. As always, thank you so much for sharing your most valuable resources with me today, your time, your energy, and your attention. I hope that you have found this podcast valuable, and that there have maybe been some tools within it that will help you improve your time, your energy, and your attention. And as always, I’m just so grateful that you’re here. Thank you for listening. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode for the Wellness Mama podcast.
If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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