After I discovered that morning faces improved my mood, I tried to maximize the effect — determine the the best time, distance, size, and so on. One evening I went to a screening (Taxicab Confessions) at the UC Berkeley journalism school. It started about 7:30 pm and lasted about two hours. Over the next few days, I discovered that the morning-faces effect was gone. It took a few weeks to return.
The problem, I realized, was the room lighting. The auditorium, like almost all campus rooms, was lit with fluorescent lamps. Maybe they were off during the film (one hour?) but they were on before and after. Fluorescent light, in contrast to incandescent light, contains lots of blue. The faces effect, I knew, depended on a sunlight-sensitive oscillator, which determined a critical period during which faces made a difference. That oscillator was much more sensitive to blue light than red light. If that oscillator wasn’t working properly — e.g., its amplitude was too low — the faces effect disappeared. Normally I never experienced fluorescent light at night. There were no fluorescent lights in my apartment, including the bathroom. Cafes, restaurants, my friends’ living rooms, and so on — all incandescent light. Incandescent light has very little blue.
I hadn’t realized that ordinary fluorescent exposure could cause trouble, but now I did. After that realization, for many years I avoided fluorescent light at night (= after 8 pm). To get home from San Francisco in the evening, I took a cab to avoid fluorescent light on BART. No fluorescent-lit restaurants for dinner, no late-night supermarkets or drug stores. It was bearable, but not pleasant. Except for the Berkeley campus, where students were getting messed up by evenings in libraries, the city of Berkeley was innocuous, but big cities, such as New York with their late hours and heavy subway use, were terrible, exposing residents to lots of fluorescent light at night. Depression may be more common in urban areas than rural areas.
Eventually I realized I could solve the problem with “blue-blocker” glasses — i.e., orange-tinted glasses — that block blue light. (I use these, $7.) Now I could live normally, except for looking funny now and then. I wore the orange glasses a few minutes last night in a 7-11. Concerned about blue light from LED screens, I also wear them between 9 pm and 5 am when looking at a computer screen. Although compact fluorescents (replacing ordinary light bulbs) have come along, and incandescent lights may be outlawed, my apartment is still all incandescent. The light from compact fluorescents has a lot of blue. Because I had no doubt that fluorescent light at night was bad because of the blue light, I never bothered to measure the effect of the blue-blocker glasses. This might have been a mistake.
Last June, at an evening meeting in under fluorescent lights, an Oakland woman saw me wearing orange glasses. She’d read about them on my blog. Sixty years old, she’d had poor sleep for decades. “It was a quick and easy thing I could try,” she told me. “Not a supplement or med.” She already took many of these.
The first evening, she put on the glasses at 8 pm. She’d had a lot of energy when she put them on, but 15 minutes later she fell asleep. She only slept for 30 minutes, but the incident suggested great promise. She got into a routine where she put them on when she got home, usually between 8 and 10 pm. The results:
All summer long, I slept better than I have slept in my entire life with these glasses. I haven’t had sleep problems until the last couple of weeks. Most nights I sleep through the night. If I get up, it’s to go to the bathroom and I quickly go back to sleep. Completely unknown to me in the last couple of decades.
In other words, they helped a lot. It used to take her about an hour to fall asleep. She would take 3 tryptophan pills (= 2.5 g of tryptophan) at bedtime, and then 3 more every 20 minutes she was awake. She ended up taking 6-9 every night. After she started using the orange glasses, she continued the tryptophan but found almost never took 20 minutes or more to fall asleep.
Is she unusually sensitive to blue light? Does she get more blue light at night than the rest of us? Is it a placebo effect? Her house is full of compact fluorescents (she used to work on energy policy) and she spends a lot of time in front of a big (26-inch) computer monitor and a 46-inch TV. They may make things worse, but none of the three (compact fluorescents, big computer monitor, big TV) was around decades ago, when her sleep was also bad. The effects may go beyond blue-light elimination (“when I put them on my world is relaxed,” she said) but the notion that this is a placebo effect is contradicted by the many things she tried that didn’t help, not to mention the many experiments showing that blue light affects circadian rhythms.
I’d heard vaguely of sleep improvements. For example, Chris Kresser wrote “I’ve had many patients swear by these goggles”. Chris himself, however, rarely used them unless he was looking at electronic devices (like me). “If I notice that my sleep is starting to get funky, I’ll wear them,” he wrote, but otherwise not. I knew that I got the faces effect — which was huge — without needing to wear them at night, so I had assumed that ordinary (incandescent) evening light was harmless. However, this story, because the effect is so large, makes me question that assumption. I will try wearing them in the evening even when I am not looking at a computer screen.
Orange glasses improve sleep in a naturalistic experiment compared to other glasses. Subjects put on the glasses three hours before going to sleep.