Dark Truth: Americans Aren’t Getting Enough Natural Light, and It’s Making Us Sick
Chances are you’re not reading this article in a park, on the beach, or in your yard. That’s because the average American spends a whopping 93 percent of their time indoors. (1) If you’re only getting outside for a few hours a week, you likely don’t have nearly enough natural light in your life. This equates to a much bigger health risk than most people realize, and can be a root cause of insomnia, fatigue, depression and other symptoms. (2)
This article gives an overview of the importance of natural light: why we don’t get enough, how it affects us and the reason red light therapy can be a solution for people who simply don’t have the chance to spend more time outside during the day.
The Workplace Problem
Why are we inside so much? For most adults, the answer is pretty simple: We’ve got work to do. And whether you’re in an office, school, retail store, restaurant/bar, garage or wherever else, most work happens indoors, during the day, surrounded by artificial light.
Employees usually don’t have a choice about how much sun they can get, but the reality is that most people want more real light. According to a recent workplace survey published in The Harvard Business Review, most office workers would prefer to get more natural light while they’re on the job.
The survey of 1,614 North American employees found that office workers rank natural light and views of the outdoors as their No. 1 desire for a better workplace environment. That’s higher than flashier, big-ticket items like onsite cafeterias and gyms. Getting more natural light during the day isn’t just a luxury like an office foosball table, it should be viewed an investment in the health and productivity of your wellbeing in the workplace. And medical researchers agree.
A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that access to natural light during the day improves health outcomes, increases physical activity, and results in better nighttime sleep for those of us who spend a lot of time in the office. Researchers concluded that “architectural design of office environments should place more emphasis on sufficient daylight exposure in order to promote office workers’ health and well-being.” (3)
Bottom line: natural light is critical. For your mood and productivity, and for your overall health as well.
The After Dark Problem
If you’re one of the luckier 9-to-5ers, you can get home for an hour or two of outside time in the evening before it gets dark. But this is often difficult or impossible for people with later hours, longer commutes and nighttime obligations, not to mention the fact that it gets dark before 6 p.m. all winter in many parts of North America and Europe.
So squeezing in more sunny hours after work during an already busy week is unrealistic for most people with day jobs.
Worse yet, people compound the problem by staring at bright screens at night. TVs, phones, tablets, computers: They all expose us to artificial blue light that has a higher color temperature than daytime sun. Sitting in bed in a dark room and watching a show on your computer before you hit the pillow actually feels brighter to your internal circadian clock than being outside in the sun at noon.
When you absorb all that artificial light at night, your body and brain get the misleading message that it’s time to be wide awake, so your brain makes less melatonin. The most common consequences of light deficiency and an overload of unhealthy blue light are heachaches, eye strain, chronic fatigue, insomnia and depression. (2)
Our ancestors wouldn’t recognize the office or 9-to-5 lifestyle. Human bodies have functioned around the natural light cycle for the vast majority of our history. Despite amazing (and efficient) lighting technology, our biological systems are still designed for sunlight. If we don’t get it, things like our cellular energy systems and our circadian rhythm get out of whack. That’s why so many people feel tired all day, then have trouble sleeping at night. Wake up, drown your yawns in caffeine, and repeat. Sound familiar?
Fortunately, even if you can’t get outside more, there’s a simple way to get more natural light. And you don’t even have to leave your home or find a lot of extra time.
The Solution: Natural Red Light Therapy
If you’re concerned about poor sleep and lack of light, but you can’t get outside more, a good option could be natural light therapy in your home or office.
What Is Light Therapy?
Light therapy — or photobiomodulation (PBM) — is a non-invasive therapy that delivers natural light to your skin and cells. Not all natural light is therapeutic though. Light therapy only uses specific red and near infrared (NIR) wavelengths that have been found to be the most clinically therapeutic parts of the light spectrum, without harmful UV rays, heat or side effects.
