The Biology of Time – Part 2
DR. SATCHIN PANDA is a leading expert in the field of circadian rhythm research. He is Associate Professor in the Regulatory Lab at the Salk Institute, a Pew Scholar, and a recipient of the Dana Foundation Award in Brain and Immune System Imaging. His book, The Circadian Code, has helped many people to regain their energy, sleep well and lose weight. Here he is interviewed by UDAY KUMAR on how he developed the ideas in his book, and what inspired his research.
Q: Regarding the point you mentioned about sleep and sleep discipline, I have an Android phone and although I never knew anything about the blue light filter somehow I would turn it onand it would feel softer on my eyes. Then I came across your research. How did you go toward this side of research and what triggered this whole curiosity and life-changing discovery?
For a very long time, animals and humans have reset their brain clocks in response to light. Then there are many blind people who cannot see, cannot even see the headline of the New York Times, but when they travel from one place to another place, they can readjust their clock to the new time zone, just like normal people. But then there are other types of blind people who have lost both their eyes because of surgery or an accident, and they cannot reset their clock. That means there must be a light sensor in the eye, which is not for seeing, but may be essential for sensing.
So, that clue was there for almost 50 years, and everybody was trying to figure out where this light sensor is. Then, after the human genome project, it became easier to look for it because we had the information. That’s how we stumbled on the melanopsin photoreceptor. If you remove the melanopsin gene in a mouse, it cannot sense light accurately, and cannot reset its clock. It takes a very long time to reset at scale.
Then we figured out that it’s a blue light sensing protein – it senses blue light. That makes sense because during the daytime we have a lot of blue light in sunlight. So, we are designed to sense that blue light and become a lot more alert during the day. At night-time we don’t need blue light because it keeps us alert. Candlelight and firelight don’t have too much blue light. So, we are designed to see more blue light in the daytime and less blue light at night.
Unfortunately, nowadays, what has happened is that opticians want us to have a blue light coating, which is actually not the right thing to do. You need blue light during the daytime, whereas you don’t need blue light at night. So, it’s better to have two pairs of glasses. If you don’t get enough blue light during the daytime, you can become depressed. Cell phone tracking data show that we spend more than 87% of our time indoors, and most of our indoor lighting is not good. In my living room, I might have 250 to 300 lux of light, whereas on a cloudy day in New Jersey, outside there will be 10,000 lux. Right now, where you’re sitting, since you’re away from your window, you may be sitting in 200 lux. Out of that, blue light is a small fraction. If you filter out the blue light, then of course you may not get so much eye strain from looking at the screen, but you will not get the upliftment that you get from going outside.
The second aspect is that most opticians are selling blue light filtering glasses. But is it filtering enough that is biologically significant? The answer is no. Most blue light blocking glasses that people are buying filter out maybe 5 to 10%. It is like you’re standing outside, and you feel it’s too much sun, and you get a transparent umbrella and hold it. So, in most cases it’s 5%. The glasses that really filter out blue light will look orange. Only orange and other spectra will go through, since blue is filtered out, so we see them as orange or even red. The real blue light filtering glasses are orange, yellow or red.
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