Light Exposure and your Health
Healers of all kinds have appreciated the power of light since the beginning of time.
The father of medicine himself, Hippocrates was a great advocate of what is known as heliotherapy, or harnessing the power of the sun to heal ailments or generally improve health. If you doubt the ability light has to impact our health, consider the fact that we are able to create vitamin D from the sun’s rays (more info on just how important Vitamin D is).
Yet, not many us are aware of the endless list of other effects (good and bad) that we can experience from light exposure – not just from the sun but from all sources.
Light, Good or Bad?
Not all light is considered equal however.
Some forms of light are restorative and healing, while others are potentially harmful – especially those which we have developed with alongside modern technology. Becoming more aware of the potential pitfalls of unnatural light sources, like how they may be affecting our physiology and our ability to function optimally as human beings, is a prerequisite to developing a plan to manage exposure to them.
There are a few kinds of light that especially stand out in both research and public awareness.
Red light (of all varieties), and blue light appear to be unique with regards to their ability to impact our health on multiple levels. Understanding these unique forms of light is crucial to harnessing their power, as well as mitigating the damage that blue light can cause. As with many things in the field of health and wellness, there aren’t clear lines of which kind(s) of light are good and which are bad – we must view the evidence from the perspective of scientific research, and temper our subjectively developed opinions with a consideration of ancestral wisdom and experience. It is also important to consider what is practical in our modern lives (as it is nearly impossible to entirely avoid harmful light exposure), and create a plan for reducing the damage it may cause. Understanding how different sources of light in your external environment have the ability to affect your internal environment will allow you to develop a plan to start sleeping better, have more energy, reduce stress, perform better in the gym, and generally live healthier lives more in tune with the natural rhythms our body’s thrive on.
Everyone will respond to light exposure differently, but the major forms we will focus on today have robust evidence to support their general effects on human physiology.
There is an extremely bright ball of gas at the center of our solar system emitting wavelengths of light throughout the entire spectrum, visible and invisible
This includes the UVB rays that have been vilified somewhat recently (but are also required for the production of vitamin D), blue light which has a stimulatory effect on our brain and body, and the various forms red light which have healing and restorative properties. Concentrations of blue light within the sun’s rays are especially high during times when the sun is highest in the sky (this coincides with when the waking hormone cortisol should be elevated).
We absolutely want to experience blue light exposure from sun, especially during the day in order to help establish and maintain our circadian rhythm, a biological pattern which is essentially at the root of how light can impact our health. Unfortunately, blue light is nearly all we are exposed to now.
Blue light from our smartphones, overhead lighting, laptops, headlights, and almost anything that emits light has the ability to affect our physiology in a fundamental way. Our brains interpret this blue light as a signal that it is daytime, suppressing melatonin production, inhibiting sleep and restorative processes that this hormone and potent antioxidant is responsible for facilitating. By now this fact is relatively common knowledge, but what is likely misunderstood is the severity in which it impacts our health. Suppressing melatonin production within the brain, and therefore disrupting normal sleep patterns has profound implications across the entire body.
Quality sleep is predicated on a rhythmic dance between certain hormones within the body, particularly melatonin and cortisol. These two hormones are fundamentally opposed and having elevated levels of cortisol at inappropriate times can result in an inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or simply a disruption of normal sleep cycles. Although far from the only thing that has the ability to disrupt sleep, exposure to blue light is likely our largest offender currently. Widespread awareness of this fact is demonstrated by the increased use of blue-blocking glasses before bed, as well as a general focus in the wellness community on creating a light-environment conducive to sleep. Discussing how to develop a light-environment to promote restful sleep is another discussion entirely, but for now there is another concern that should be addressed.
Increasingly, there is another equally detrimental effect appearing from chronic, artificial blue-light exposure. Constant blue light exposure appears to accelerate what is known as macular degeneration – essentially deterioration of the eye. This is because we are experiencing blue light at much higher concentrations than ever experienced in the history of human beings. Macular degeneration was once thought to only occur as a result of the normal aging process but unfortunately, children are especially susceptible to this damage and rates of this issue occurring within the younger population are skyrocketing. It is safe to say that light affects us in ways that we do not yet fully comprehend. Another excellent example of the almost mysterious effect light can have on the human body are those caused by red, near infrared, and far infrared light.
Red and infrared light (both near and far) have profound effects on the human body. These wavelengths of light are all able to fundamentally impact our cellular function, causing downstream effects across the body (more information on red light therapy). They also do not impact sleep negatively because they do not suppress melatonin production – perhaps due to the fact that red light was most abundant in the sun’s rays during sunrise and sunset.
Overall, red light has predominantly healing properties, when compared to blue light. The same reasons we are exposed to inappropriately high amounts of blue light (e.g. the average American spends 93% of their time indoors), are why we are not exposed to adequate amounts of the various forms of red light. We are seeing the anecdotal evidence of the potential benefits red light therapy pile up while being increasingly corroborated by peer-reviewed research. Luckily, there are a few things that you can do to dramatically improve your light exposure in your home that will have major downstream effects on your health.
Shaping your light environment
Human beings undoubtedly experienced light rhythmically. We did not have overhead lighting or even flashlights until relatively recently – when the sun went down so did we.
Short of exclusively using fire or candle light for illumination in your home, there are quite a few things you can do to limit your exposure to the disruptive blue light that seems ubiquitous in 2020.
- Because it is likely unrealistic to ask the average person to avoid looking at all screens and devices hours before bed, we suggest that you get yourself a good pair of blue blocking glasses that have been tested to verify their effectiveness.
- Make sure to reduce overhead lighting as much as possible for at least a few hours before bed – utilize dimmers, candles, or even a salt lamp instead.
- During the day, get enough exposure to the sun to anchor your circadian clock in the correct rhythm.
- Also, consider using a red light therapy device, which are becoming extremely popular due to their ability to provide us with this nourishing and restorative form of light that we are often missing out on.
There are many more reasons to become aware of and begin managing your light exposure, but perhaps most important is its effect on sleep. Getting enough quality sleep is always a top priority for our wellness clients and should be at the foundation of any health and fitness pursuit.
Once you have been in the health and wellness space for long enough, you will begin to notice that many of the tools and strategies developed to improve health are really nothing new. They are, more often than not, designed to replace elements of our ancestral existence that we no longer experience. Sauna, red light exposure, intermittent fasting, and even exercise are all simply replacing aspects of everyday life that are no longer experienced due to modern technological, societal, and cultural advancements. Some things belong at the top of your priorities list if you hope to optimize your body and mind and understanding proper light exposure is one of them.