There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that good lighting may help you stay more alert at work, sleep more soundly at night, and even live a healthier, more productive life. The essence of this claim lies with the human body’s tendency to sync up with a 24 hour light-dark cycle. When we’re not exposed to enough light during the day, or exposed to too much of it at night, our natural rhythm is thrown off. Now that we’ve started spending the majority of our time in offices or the comfort of modern interiors, our bodies have become somewhat confused (Really, this makes sense considering that we’ve only been primarily indoor creatures for a few hundred years). Correcting this imbalance, or at least coming close, is where the potential lies.
Productivity and Precision
Without question, the invention of the incandescent light bulb and the subsequent availability of brightly illuminated indoor spaces did wonders for human productivity. But, in recent years, lighting science has evolved to a point where we can begin to control lighting for optimal performance and well-being.
For almost every setting, research has demonstrated that lighting plays a crucial role in determining achievement. This is true for attendance rates and academic performance in student classrooms, for error rates among medical professionals in hospital settings, and for speed and accuracy of office and factory workers in their respective environments.
The Benefits of Variable Lighting Control
A hallmark of today’s advanced lighting control systems is variability in both level and color. Whereas bright lighting can lead to increased alertness and productivity, a 2006 paper by Wout J.M. van Bommel in the Journal of Applied Ergonomics argued that a quality work environment requires both activity and tranquility. Thus, an effective variable lighting scheme might provide intense light in the mornings, just after lunch, and late afternoon for biological stimulation while allowing building occupants mental relaxation at other times throughout the day.
Not surprisingly, individuals in well-lit environments report much higher levels of satisfaction. Further, where individuals have the ability to control for task-based lighting, their subjective satisfaction is especially high, according to a 2008 study by researchers at Austria’s Institute for Leisure, Travel, and Alpine Medicine.
Lighting Control and its Direct Impact on Health
The importance of incorporating daylight into building design is difficult to underestimate. In fact, allowing for natural light has produced some fairly dramatic outcomes. Among these, researchers have shown that when exposed to adequate sunlight patients tend to recover more quickly in hospitals, report less severe pain, and show fewer incidences of depression.
Behind this phenomenon, experts say, is the tendency for strong light to suppress the onset of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. Essentially, patients in brighter rooms tend to feel more alert and generally more positive about their recovery. Conversely, studies show that those in dull rooms stay in in-patient care roughly four days longer.
While exposure to brighter light during the day may be beneficial, the opposite is certainly true at night time. Owing again to our bodies’ natural 24 hour cycle, exposure to bright light at night time may disrupt sleep patterns, and in the longer term lead to medical issues such as hypertension, diabetes, and even cancer.
A 2010 study, conducted by a research team at Brigham Young University’s Division of Sleep Medicine, found that individuals exposed to dimmed lighting in the eight hours leading up to bed time showed substantial improvements in sleep quality. But, more relevant to most of us, participants exposed to normal room lighting in the hour or two before bed delayed the onset of melatonin by about 90 minutes. Over long periods of time, the deprivation of melatonin may increase risk of serious health conditions.
Deliberate, health-focused lighting strategies aren’t confined to any one building type, nor is there really any completely correct answer about how to approach a retrofit. There are advantages to upgrades in both large buildings and single family homes as well as an array of approaches and technologies. The basic idea is to control how much light we receive on a daily basis so as not to disturb our natural routine all that much. Doing so might just help us to live longer, sleep more soundly, and enjoy our time spent indoors.