The Surprising Thing That's Screwing With Your Sleep Cycle

The latest hazard on the American Medical Association’s list causes insomnia, eye pain, reduced visibility, and disruption to the migration patterns of birds and turtles. What malicious entity hiding amongst us could cause such ill effects? Surprise: it’s not your phone, TV, or laptop. 

If you suffer from sleep issues, the root of the problem may actually lie along the streets and highways you drive at night. Over the past decade, roughly ten percent of all street lamps in the U.S. have been replaced with brighter, more energy-efficient LED lights. Energy savings are super, but according to a report issued by the AMA last month, our newest and bluest street lights are screwing with our sleep patterns.

LED street lights mess up your circadian rhythm

How can you tell which street lights are responsible for your less-than-stellar mornings? To understand the difference in the quality of light, look at the photo above. The overpass is lit by the older, tungsten-orange-style lights, while the roadway below is lit by a newer LED. The latter is clearer and more brightly lit. Great for roads, bad for bedtime.

To be clear, not all LEDs are created equal. LEDs are easily configurable to be any number of shades and intensities. In this case, it's the hyper-intense bluish-white light, chosen for its clarity, that's a problem. This is the same light emission you get from your television. These blue LEDs have been associated with suppressing melatonin at a much higher rate than traditional street lights. Hence, the alarming revelation that street lights might be keeping you up at night.

This is the exact reason Apple unveiled Night Shift with iOS 9.3.

Isn't staying awake kind of a good thing when you're, you know, on the road?

Yes, yes it is. The Department of Energy took issue with the AMA’s new "guidelines" on LED lights and even issued a response explaining what the real issue is: poorly designed street lights. LEDs themselves are not bad: the light they emit can be focused much more precisely than the older lights, and can be turned on and off in more practical ways that avoid unnecessary use. That reduces light pollution and, in turn, ecological impact.

The goal should be carefully designing street lamps to cut back on the problematic glare associated with LEDs that might be causing those sleepless nights. Until then, these are the sacrifices we make for Planet Earth. 

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Aaron Miller is the Cars Editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter and Facebook. He's all for anything that helps visibility while driving.