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Rise and Shine: How Sunlight Combats Fatigue

Updated: Apr 2, 2023



It is well documented that long and irregular working hours in the film industry can lead to sleep deprivation and fatigue, which in turn can impair decision-making, reaction time, creativity, and overall well-being.

While some of the popular tips and strategies for better sleep do not translate well to the realities of our sector, there are still strategies we can employ to improve the sleep we do get, and reduce the fatigue we experience.


Sleeplessness Comes First, Then Stress

In the past, stress, depression and mental health disorders were viewed as a cause of insomnias and other sleep disorders. Only recently has science revealed that it’s actually the opposite. In fact, the less sleep, the higher the risk for mental health issues, workplace accidents, low impulse control and burnout.


Therein lies the conundrum. A lack of sleep escalates our stress, and the more stress, the more cortisol and adrenaline are dumped into our system, escalating our sleeplessness. A vicious cycle erupts.


And that’s why you need to step outside. To break the cycle!


The Sun Factor

How does stepping outside help? It’s simple really.


Sunlight.


Yes… that’s the key to managing any toxic plume swirling around us. Well, it’s one of the keys. A really big key.


Here’s the science. As humans, our sleep-wake cycle is controlled by the amount and timing of light exposure. Sunlight is the single most powerful synchronizer we have, regulating our mood, energy levels, and sleep abilities by making sure our body rhythms work in harmony with each other, not against each other.


When we go out into the bright sunlight, it converts certain foods that contain tryptophan into serotonin. How much is produced is directly related to the amount of tryptophan in your diet and the amount of bright sunlight you’re exposed to in the day. The brighter the sunshine and the longer you’re exposed to it, the more serotonin produced.


Serotonin is known as one of our “happiness” hormones, giving us sensations of joy and pleasure, and basically making us nice people to be around. We’re kinder, communicate with fewer swear words, and are less likely to over-react when the kids paint the dog.


Sunshine = increased stress tolerance and better mood – Check!


But that’s not all it does. When the sun starts to set, the brain reaches into our serotonin stores and converts it into melatonin. Melatonin is our natural sleep hormone, helping us to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Low serotonin means low melatonin.


Sunshine = better and more sleep – Check!


So, to help us cope with everyday stressors and people in general, we need to do two things.


  1. Eat a diet rich in tryptophan. Tryptophan is especially high in proteins such as fish, meat, eggs, dairy and nuts and we need sufficient quantities to produce serotonin. Quinoa gets a shout out as well. You can also get it as a nutritional supplement if you’re worried you’re not getting enough – I’m looking at you vegans!

  2. Get outside. Morning sun is preferable as it synchronizes our body rhythms to a daytime schedule. The earlier the better. In fact, 15 minutes of early morning sun is the equivalent to two hours exposure in the late afternoon. On a cloudless day, depending on the time of year, sunlight can range from 10,000 lux to 100,000 lux of light in the summer. Even on a cloudy day, the lux levels outside are thousands of lux higher than in your house or office which sit around 300 – 500 lux of light. So even on a rainy day, pull on those rain boots and get outside for an hour or so. Unfortunately, working at night or having an erratic sleep schedule can further disrupt serotonin production and subsequently, melatonin levels. The low serotonin levels can result in sleep disorders such as insomnia, in addition to increases in mood swings, anger levels, and even addictive behaviours.3 Using a light box can provide significant benefits to these workers when walking in sunshine isn’t an option (see our related blog post Time Change, Sleep and Fatigue).


In Summary: Get outside as best you can

Since your brain cannot repair itself while you are sitting on the couch watching The Last of Us, go outside and catch some rays. It’s a cheap and effective way to help develop your body’s natural defences against stress by improving sleep. Now that spring and longer days are upon us, let’s take advantage of our bright spring/summer season.


Many thanks to Mike Harnett, a Leading Fatigue Expert, for allowing us to adapt her article “Walking on Shinshine” for this post. Mike previously led a fatigue and sleep research study for the film sector and she is featured in the documentary series “SafeSets”. Her company, Solaris Fatigue Management, delivers training and consulting on sleep and fatigue management


Resources:

1. Are you fatigued Infographic and checklist (pdf)


Article Sources

National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times | Sleep Foundation. (2020). Retrieved 29 July 2020, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-recommends-new-sleep-times

Pirola, Carlos J. (2007). Serotonin and Serotonin Transporter Gene Variant in Rotating Shift Workers. Sleep. Aug. 2007

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