Rob Brown, MD

A Physician's Unique Perspective on Wellness

Month: January 2018

Melatonin and the Health Effects of Ambient Bedroom Light

This week, as I’ve listened to newscasters talk about how the flu epidemic is taking over America, it struck me that people are likely ill, in part, because they are experiencing a melatonin deficiency.

Vitamin D and melatonin have something in common. They both strengthen the body’s immune system. Their relative production should complement each other perfectly. But, in our world of technology, they have become out of sync. Cancer and other diseases can develop if an immune system doesn’t function properly. In this post, you are going to gain an appreciation for melatonin and learn what you can do to normalize your brain’s production of this important hormone.

Winter and melatonin deficiency

It is wintertime in the northern hemisphere and people all over are getting sick. The news is filled with reports of how bad the flu is this year. Unless you are supplementing yourself with Vitamin D, your Vitamin D levels have likely dropped because the sun is low in the sky and days are short. We know that low Vitamin D levels are associated with decreased immune function. But why would mother nature do this to us? Does it make sense that we should all be put at greater risk for illness during the winter?

Although days are short, nights are long and your body’s natural response during periods of prolonged darkness is to produce more melatonin. This hormone is produced by the brain’s pineal gland, often referred to as the third eye. This gland receives information directly from the eyes and can therefore in a way, sense whether or not it is dark or light out. In the absence of light, the pineal gland secretes melatonin which has crucial beneficial health effects on your body, one of which is to strengthen the immune system.

So in the summertime, your immune system is fortified by sunlight and Vitamin D, while in the wintertime, your immune system should be enhanced by darkness and melatonin.

If this is true, why are so many people getting sick in the darkness of winter?!

Maybe one reason has to do with a mass deficiency in production. There are several common habits we share which could explain why so many of us experience melatonin deficiency.

6 simple tips to avoid melatonin deficiency:

  1. Melatonin production should be cyclical, off during the day and on at night. expose yourself to sunlight or at least full spectrum light during the day so your brain knows when it is daytime.
  2. Pick a bedtime and stick with it. When the body gets into the habit of going to sleep at a certain time, it will naturally want to fall asleep when that time arrives each day or night. Let yourself drift off when that time comes.
  3. Before going to bed, refrain from looking at all LED screens, including cell phones, laptops, tablets and TVs. Looking at an LED screen before going to sleep significantly reduces the amount of melatonin your brain produces at night. This light effect is even more potent for children than adults, so make sure your kids turn off their devices at least a half hour before bedtime.
  4. Feng shui masters consider having electronics in the bedroom to be inauspicious. They are wise. When you turn out the lights to sleep, there should be NO ambient light. If you have electronics in your bedroom, unplug each device that has an indicator light. Alternatively, you can shield each light source with a piece of countertop decor. Understand that if you can see any light with your eyes open, your pineal gland will more than likely see the light even when your eyes are closed.
  5. If you are used to falling asleep in front of the TV, try to change your habit. It is best to read before bed (not from a tablet). If you need some ambient sound to relax, play music or listen to something previously downloaded to your device. If you feel you absolutely must have the TV on to fall asleep,  put the TV on a timer so it will shut off after you typically fall asleep.
  6. Electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) trick the pineal gland into thinking that there is ambient light. EMF exposure during sleep will therefore cause your brain to produce less melatonin. If you use your cell phone as an alarm, put it in airplane mode to ensure it doesn’t ping you with EMF periodically while you are sleeping. And importantly, please don’t place a cordless phone or a wifi router anywhere near your bedroom. If you must, because of the design of your living space, either unplug the units or place them on a timer so that they turn off when you go to sleep and click back on when you are scheduled to wake up.

Waking up!

Ideally, we would be able to wait for the sunrise to wake up. But, since many of us have to work in the early morning, some methods of waking up are less stressful than others — and can offer a subtle, enjoyable way to address a melatonin deficiency.

Like many people, I’ve gone through an evolution of alarm clocks starting with a freestanding windup clock with bells on top. From there, I moved to a plug-in variety with hands and a buzzer and then, a digital clock radio, which had been my preferred method for awakening until recently. A few months ago, I purchased a daylighting alarm clock. I am in awe over this technology. 30 minutes prior to my scheduled wake up time, the clock begins to glow a reddish hue, which slowly brightens to a white light. It is relaxing, pleasing and so completely natural. At the designated wake up time, the clock will produce some type of sound, either an ambient noise such as crashing waves, or it will play radio.

The way this light works is very clever. Even though I sleep with my eyes close, light from the clock hits my eye lids and causes a faint illumination, telling my pineal gland that there is light in the room. In response, the pineal gland stops producing melatonin. Different wavelengths of light will have a stronger suppression on melatonin secretion than others. Interestingly, redder hues have less of an effect on melatonin suppression than blue frequencies. So, by simulating a sunrise, the clock is telling the pineal gland to SLOWLY stop producing melatonin. This gradual awakening feels so natural and is completely stress free! I highly recommend trying one.

Take care of yourself this winter and always!
Give some consideration to your sleep habits. Maybe you can do a little reorganization in the bedroom to enhance your melatonin production. Now, in the midst of winter, is a perfect time to start.

