Get Morning Sunlight and You'll Sleep Better

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Getting morning sunlight can help you sleep better at night. That might not seem to make any sense. However, there's evidence that it's true, especially if you have a circadian rhythm disorder. That's because of numerous factors, including:

  • Body temperature, because sunlight can warm you up
  • Morning production of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Increases in the level of the hormone serotonin, which is important to sleep
Woman drinking coffee and enjoying the morning sunlight in garden
m-gucci / Getty Images

How Light Helps

Light is the principal control of our day-night cycle, influencing everything from body temperature to metabolism to sleep. Without it, our bodies will run on a pattern determined by our genetics (called tau).

Your tau may not exactly match the 24 day-night cycle that governs how our society works, and, over time, the daily discrepancy can add up. Human beings also have natural tendencies that determine when they most want to sleep, with about 10% of people being night owls.

As anyone who's done shift work knows, when the timing of sleep runs counter to your social obligations (such as work, school, and family life), it can be a struggle.

If you fall asleep and waking up late, you may have a delayed sleep phase syndrome. Conversely, falling asleep and waking too early may be due to advanced sleep phase syndrome. Each of these conditions may be helped by properly-timed exposure to light and the therapeutic use of melatonin.

Light exposure also can be helpful in people who suffer from difficulty sleeping as a result of insomnia by helping to regularize the patterns of sleep and wakefulness.

Light Therapy

Light therapy, also called phototherapy, has been studied in relation to numerous medical conditions, including:

  • Insomnia
  • Circadian rhythm disorders
  • Dementia and Alzheimer's disease
  • Parkinson disease
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Light's impact on physiology is scientifically well established. The type and timing of exposure to light are important, though, and all light is not considered equal. Artificial light doesn't have the same effect as unfiltered sunlight.

Light Boxes

There is a growing market for artificial lightboxes that mimic sunlight. Many of these provide an intensity of light of about 10,000 lux or less. For comparison, the sun's light intensity is 100,000 lux.

These can be effective, but they're expensive. While lightboxes can cost up to several hundred dollars, sunlight is a great free alternative. If you don't want to spend the money, it's easy enough just to head outside.

If, however, you work nights, you're up before dawn, or you can't access or tolerate sunlight for any reason, a lightbox may be a viable alternative. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to properly use it to help regulate your sleep-wake cycle.

Morning Light Therapy

For most people, exposure to sunlight is most beneficial if it occurs in the morning just after waking, typically within the first hour after crawling out of bed.

It's best to spend between 30 and 45 minutes getting direct sunlight exposure into your eyes. Don't wear a sun visor or sunglasses. Sunlight filtered through a windowpane may not have the same effect.

If you are concerned about the effects on your skin, you can wear sunscreen. Typically, though, the sunlight is somewhat less intense in the morning, which means it poses less risk of damaging your skin. Use your best judgment in determining what level of protection is necessary for you.

Important Aspects of Light Exposure

Follow these guidelines:

  • Within an hour of waking
  • 30-45 minutes
  • No sunglasses, visors
  • Direct light, not through glass
  • Sunscreen use isn't a problem

Working it into Your Day

A great way to get morning sun exposure is by going for a walk since you're also getting physical activity. Alternatively, you can sit on the patio while reading the morning newspaper or having breakfast, as long as the light is hitting your eyes directly.

What if the day is overcast with clouds? Even when filtered through clouds or rain, the sunlight will continue to have its effect.

Keeping a regular schedule, with a consistent wake time coupled with exposure to sunlight as part of a morning walk, is an extremely helpful combination. These scenarios are ideal and won't fit into everyone's life, every day, all year 'round. Look for ways practical ways to consistently work light therapy into your routine.

For example, if leisurely mornings on the patio aren't an option, you can get smaller amounts of sun exposure by opening windows, when weather permits, while you get ready for school or work, or while driving.

A Word From Verywell

A great thing about light therapy is that it can be an effective treatment that doesn't require a prescription, an appointment, or if you use the sun, a co-pay.

If you are struggling to sleep well at night, especially with insomnia or a circadian rhythm disorder, try regularly exposing yourself to morning sunlight. You may find that your sleep and daytime function improve significantly, and that can have a big positive impact on your life.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sloane PD, Figueiro M, Cohen L. Light as therapy for sleep disorders and depression in older adults. Clin Geriatr. 2008;16(3):25-31. PMID: 24285919

  2. National Sleep Foundation. Light therapy for insomnia sufferers.

  3. Mead MN. Benefits of sunlight: a bright spot for human health. Environ Health Perspect. 2008;116(4):A160-7. doi: 10.1289/ehp.116-a160

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.