There’s a large base of clinical research showing this type of red and near infrared light therapy improves energy levels, helps reset our circadian clocks, and aids the natural release of melatonin for healthy, natural sleep. This is in addition to numerous other clinically proven health benefits for skin, muscles, joints and more that are covered in greater detail below.
How Light Therapy Works
A high-quality, full-body light therapy device harnesses the therapeutic power of natural light and delivers it to your cells with medical-grade LEDs. Those therapeutic wavelengths of red and near infrared light are absorbed by your skin and cells. It gets pretty complex under the microscope, but here’s the top-level picture of how light therapy works:
The mitochondria in your cells are always hard at work making more ATP (adenosine triphosphate) energy to fuel your body. The more energy your cells can make, the better your body functions and the better you feel. But excess nitric oxide and oxidative stress clog up the process and slow us down.
When our overworked bodies produce too much nitric oxide, it competes with oxygen during cellular respiration, halting or slowing the production of ATP. This also increases oxidative stress, which can lead to cellular death. The photons in red and NIR light excite electrons, which helps break up nitric oxide bonds, resulting in more ATP energy that powers your entire body. If you want to get even deeper into the science, check out this article on how red and near infrared light stimulates cellular respiration.
It’s easy to set up light therapy in just about any indoor space, and the treatments require minimal effort: with a high-quality, full-body system like a Joovv, you just stand or sit in front of your device and bask in the glow of natural light for 10–20 minutes a day.
Clinically-Proven Health Benefits
Dr. Axe has written about some of the clinically-proven health benefits of red light therapy. Hundreds of trials and studies have demonstrated its effectiveness and safety, with a wealth of research showing dramatic clinical results.
Here are a few of the big ones:
Melatonin & Sleep: As mentioned above, the low-light 9-to-5 office life is terrible for healthy sleep at night, and peer-reviewed clinical research shows photobiomodulation stimulates more melatonin production. Conversely, exposure to bright artificial light at night does the exact opposite. Red light is also better in the evenings because it has a much lower color temperature than blue light and doesn’t upset our circadian rhythm. (4)
Skin, Collagen & Anti-Aging: Numerous studies have found light therapy improves skin tone and complexion, diminishes signs of aging, speeds the healing of wounds and scars, and boosts natural collagen production. (5, 6)
Training & Muscle Recovery: By increasing your body’s cellular energy production, red light therapy helps you train harder and regenerate depleted muscle tissue faster. (7) Recent 2016 research in the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation showed the application of light therapy promotes the growth of healthy muscle tissue, naturally increasing muscle size and bulk — as well as strength. (8)
In addition, a 2015 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that muscle thickness and strength were significantly improved (by over 50 percent) in the athletes who used light therapy. Results were clearly measurable using ultrasound imaging and isokinetic dynamometry. (9)
Inflammation & Joint Pain: One of the primary responses to red light therapy is a pronounced reduction in inflammation and oxidative stress, with significantly lowered joint pain — as shown in numerous clinical trials. (10)
Safe, Non-Invasive, & Drug-Free: A 2013 study of light therapy treatments conducted by Harvard and MIT researchers praised its “noninvasive nature and almost complete absence of side effects.” (6)
What to Look for in a Light Therapy Device
In the past, light therapy was only available in spas and clinics. Today, you can get a quality in-home light therapy device and enjoy the health benefits in comfort and convenience. But if you’re not as familiar with light therapy, it can be difficult to compare devices.
When considering light therapy devices, start by making sure the manufacturer is transparent and trustworthy. Not sure? Ask these three key questions:
- Are they open about their product specs, like power measurements and wavelengths? If you have to hunt that data down, it’s a bad sign.
- Are their product specs and power measurements independently verified?
- Have the products and production process been cleared by the FDA?
Once you’re satisfied, the next step is to compare devices. These are the three most important factors to consider:
1. Treatment Area Size
Targeted treatment areas can work wonders for specific areas of the body, but to experience the full range of light therapy benefits, it’s best to treat the whole body with a uniform, consistent dosage. Size matters in light therapy because you simply can’t treat the whole body or get that ideal, uniform dose from a small device. Look for a product that can cover enough treatment area to get the job done for your entire body.