See also: Can Apple Cider Vinegar Reverse Cholesterol Plaque Build-Up?

3 Toxins the EPA Should Ban but Hasn’t… Yet

I am very concerned about 3 chemicals many of us have in our homes that have been proven to be extremely toxic. Since Scott Pruitt and the EPA recently placed a “hold” on banning these chemicals, we must be cautious and extra vigilant to protect ourselves and our loved ones from these poisons.

A Little Background

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was created in 1976 in an attempt to clean up our environment and improve the health of the US population. The Act gave the EPA the authority to monitor and restrict the use of chemicals deemed to be environmental hazards. The most notorious toxins removed included asbestos, lead-based paint, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Since the 1970s, tens of thousands of new chemicals have been developed by industry, placed in everything from paint formulas and food additives to personal care products. The original TSCA excluded chemicals used in food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides! As a result, the health effects associated with long term use of these chemicals has not been determined. Meanwhile, the US population, as a whole, has been getting sicker each year.

In 2016, the TSCA was amended by congress. The updated law calls for the health risk assessment of 10 new chemicals a year. Many of these compounds are found in common products we all use in our homes.  One would think that this kind of scrutiny would have been performed prior to their initial approval, but it wasn’t.

A year ago, on November 29, 2016, the EPA named the 1st 10 chemicals up for review. From the first test group, 3 chemicals discovered to be particularly toxic were named. But, they are not going to be phased out any time soon. Yes, these chemicals are known to be toxic and some cause cancer, but because the current administration doesn’t want to put any more regulations on business, Scott Pruitt and the EPA have delayed the ban of these 3 nasty chemicals…indefinitely!

What are these 3 toxins?

Methylene Chloride 

(dichloromethane)

This organic solvent is added to paint strippers, paint thinners and other paint removal products. metal cleaning and degreasing products. It is volatile organic compound (VOC) and has a sweetish odor. Be cautious of inhalation and skin exposure.

Acute reactions from methylene chloride exposure include confusion, dizziness, headaches, optic neuropathy and inflammation of the liver. There have even been several deaths attributed to inhalation. Long term, exposure to this chemical has been associated with cancer of the lungs, liver and pancreas in laboratory animals. This chemical has also been shown to cross the placenta!

N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP) 

This organic compound is rapidly absorbed by skin, but unlike the other two chemicals in this list, this fluid is nonvolatile at room temperature. Paint and coating removal products and many other household products may contain this chemical, including cosmetics. Even oral and transdermal medications are sometimes prepared using this chemical to assist in drug absorption.

This chemical easily crosses the placenta and exposure to this drug during pregnancy can cause terrible birth defects .

Trichloroethylene (TCE) 

This VOC is a colorless liquid used in adhesives, paint removers, typewriter correction fluids and spot removers, among other products. This chemical is commonly used by the dry cleaning industry and has even been used as an inhalation anesthetic for short surgical procedures.

TCE has been determined to be carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure. It causes kidney cancer and there is evidence that it may also cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and liver cancer. This chemical is also known to cause birth defects and developmental disorders.

So what can you do?

Follow these general precautions at home when using products such as a paint remover, adhesives, or any other products that emit VOCs.

1.Protect your skin and wear appropriate gloves. 

Latex rubber gloves used for dishwashing, medical gloves and food handling gloves are not adequate to protect yourself from these chemicals. Potent solvents can quickly dissolve through the material most gloves are made of and will subsequently absorb into your skin. A twinge in the nose, a strange sensation in the back of the throat, and/or irritation of the eyes will alert you that you have absorbed chemicals through your skin. Invest in a pair of laminated polyethylene/EVOH, butyl rubber or better yet, butyl/viton gloves to protect yourself from the most dangerous of these chemicals and always use them during potential exposure. Buy your gloves in advance and store them in the garage.

2. Maintain adequate cross ventilation or better yet, work outside when applying products containing VOCs. 

Many people don’t have a trustworthy sense of smell. Understand that you can still get sick from these products, even if you can’t smell them! Also realize that opening a few windows is not enough to keep the inside air from becoming toxic. If you use products containing these chemicals indoors for any prolonged period of time, run large fans in the room in addition to opening several windows. If this is not achievable, invest in a respirator with an assigned protection factor of 10 to reduce your toxin exposure. A NIOSH-certified air purifying elastomeric half mask respirator equipped with N100, R100 or P100 filters will minimize your inhalation exposure.

Check out my blog: A Breath of Fresh Air  and read a frightening personal account of the health effects I experienced from inhaling household paint fumes.

3. Keep all product containers containing VOCs in your garage or in an outdoor shed!

4. Don’t take home dry cleaned clothes that have an odor or are still damp as they may still be off-gassing TCE.

5. Pregnant women should stay away from all paint products! In addition, be critical of any cosmetics you apply to larger surface areas of your body. Investigate your chosen cremes and moisturizers and make sure they don’t contain NMP. 

Although it is certainly disappointing that the EPA has decided not to protect US citizens and the environment as a whole from these 3 industrial toxins, we must all realize that these chemicals represent the tip of an enormous iceberg. We are surrounded by thousands of hazardous chemicals in our daily lives. As a consumer and homeowner, it is important to do your homework and protect yourself as best you can from exposure.

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