Having been forced to spend more time indoors in 2020, our daily relationship with light has changed quite dramatically. In this article, David Boultbee, Technical Consultant at UltraLEDs, takes a look at how light can affect our health and wellbeing.
Over the past few months, our lives have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially at the peak of the national lockdown. During this time, we were told to stay inside as much as possible and to only go outside for exercise for up to an hour each day.
One of the major ways that being indoors for long periods impacted our health and wellbeing was in the levels of natural light we were exposed to each day. The dramatic change experienced by most even led the NHS to recommend taking vitamin D supplements as a way to address the fact we were not getting as much light exposure as we should.
Following these recent events, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some of the ways that light can have an impact on our health and wellbeing.
Our mental wellbeing
Our emotional selves have a deep connection to light, to the point where it can have a profound effect on how we feel depending on how much exposure we've had. This can be both a good and a bad thing, depending on when and where we're getting our doses of light.
For instance, blue light, which has a short wavelength and high energy, can make us feel more alert and be a mood booster when we're exposed during the day. It's used in light box therapy to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), where increased exposure helps with depression and fatigue. At the same time, overexposure to the blue light emitted by screens too late in the day can keep our brains alert when they should be relaxing, preventing sleep.
Sleep is also closely connected to the levels of light we're exposed to. As I just mentioned, blue light can have a major impact on sleep, so it's best avoided in the later hours of the day. But this is not the only way that they are intertwined. One of the major dependencies that your body has for light is in the production of melatonin, which is the hormone that regulates sleep. When we get less exposure to sunlight, we have lower levels of this chemical in our body, which can make drifting off more difficult. This was especially problematic during lockdown, where less time outdoors meant lower melatonin levels for many, which caused a lot of people to experience sleeping troubles.
Our bodies also prefer to have as little light exposure as possible at bedtime, which is the reason that experts recommend having close to total darkness in your bedroom at night. This is because the levels of melatonin in your system peaks as the light of day fades, encouraging drowsiness, so having zero light around you as you try to drift off will ensure your body is primed for rest.
When we're exposed to healthy levels of light, we can be much more productive. A survey by Future Workplaces (as cited by the Harvard Business Review) found that 70% of employees said they found they had improved work performance when natural light and views were available in their working environment. Another study came to the conclusion that blue light in the workplace helped staff feel less tired, more focused, and improved reaction times (Brigham Health Hub).
While it's advisable to provide as much natural light exposure as possible in the workplace, not all companies can offer this to their staff. Thankfully, things have improved drastically with the move from incandescent bulbs to LED bulbs, which are much more effective at simulating natural light. In many systems, it's even possible to control the intensity and colour to mirror the time of day and to ensure staff benefit from a closer replication of the natural light cycle.
Some research has even found that light can have an effect on our appetite. For instance, one study discovered that softer music and lighting in a section of a restaurant saw customers consuming 18% fewer calories, while those in the harsher areas ate more. The researchers believed this was because diners in the softer area were more relaxed, causing them to eat at a slower pace.
In addition, lighting can even affect how we perceive our food and drink. A study by the University of Mainz found that participants enjoyed and would be willing to pay a higher price for the same wine under certain coloured lights. Blue or red elicited a perception of better quality and value, whereas green and white had the opposite effect. The explanation offered for the findings was that in what we perceive as "better" lighting conditions, we also perceive food and drink to be more pleasant.
Hopefully, this article has given you an insight into how light can affect our health and wellbeing on a regular basis. From being able to sleep better to ordering a more expensive wine, lighting can have a major impact on our daily routines.