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July 16, 2019 2 min read

By Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD

It may be tempting to stay up to binge watch your favorite NetFlix series or do some late-night work, but did you know that burning the midnight oil may be affecting your weight-loss goals? Bright lights from electronic screens and indoor lighting can disrupt your body’s internal clock and increase your risk for obesity.

Your body runs on an internal clock called a circadian rhythm. This clock regulates your sleep-wake cycle, eating habits and the fluctuations of your hormones throughout the day. When your circadian rhythm and sleep patterns are normal, you feel alert and energized during the day and sleepy during the night to rest and recover.

While the circadian rhythm is controlled by parts of your brain (specifically the hypothalamus), other factors like temperature and exposure to light and darkness affect it as well. Traditionally, your body is in tune with the rising and setting of the sun, but technology and exposure to bright lights at night can confuse your internal clock.

Research on the relationship between light exposure and weight status suggest that continuous exposure to bright lights can negatively affect metabolism and cause weight gain. Some symptoms of prolonged bright light exposure include increased weight, glucose intolerance, metabolic syndrome and reduced activity in brown fat tissue (the calorie-burning fat). This disruption can also affect eating behaviors and increase frequency of snacking, impacting how many calories you take in. 

A recent analysis measured the impact of artificial light at night on weight gain of over 43,000 women ages 35-74 years. Researchers found that women with the highest exposure to artificial lights at night tended to have an increased risk of weight gain and greater waist circumference. These results are similar to existing research on shift workers, who tend to work at night and don’t have normal sleep-wake patterns. Shift workers have been found to have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. 

How to Reduce Nighttime Light Exposure

There are several ways that you can reduce your bright light exposure, improve your sleep and reduce your risk for obesity. On your electronic devices, enable “night mode.” Better yet, finish using electronic devices at least 30 minutes to an hour before going to bed. In your bedroom, use lightbulbs that give off warm light. Once you’ve figured out all of the ways to reduce the amount of bright light you’re exposed to at night, maintaining a consistent sleep/wake times can also help you regulate your circadian rhythm and metabolism.

Taking control over the amount of bright lights you’re exposed to is a simple but effective way to make a difference in your weight and risk for obesity. 

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