Why Controlling the Light Around You Is Critical to Your Health

Sleeplessness and fatigue getting you down? Turns out the trick is respecting that big star in the sky.

Control the light around you for better health and sleep
Image: Shutterstock

For two years of my young adult life, I worked in commercial operations for the Discovery Channel. Nine hours a day, five days a week, I sat in its midtown Manhattan office attempting not to fall asleep. Row upon cubicle row was draining, yet something else drugged me: the lights.


Unnaturally bright florescent bulbs hung over our heads forty-five hours every week. By my next job as a magazine editor, I was pleased that my office was lamp-powered. Having control over the light around you is critical to your health.

We know that circadian rhythms are important for our physiological functioning, and that light plays an essential role in this daily rhythm. Thanks to electricity we’ve hacked that process. In terms of agriculture this is not a bad thing; we can better manipulate crops for greater yield. But we’re not plants. A new study shows just how bad artificial lighting is for the human body.

According to the report, conducted at the Netherlands’ Leiden University Medical Center, mice kept under constant light caused “pro-inflammatory activation of the immune system, muscle loss, and early signs of osteoporosis.”

While it’s improbable that a human would be subjected to round-the-clock artificial lighting, researchers warn that this information is especially pertinent to the aging population, where bone density loss and inflammation are common markers of disease.

Inflammation increases when we don’t sleep; lighting, especially blue light from our devices, has been implicated in shutting down melatonin production, which also affects how long and deeply your rest is. Being that stress and inflammation are often concurrent, keeping your phone or tablet off for an hour or two before bed ensures better quality and quantity of sleep.

Harvard neuroscientist Anne-Marie Chang discovered that the light from our devices extends not just to bedtime, but the following morning. She compared readers flipping through a paperback to those using a tablet, and found that

Participants who read on light-emitting devices took longer to fall asleep, had less REM sleep [the phase when we dream] and had higher alertness before bedtime [than those people who read printed books]. We also found that after an eight-hour sleep episode, those who read on the light-emitting device were sleepier and took longer to wake up.

A number of fixes have been proposed. Amber light does not affect circadian rhythm as much as blue light; changing out some bulbs, especially around your bedroom and bathroom (anywhere you travel at night), helps you fall asleep faster if you wake. Apps such as f.lux dim your devices for you, though you can also control the dim on your own in settings—keeping the brightness dialed down is a good idea regardless of time of day. And that good old paperback might just be the call, especially at night.

Of course, there’s the easiest fix of all: put your device down, especially in the evening. Keep your house lowly lit when possible, with gentler bulbs. Avoid florescent lights whenever possible. We like to think of technology as forward progress, but as far as we’ve come, we can’t forget what got us here. Sunshine still reigns supreme. 

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Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch @derekberes.

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For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

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This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

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If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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