Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Light At Night and Disease

You don't hear much about light pollution. And when you do, it's usually a story about wildlife or greenhouse gases or stargazing. That's about to change.

Recent research has drawn a connection between dim light exposure at night and depression. The investigators found that light, comparable to the levels of light pollution surrounding cities, not only triggered depression in animal models but also increased specific inflammatory molecules in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in mood disorders. When the inflammatory molecules were blocked, the depression lifted.

We have known for some time that inflammation is associated with many diseases. In fact, it seems as if it is an essential condition for most of them. A Who's Who of inflammatory illnesses would number over 100 and include Alzheimer's, atherosclerosis, arthritis, Parkinson's, cancer and mood disorders. The connection with mood disorders was first appreciated when depression was found to be more prevalent in those with inflammatory disorders than in the general population.

So the medical community has targeted anything that causes chronic inflammation as something to nip in the bud. The big players here have been stress, Western diet (high in fat and processed foods), and sedentary lifestyle. Now we may have to add light at night (LAN).

This shouldn't come as a complete surprise. We evolved in an environment that alternated between light and dark. Over tens of thousands of years, this was an environmental constant. In this setting, our cells developed a kind of clock that is organized on a daily (circadian) pattern. Disrupt that rhythm and the trouble begins.

In the 100 years that widespread use of electric bulbs has become the norm, our genome has not adapted. Genetic change does not occur that rapidly. We are still wired for darkness at night, and artificial light disrupts our circadian rhythms. A growing body of research suggests that artificial light at night increases the risk for a variety of diseases including obesity and certain cancers.

If you think about some of the most common symptoms of depression, this story makes more sense. Circadian cycles, sleep, hunger-satiety, and memory are typically altered in depression. People with depression describe difficulty sleeping or excessive sleep. They often relate that their "clock is off." They complain of a loss of appetite or an inability to stop eating. Depression's capacity to impair memory is so profound that depressives have been misdiagnosed as suffering from dementia, a memory disorder.

The brain centers that control these functions (hunger-satiety, circadian cycles-sleep, memory) are located in the hypothalamus. Bingo! That's the part of the brain adversely affected by light at night, according to the recent research.

Over the past century there has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of depression, sleep disorders and obesity. This new data suggest that at least part of this increase could be due to the ever-growing exposure to light at night.

Imagine if we were to discover that light plays a major role in the obesity epidemic. I can see the headline now: "My Nightlight Made Me Fat."

So how might you respond to these findings?

Does your bedroom look like a NASA control room when you turn off the lights? Does your phone, TV, cable, computer, fax, printer, smoke alarm, etc. emit light? Do your curtains eliminate all light from outside?

For once, we may want to be in the dark.

Change Is Easier Than You Think: Thinking's The Problem

We all want to change something. Most of us have tried and had either fleeting success or chalked up a failure. Why is it so hard?

The way we think about change is the problem. In this arena (unlike most), we think too much. We usually think our way to keeping things exactly as they are.

There's always a good reason we do the things we set out to change. On some level, these things -- whether food or drink or drugs -- work. They may cause all sorts of problems, but there's a reason we keep doing them, and it's not laziness or lack of willpower. They soothe us in some fundamental way, no matter how transiently.

Our mind has devised this maladaptive solution and has hijacked our better sense in an attempt to protect us. It is dedicated to preventing the loss of this behavior and made anxious by even the idea of such change. For this reason, most thinking about change has been sabotaged from within.

Change is about doing, not thinking.

There are three big mistakes people make that doom their attempts from the get-go. Avoid these and you're off to a great start.

Mistake #1: It's not something you want to change, it's someone else's agenda.

This may prove more complicated than it seems. Let me give you an example.

Harry's wife wants him to lose weight. His doctor has informed him that he's developing a pre-diabetic condition that puts him at risk for all sorts of bad things. Harry believes that enjoying life means eating and drinking to your heart's content. To curb these appetites is to create a life not worth living.

In this setting, it's highly unlikely that Harry will change. However, let's say Harry really loves his wife and that she is terrified of losing him. He wants to "be there" for her. He wants to feel like a good husband. He is distressed that he is the cause of her anxiety. It is more powerful to see himself as a good partner than to enjoy the pleasures of a glutton. Now, change has become his agenda.

Mistake #2: The change you want to make is not a behavior.

Let's stick with Harry. So Harry decides that what he really needs to do is lose weight (fine) and therefore defines weight as his thing to change (not fine).

The choice of what we're going to change is the most important factor for success. It must be a simple behavior, not a broad goal. Hopefully the chosen behavior will move you toward a broad goal.

If weight-loss is desired and diet the approach, then an example of an appropriate change would be to eliminate bread. This can be done on a day-by-day basis. The goal each day is to have no bread that day. This sits much more comfortably in our minds than the resolution that we will never again have bread.

Another essential component here is the ease with which we can measure success. You go without bread today, you succeeded. Success is not months or years down the road when you tip the scales at some magical number. And there is nothing like this one-day accomplishment to make something feel controllable. Success breeds success.

Mistake #3: You will adopt the change behavior most of the time.

Choice is the enemy. Good old Harry figures, "hey, I've been eating a ton of bread every day, if I don't eat bread most days, it will be a big step in the right direction."

As soon as the option to eat bread sometimes is on the table (so to speak), you'll fail. Every time you sit down to eat, you will play the "do I eat bread this time" game. It's as if you decide to wrestle with the decision to change this behavior several times a day. There will always be a rationale for why it's ok to eat bread "this" time. And you will feel worse after allowing yourself to do it. Such feelings make you feel weak and erode confidence that you have the power to change.

100 percent is easier than 90 percent

I know this sounds upside down, but it's not. No matter what you're trying to eliminate -- bread, gluten, TV, alcohol, pot -- I believe you will succeed much more of the time when it's all or nothing.

I'd say "good luck," but it's not about luck. It's about making it really small, getting out of your own way, and creating some successes.