Individual differences in light sensitivity affect sleep and circadian rhythms

Sleep. 2021 Feb 12;44(2):zsaa214. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsaa214.


Artificial lighting is omnipresent in contemporary society with disruptive consequences for human sleep and circadian rhythms because of overexposure to light, particularly in the evening/night hours. Recent evidence shows large individual variations in circadian photosensitivity, such as melatonin suppression, due to artificial light exposure. Despite the emerging body of research indicating that the effects of light on sleep and circadian rhythms vary dramatically across individuals, recommendations for appropriate light exposure in real-life settings rarely consider such individual effects. This review addresses recently identified links among individual traits, for example, age, sex, chronotype, genetic haplotypes, and the effects of evening/night light on sleep and circadian hallmarks, based on human laboratory and field studies. Target biological mechanisms for individual differences in light sensitivity include differences occurring within the retina and downstream, such as the central circadian clock. This review also highlights that there are wide gaps of uncertainty, despite the growing awareness that individual differences shape the effects of evening/night light on sleep and circadian physiology. These include (1) why do certain individual traits differentially affect the influence of light on sleep and circadian rhythms; (2) what is the translational value of individual differences in light sensitivity in populations typically exposed to light at night, such as night shift workers; and (3) what is the magnitude of individual differences in light sensitivity in population-based studies? Collectively, the current findings provide strong support for considering individual differences when defining optimal lighting specifications, thus allowing for personalized lighting solutions that promote quality of life and health.

Keywords: behavioral interventions; circadian rhythms; individual traits; light exposure; sleep–wake regulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Circadian Rhythm*
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Melatonin*
  • Photophobia
  • Quality of Life
  • Sleep


  • Melatonin