Laura Beil in the New York Times:
Just as the ear has two purposes — hearing and telling you which way is up — so does the eye. It receives the input necessary for vision, but the retina also houses a network of sensors that detect the rise and fall of daylight. With light, the body sets its internal clock to a 24-hour cycle regulating an estimated 10 percent of our genes.
The workhorse of this system is the light-sensitive hormone melatonin, which is produced by the body every evening and during the night. Melatonin promotes sleep and alerts a variety of biological processes to the approximate hour of the day.
Light hitting the retina suppresses the production of melatonin — and there lies the rub. In this modern world, our eyes are flooded with light well after dusk, contrary to our evolutionary programming. Scientists are just beginning to understand the potential health consequences. The disruption of circadian cycles may not just be shortchanging our sleep, they have found, but also contributing to a host of diseases.