Money Can't Fix Circadian Rhythm Problems. Sunlight and Freedom Can.

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Circadian rhythm lighting products won't fix body clock problems.

Circadian rhythms have been making the news lately. Humans (and animals, and plants) have circadian rhythms — wake and sleep cycles programmed into every cell. These inner clocks tell us when to wake up, and when to fall asleep. And humans seem determined to ignore them, causing us all kinds of problems, from inability to concentrate to sleep problems to depression.

Recently, my colleague Lloyd wrote about how companies are making circadian-supportive lighting for offices. This lighting mimics sunlight, supposedly helping workers set their body clocks correctly. Lloyd made an important suggestion: why not just have more windows?

He put a finger on something that's been bugging me for a while. A whole cottage industry is springing up around products that imitate sunlight, including alarm clocks, therapy lamps, and even glowing green goggles. The thing is, humans can try to imitate sunlight all they want, but the actual sun will always "outshine" them.

Products that simulate sunlight can be useful. For instance, people who live in northern climates, need extra light in the winter or are stuck in windowless rooms can benefit from these inferior substitutes (if they can afford them). But what bugs me is that both businesses and, in a lot of cases, the medical community acts like these products are a cure, rather than a last resort.

Circadian rhythm issues are a huge problem for many people. But that's not because they don't have enough light therapy lamps. The problem is that much of our society and infrastructure was designed before anyone knew or cared about circadian rhythms. The fix for not enough sunlight isn't fake sunlight. It's windows.

The other, more complicated issue is that people have different circadian rhythms, but society demands everyone keep the same schedule. If you are born with a delayed circadian rhythm, then no fancy office lighting or even giant windows will change your DNA.

"Most people have a circadian rhythm that’s pretty 'normal' based on society’s standards; these people can adjust to a 9 to 5 schedule quite comfortably. The rest, however, are split between early birds and night owls, and their preferences can be quite extreme," explains The Dish on Science, a Stanford publication.

A huge number of people have circadian rhythm disorders (including up to 16 percent of teenagers). And many more, like typical "night owls," may not meet the definition for a disorder, but they still suffer. They don't need better lighting. They need understanding. They need bosses and teachers and administrators who let them work and study according to their inner programming, not society's outdated standards.

"While most people can relate to these times of alertness and drowsiness, some have extremely different biological clocks," continues The Dish on Science. "In all cases, sufferers can sleep an unbroken eight hours and feel well rested, but simply can’t choose the eight hours that are 'normal'."

Businesses and medical professionals often pathologize these problems, making them about individuals. But if you can fix a medical condition by simply not threatening someone with expulsion or joblessness, then it's not a medical condition. It's exploitation.

We've got a societal problem here, not a series of individual diseases. And a societal problem demands societal solutions. More windows, later school start times, and flexible work hours will get us much further than bright light alarm clocks.

When it comes to circadian rhythm problems, fancy new lighting products are band-aids, and we already know the real cures. What we need is the will to implement them.