“Whether it’s a walk in the park, a day at the seaside or a holiday in the sunshine, we all appreciate the great outdoors. We thrive when we are in natural daylight. Our modern busy lives mean that we don’t spend much time outdoors and we are spending more and more time in front of screens. To counteract these modern behaviors, we need to harness the wellbeing effects of light.”
We’ve got it so wrong. Most of us now spend more time indoors than ever before under poor artificial lighting. Often in front of blue light emitting TVs, computers, tablets and phones. If we do go out, we often wear sunglasses and sunscreen. Believing that we need to protect ourselves from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. This can indeed be true, but only if we overexpose ourselves and burn.
We know how important light is for plants.
Plants turn light into energy through photosynthesis, but few of us really understand the true value that natural light has on the human body. There is now a wealth of evidence of the role that the right type of light has on our overall physical and emotional wellbeing.
Let’s have a look at what light is and the effect it has on our health and wellbeing.
What is Light?
Light is electromagnetic particles traveling in waves that emit energy that vary in length. Some are visible to the human eye, and some are invisible. Together they make up the electromagnetic spectrum.
The shorter the wavelength; the higher the energy. Blue light has the shortest wavelength in the visible spectrum and is of the highest energy.
The problem with blue light in isolation
Blue light is a high-energy light wave. Artificial blue light, from screens and poor indoor lighting solutions is very intense and when exposed to it after sunset, prevents good quality sleep. The sleep/wake cycle is linked to our internal bodily clocks. This is called the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is linked to the functioning of the mitochondria (the power houses of the cells).
Children are more sensitive to blue light as their eyes have not been fully developed.
When the mitochondria don’t function well, which they won’t if the quality of our sleep is poor, cells malfunction and die off, organs begin to fail, and we become prone to an assortment of serious diseases.
Blue is often predominant in modern artificial lighting, delivered in spikes, and not accompanied by the full spectrum. Blue light as part of the sun’s spectrum is completely natural and not harmful as it is not isolated and lacks the intensity of the artificial light sources discussed above.
Incorrect light exposure is having serious implications on our wellbeing which is much more serious than we might realize.
Modern lifestyles are not natural
The use of computers, tablets and screens for many of our woken hours has taken this problem to a whole new level. To many people its effect has gone unnoticed. We often stare at screens long after the sun has set. This signals our body that it is still daytime, which is a major disrupter.
Knock-on effects include sleep disorders. This is caused by reduced production of serotonin due to insufficient time spent outdoors in the morning to signal to the body that it is daytime. Plus, insufficient melatonin production due to our exposure to blue-light emitting screens and indoor lighting signaling that it is constant daytime.
Our modern behaviors, living life indoors in front of screens and artificial lights is creating a syndrome that some scientists are calling ‘social jetlag’. Our routines are often very different during the weekend compared to weekdays confusing our bodies even further.
If you consider the array of artificial light that we consume in our modern lives to what we ought to be exposing ourselves to, you can liken it to eating junk food in place of a healthy diet. You can survive on this “diet” for quite a long time, but you will not be thriving.
The wonders of natural light
The proportions of light emitted vary over the course of the day from sunrise to sunset.
In nature, there is blue light present from the sun, but never in isolated form. Natural blue light is delivered with the rest of the spectrum and balanced out by an amount of red light, creating the right “recipe” of light that we have evolved to thrive in.
Full-spectrum light in the form nature intended supports a myriad of our bodily functions. Light is converted into electrical signals for use throughout the body by ingesting it through our eyes and skin. It is power that we need for our body to function optimally.
Overcoming the lack of natural light
The obvious solution is to spend more time outside! However, for most of us, this is simply not practical. There are other ways to supplement the deficiency.
Emerging scientific research shows that ideally electric light should provide a spectrum that mimics daylight. Thus, gradually changing throughout the day, from sunrise to sunset.
This helps us stay alert and focussed during the day and promotes good sleep at night. This type of lighting is called circadian or human-centric lighting and presents a new approach to indoor lighting that is here to stay.
Light is an essential nutrient
Until recently, it was unusual to hear people talking about the contribution that light plays on our health and wellbeing. But experts and the wider population are starting to wake up to the crucial role that light plays. Even device manufacturers now include an “evening” setting such as nightshift or f.lux.
If we don’t pay enough attention to the true benefits of light, we will be doing ourselves a disservice. And for which we may pay a hefty price with the onset of chronic conditions in later life. These could be easily averted by adopting new behaviors and exposing ourselves to the right types of light on a regular basis – starting now!
If we understand that light is as important as the nutrients we eat, then we could design built environments with this in mind to promote our health and wellbeing.
Top light-related tips to improve wellbeing
Spend time outdoors. If at all possible, spend at least 15 minutes outside in the morning. Make sure that you get light in your eyes and on as much skin as possible. The full spectrum sunlight signals that are absorbed by the eyes triggers the production of melatonin, which is released in the evening.
Optimize indoor lighting. Install full spectrum circadian lighting indoors, mimicking to the extent technology permits, natural daylight that dynamically changes throughout the course of the day.
Block out excessive blue light. Use blue light blocking glasses when spending time in front of the screen, particularly in the evening. Make sure that you use the “evening” setting on your laptop, tablet and phone. This is not sufficient on its own, but it is a step in the right direction.
Use light as a therapeutic tool. The mitochondria in our cells are responsible for producing cellular energy. The mitochondria have photoreceptors that ingest light in the red and near infrared spectrum allowing our cells to repair and restore. This counteracts some of the stresses that modern life causes to our cells and acts as an antidote to excessive artificial blue light exposure.
The benefits of light really are as clear as the day is long.