Science Daily starts its coverage of a new study with a provocative statement:
When Thomas Edison tested the first light bulb in 1879, he could never have imagined that his invention could one day contribute to a global obesity epidemic. Electric light allows us to work, rest and play at all hours of the day, and a paper published this week in Bioessays suggests that this might have serious consequences for our health and for our waistlines.
The study by Dr. Cathy Wyse of the University of Aberdeen, is also provocatively titled Migration and survival of the fittest in the modern age of lifestyle-induced circadian desynchrony Dr. Wyse describes how the loss of natural light has influenced our health, telling Science Daily:
Electric light allowed humans to override an ancient synchronization between the rhythm of the human clock and the environment, and over the last century, daily rhythms in meal, sleep and working times have gradually disappeared from our lives. The human clock struggles to remain tuned to our highly irregular lifestyles, and I believe that this causes metabolic and other health problems, and makes us more likely to become obese.
Dr. Wyse also suggests that moving away from equatorial zones has exposed us to greater swings between darkness and light, causing disruption to our normal circadian rhythms, and making us more susceptible to obesity. This will be controversial, as people in Qatar are a lot more obese than those in Denmark, there is a lot more going on than just the amount of sunlight. She concludes:
Our 24-hour society has come at the high price of circadian desynchrony.There are many factors driving mankind towards obesity but disrupted circadian rhythms should be considered alongside the usual suspects of diet and exercise.
I should note that the idea that disrupted circadian rhythms are bad for your health is not new. It's one reason that many European building and labor codes demand that workers have access to natural light. As I wrote in an earlier post,
One of the reasons that it is so important to have natural light when you work is the colour temperature; our bodies sense the passage of the day through changes in the light, from red in the morning when the sun is lower, to blue when it is high, and red again in the afternoon. Artificial light doesn't do that, which is one of the reasons people get so fatigued late in the day; our body clock is stuck in time.
It should be standard in offices and factories everywhere that there be some access to natural light. If you work at home, don't put your desk in a basement or closet; put it near a window. There are also all kinds of new smart technologies that can adjust lighting color temperature and intensity throughout the day.
At ICFF I saw the new Owl Smartlight from Fishtnk, which you can program on your smart phone to adjust as required.
We also recently showed Stefano Pertegato's Luminarium. The designer wrote:
Extended exposure to artificial lighting caused by modern lifestyles has deep consequences for our biological clock, naturally trained by evolution to adapt to its surroundings following the dynamic effects of daylight.
How much Tom Edison is to blame for obesity is an open question (electric lights keep the gyms open late), but there is no question that there is a lot that designers can do to deal with the problems of disrupted circadian rhythms.