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How Does Lighting Affect Health and Wellbeing?

The Connection Between Health, Light and Circadian Rhythm. Are You Doing It Right?

By K. MarleyPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 5 min read
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"En Plein Soleil" by James Tissot, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Open Access Program

“We not only lack dominion over nature . . . we’re subordinate to it.”

That gem of a quote was uttered by Ian Malcolm, the fictitious scientist played by Jeff Goldblum in the trailer of Jurassic World: Dominion. The trailer came out in February 2022. About one month later the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a bill to make daylight savings time (DST) permanent.

What binds these two seemingly random events? Lighting and health.

Light and Circadian Rhythm

The sun goes down. It rises. Between these two occurrences is a nocturnal stretch of darkness. This cadence of light has shaped the evolution of our human bodies.

We are diurnal mammals, and as such, our internal biological clock is synchronized by the routine cycle of day and night. Also known as the circadian system, this organic master clock is one of the keepers of our overall physical and mental well-being. Sunlight's rhythmic ebb and flow controls key biological patterns. Disruptions to our circadian system can impact appetite and digestion, derail sleep/wake cycles, and increase moodiness.

Even in lighting and health, nature is our ruler.

Wouldn’t then, the extra, late-day light afforded to us through DST be helpful to our circadian system? Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). When it comes to natural light, we aren’t getting enough of it when it matters most.

In response, we attempt to duplicate natural light with technology. Some of the more advanced lighting technology is often labeled "circadian lamps" and "circadian rhythm lighting" The idea that indoor lighting can mimic nature has led to much confusion regarding light and circadian rhythm light therapy and our whole-body health.

Let's get some answers.

How Does Lighting Affect Health and Wellbeing?

Professor and director of the Light and Health Research Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sanai, Dr. Mariana Figueiro, is a voice of enlightenment (pun intended) regarding how lighting affects health and wellbeing. In a recent interview, she shares her insights and also provides helpful strategies on what you can do to improve healthy lighting for your home and workplace.

Q: What is Healthy Lighting?

A: To me, healthy lighting is as simple as bright days and dark nights. We really tend to make it more complicated, but it is just about having robust light patterns and maintaining that regularity.

Q: What do you mean by, “Make it more complicated?”

A: People are too focused on the spectrum of light or color of light. Really, bright light during the day and dim lighting during the evening hours is the most effective solution for the circadian system. It’s really that simple.

Q: The EPA says Americans spend, on average, 90% of their time indoors. What happens when you spend too much time inside?

A: It means you may not be getting enough light during the day and/or too much light in the evening. A bright, sunny day provides 80,000-100,000 lux at the eyes*. A cloudy day is 5,000-10,000 lux. Indoor office environments provide 200-300 lux at the eye and homes are typically around 50-100 lux.

Q: How do you reset your circadian system with light?

A: Your circadian system is looking for contrast. If you don’t get enough light during the day, your circadian system becomes more sensitive to light at night. For light and circadian rhythm, morning light is the best because exposure to morning light resets your biological clock. You can reset your circadian system for that day with adequate exposure to morning light.

Q: What is your advice to increase our amount of light exposure and achieve the contrast our circadian system is looking for?

A: Go outside! Indoor lighting is never going to be able to mimic the light you get outdoors, even on a cloudy day.

Q: Being outside all day, as desirable as that may be, isn’t realistic for many people. Do you have advice for those who must spend time indoors?

A: Absolutely! There are behavioral changes you can implement. Eat lunch outside. Take your breaks outside. If you cannot get outside, increase the amount of natural light that reaches your workspace with windows and make sure you sit facing the window.

If behavioral changes are unavailable, try and increase the electric lighting that reaches your eyes. This does not mean crank up the ceiling lights . . . get the light close to where your eyes are. A table lamp next to your workspace can help. Think of creating layers of light.

Q: There seems to be a lot of emphasis on the role of colors in lighting and health. Is the spectrum of color important to lighting and circadian rhythm?

A: Due to the combined responses of photoreceptors in the eye we are more sensitive to short-wavelength or blue light. Using a bluish-white light source can be beneficial, but if it’s not emitting enough light it won't be effective. My advice is to look at the lumen output in a light bulb package, not the bulb wattage. The higher the lumen package, the better. However, there is a lot of misinformation out there and nothing compares to getting natural light.

Current lighting technology can change from being bluish-white during the day to more yellowish-white in the evening, a color often described as "warm." The benefits of this lighting technology for the circadian system can be minimal if light levels are not accounted for.

This lighting technology can have a psychological effect on people because people may like to experience this change. For instance, the warmer light may help send an individual the message that it’s time to wind down. But it is still not a substitute for spending time outside during the day.

Q: How much time should a person spend outside?

A: Ideally, you should spend 1-2 hours in the morning outdoors. Realistically, this is difficult so the answer is anytime and for as much as you can. Exposure to natural light helps establish a higher threshold of tolerance to evening light and can help minimize the impact of evening light.

Remember, your system is looking for contrasts. Getting the light you need for improved health does not have to be complicated or expensive.

*Lux is a measurement of illuminance, the total amount of light that falls on a surface.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art's Open Access Program

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About the Creator

K. Marley

Freelancer/copywriter. Outdoor dreamer. Flirts with fiction. Chocolate freak. Awkward humans flagbearer. Sometimes I hide behind a pen name.

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