Darkness is something we seem to instinctively avoid. Why shouldn’t we? The brightest light in nature is the sun, and the sun reduces all-cause mortality. That is a fancy way of saying that the sun reduces your risk of death. End of story. We are being frightened by dermatologists and other doctors in modern times into avoiding the sun, but they are completely missing this simple, miraculous fact. Just like moths to a flame, we are drawn to any light, because light enables us to work, and work is what we have to do to survive and to thrive on planet earth. However, we all know that we can easily work ourselves to death, and this is why so many people today are struggling to survive to the same age as their parents or grandparents, who grew up in an age of relative darkness.
Sunlight protects us from death. The more sun you get, the lower your chances of developing:
Diabetes, type 1 or 2
Cancer, and even skin cancer so long as you avoid getting sunburned (I realize this is unbelievable - if you want proof, look in the appendix)
Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, lupus, or multiple sclerosis (just to name a few)
Allergies, including asthma, ear infections (which are really just allergies), and atopic dermatitis (also known as eczema)
Fibromyalgia and chronic pain
Cardiovascular disease, including stroke, heart attack, and vascular disease
This simple fact has been drowned by alarmism over the risks of skin cancer from sun exposure, but paradoxically, the people who get the most sun exposure - poor, unskilled manual laborers - have the lowest risk of death from skin cancer of any group of people. The people at greatest risk? Modern indoor, artificially lit office workers who have the money to live lives completely divorced from nature. Beyond skin cancer, every one of the top ten causes of death (in the United States) listed previously is linked to a lack of sun exposure. If you insist on avoiding the sun, the best investment you may ever make is term life insurance.
Why start a section on the benefits of darkness by outlining the health benefits of sunlight? You must understand that the sun is key to good health. Yet it is also a kind of stress, and every stress must be balanced in nature by time for rest and regeneration. The long days of the Arctic summer are balanced by the short days of the Arctic winter. The warmth of the Arctic summer is balanced by the freezing cold temperatures of the Arctic winter.
Melatonin is the key to this story. Melatonin is produced all over the body, in every cell, and in different parts of each cell. And melatonin works magic on our mitochondria. You have probably heard a lot about “antioxidants like vitamins C and E. For decades, doctors and scientists tried in vain to banish modern diseases with “antioxidants,” but did not realize that nothing could make up for a lack of melatonin. Melatonin is many times more powerful an antioxidant than vitamins C and E. Melatonin also controls cellular repair and regeneration. Supplying cells with vitamins like C and E in the absence of healthy, normal melatonin production is like delivering supplies to a factory that is falling apart, because no one ever pauses production to allow for repairs. Many people today are “over-nourished” with vitamins and minerals, but their bodies do not use these supplies properly, because they lack guidance from melatonin. Melatonin regulates what we call the “redox system” within our cells, and it is the redox system that fundamentally determines the health and strength of our cells. Pouring antioxidants like vitamins C and E, or glutathione, into cells that lack melatonin is like pouring water down a drain, instead of into a bucket.
So why can’t we just take melatonin pills? I made this video to explain why. Most people are tempted to reach for a pill to supply their melatonin. This is what supplement companies have been selling us for years, but this is one of the worst mistakes that one can make when it comes to melatonin. Melatonin is produced in different parts of the body, in different parts of the cell, in different quantities, and all of this is done under the direction of light. Taking melatonin as a pill would be like turning on your garden hose, pointing it into your kitchen, and expecting it to do the dishes. Furthermore, melatonin sets your circadian rhythms, which are supposed to be set by the sun. When you take a melatonin pill, you can radically alter those rhythms. This might be helpful in someone whose rhythms have been disrupted, but otherwise, this is tinkering with a complex process that is far beyond our comprehension. Nature makes melatonin in different times and places, for very good reasons that we should not second guess. I advise my patients only to use melatonin under my supervision, and then only for limited amounts of time. Polar bears do not take melatonin pills, yet melatonin levels in hibernating bears soar during the winter.
And what do they do with all that melatonin? Melatonin works in many parts of the cell, but its most important function is to turn on repair and regeneration within our mitochondria. We depend upon our mitochondria to generate the energy necessary to sustain life, including water and heat. When we deprive animals of melatonin, their mitochondria fall apart, regardless of what they eat. And when we subject them to darkness, their mitochondria recover, they eat less, sleep more, and become healthier. This is why sleep is tied to health and longevity. Sleep and melatonin are synonymous. You cannot have healthy sleep in the absence of melatonin. What controls melatonin?
Light controls when, where, and how much melatonin is produced by life. Melatonin is only released from the brain (the pineal gland) into the blood after three to four hours of darkness. Melatonin’s release is extremely sensitive to light. A single lightbulb can suppress melatonin release completely for hours.
During the Arctic summer, the days are extremely long, so long that the sun never sets on the summer solstice above the Arctic circle. This suppresses melatonin levels during the Arctic summer in both bears and humans. And so, during the Arctic winter, when the days the days are short and dark, melatonin levels soar.
Not all light is created equal when it comes to melatonin. Light comes in different colors, and it is blue and green light that suppresses melatonin levels and sets our circadian rhythms. This means that after dark, we can use red, yellow, and orange light with little effect on our melatonin and therefore our mitochondria.
This is why the first pillar of polar bear fitness, as we will discuss soon, is to “see like a polar bear.” When we see by nature’s light, our melatonin levels are naturally optimized. When we do not, we fall apart. There is much more to this than simply turning out the lights before you go to bed, which we will cover in Chapter II, when we discuss how to, “Be the Bear.”
This is why I am a bear with my patients about wearing blue blockers. They are the only way to preserve your melatonin levels under the assault of modern, fake light. And this is the last day of Andy Mant's Black Friday sale over at BluBlox.com. You can get 25% off by using code "BF2019" and "StillmanMD."
If darkness is the first key ingredient to the Arctic winter, then cold is the second. And that's the topic of my next blog.