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Neurologist Reveals the Real Reason COVID Lockdowns are Hurting Your Sleep

Andrew Huberman

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Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and tenured professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, appeared on the Mikhaila Peterson podcast today to discuss the latest developments in sleep science.

Things got really interesting around the one-hour mark. Dr. Huberman discussed the tragic effects that the coronavirus lockdown has had on people’s sleep schedules. He also gave his tips and tricks that he uses to make sure he sleeps well during lockdown.


Huberman: One of the worst things about the lockdown is that people are already stressed about the world and its happenings and they’re not viewing things at a distance. So there’s this increase in the level of stress and autonomic arousal. This can be relieved by viewing a horizon, or looking out at a long distance out of a window; or even better, getting in to what’s called self-generated optic flow. I don’t need to go into all the details, but when we move our body – either by walking, running, or cycling (not on the Peloton) – when we get outside and move, optic flow is known now – from a series of about five really good peer-reviewed studies – to suppress the activity of the amygdala. That’s the area of the brain that’s involved in threat detection and stress.

Peterson: Wow.

Huberman: So when kids get outside and they’re moving around a bit more, or if they’re in the yard – if you don’t have access to a yard, try to get their sphere of visual attention to be a little bit further. Put them a little bit further from devices at some point during the day. Or away from devices. That’s very helpful. So that’s sort of the proximity to the device.

There’s another interaction that we should be mindful of. Which is that we should all be getting as much bright light in our eyes – never to the point where it’s painful – but as much bright light in our eyes as early in the day as possible. Ideally from sunlight. But, look, if you’re up in Toronto or way up in the depths of Ottawa – Did I pronounce it correctly?

Peterson: Ottawa? Yeah.

Huberman: Okay sorry. I’ve worked with a lot of Canadians now and they’re always poking fun at my pronunciation. Which is fair revenge for all the joking that we’ve done over the years.

When you’re up in those areas – like Scandinavia – in the depths of winter there’s very little light so you might need to use artificial light. Bright light from screens during the day is good because you want as much bright light as possible in your eyes during the day. The fear of blue light has led people to think that they should get no bright light in their eyes. But blue light from the sun is what turns on the appropriate timing of stress hormones and melatonin and all that stuff in a healthy way. So lots of light early in the day. You want to see the sunrise too. That goes for kids as well. So no staying in the cave early in the day. Devices can provide some stimulation, but really, natural light during the day, as much light during the day as safely possible. Then, as night comes around, you want to dim devices and really keep the level of artificial light down to a minimum. I don’t think that people have to be in complete darkness.

But one thing that’s really helpful is to set lights physically low in the environment. Instead of using overhead lights, use desk lamps. Because the neurons in the eye that kind of reset and wake up our clocks in our brain and body look up at the visual field. So if things are set too high in the environment then people find themselves falling asleep and then a couple of hours later waking up because the system is all out of whack.

So try to view a long distance away from screens. That’s true for both kids and adults. Try to keep as many bright – mostly sunlight – but also artificial lights during the day. Dim the lights at night, obviously, so you’re not what I call ‘jet-lagged at home’ where you’re screwing up all your clocks while you’re still at home. And I should mention, there is a phenomenon – just to drive this home – called ICU psychosis where people go in to the hospital and because of all the lights and the nurses coming in and flipping on the lights that people actually become psychotic.

Peterson: I feel like I’ve had that.

Huberman: It’s well known. Or where they go home and they get on a regular light-dark schedule and all the bright lights and machinery has been taken away, they find that their sanity is restored. It’s remarkable. You can make someone psychotic by messing up these patterns.

I don’t think we’re at that level as a culture yet, but I think that children deserve – obviously we wouldn’t show them inappropriate content – so we shouldn’t also deliver good content in a format that’s not healthy for them.

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