2. Total Delivered Power
Measuring the power of light is complex, and it’s nearly impossible to get accurate readings without investing in really expensive diagnostic equipment. Devices are most often measured in irradiance, or light power. But that’s just a start, and doesn’t really tell you all that much.
Because treatment area is so vital, you have to go further and measure total light output based on the power and the total area the device covers. That’s how photobiomodulation scientists measure light therapy devices.
If a manufacturer only gives an irradiance statistic and won’t provide a total delivered power metric that takes into account treatment size area, look elsewhere, because they’re just telling you about their machinery and not how it will affect you and your health.
A high-quality LED light therapy device should deliver a dose of at least 15-20 joules/cm2. If you’re aiming for full-body light therapy — which is optimal — look for a total energy output of at least 200,000 joules.
3. Clinically Proven Wavelengths
Not all wavelengths are equally beneficial. When it comes to light therapy, the red and near infrared range of wavelengths from approximately 600 to 950 nanometers has been shown to be the most effective. But even within that range, 700-770 nm has little benefit.
So stick to devices offering red light in the mid-600 nm range and near infrared light in the mid-800 nm range, which have been repeatedly shown to be the most clinically effective. (11)
Conclusion: Red Light Therapy Can Solve Your Natural Light Deficiency
- Our bodies absolutely need natural light, but our jobs and modern lifestyles keep us indoors during the day, surrounded by unhealthy artificial light.
- Research shows that people are happier, healthier, and more productive when they’re exposed to more sunlight during the day. Conversely, a natural light deficiency can lead to headaches, chronic fatigue, insomnia, and mental health problems.
- Fortunately, even if you can’t get outside in the sun more often, you can get the natural light your body needs from a full-body light therapy device.
Scott Nelson is a cofounder of Joovv, the first company to develop a full-body light therapy device designed for convenient, in-home use. Prior to starting Joovv, he spent his entire professional career in leadership positions with some of the largest medical device companies in the world, including Medtronic, Covidien and Boston Scientific. In his spare time, Scott is also the host of Medsider Radio, a top-ranked medical device podcast.
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- Klepeis N., Nelson W., Ott W., Robinson J., Tsang A., Switzer P., Behar J., Hern S., Engelmann W. “The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants”. Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 2001;11, 231-252.
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- Emília de Abreu Chaves M, Rodrigues de Araújo A, Piancastelli ACC, and Pinotti M. “Effects of low-power light therapy on wound healing: LASER x LED.” An Bras Dermatol. 2014 Jul-Aug; 89(4): 616–623.
- Avci P, Gupta A, et al. Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) in skin: stimulating, healing, restoring. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery. Mar 2013; 32(1): 41-52.
- de Almeida P1, Lopes-Martins RA, De Marchi T, et al. “Red (660 nm) and infrared (830 nm) low-level laser therapy in skeletal muscle fatigue in humans: what is better?” Lasers Med Sci. 2012 Mar;27(2):453-8.
- Ferraresi C, Bertucci D, Schiavinato J, et al. “Effects of Light-Emitting Diode Therapy on Muscle Hypertrophy, Gene Expression, Performance, Damage, and Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness: Case-control Study with a Pair of Identical Twins.” Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2016 Oct;95(10):746-57.
- Baroni BM1, Rodrigues R, Freire BB, et al. “Effect of low-level laser therapy on muscle adaptation to knee extensor eccentric training.” Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015 Mar;115(3):639-47.
- Michael R. Hamblin. “Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation.” AIMS Biophys. 2017; 4(3): 337–361.
- Wunsch A and Matuschka K. “A Controlled Trial to Determine the Efficacy of Red and Near-Infrared Light Treatment in Patient Satisfaction, Reduction of Fine Lines, Wrinkles, Skin Roughness, and Intradermal Collagen Density Increase.” Photomedicine and Laser Surgery. Feb 2014; 32(2): 93-100.
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