Nobody likes those florescent overhead lights that still remain the primary lighting in most offices and schools. They make everyone look pallid and sickly, and their glare makes it difficult to focus and can even occasionally cause headaches. Thanks to science, we have one more reason to hate on them — they may be causing our metabolism to slow down to a slow crawl.
Human resources departments everywhere, take heed. According to a new study that was conducted at Northwestern University (my alma mater, so you know it's trustworthy), bright light exposure can increase insulin resistance, which in turn raises blood glucose levels over time, leading to increased body fat and risk of diabetes. Add that to what sitting at a desk for long periods of time can do to your metabolism, and you've got a recipe for a rather unhealthy lifestyle.
While this news sounds pretty terrible, especially if you spend nine-to-five under such harsh lighting, the scientists who conducted the study are actually excited by the results. "It's cool that bright light has this effect, but we don't understand why yet," Kathryn Reid, senior study author and a research associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said to ScienceDaily. "In theory, you could use light to manipulate metabolic function."
She makes an interesting point. If bright lights work to slow one's metabolism, perhaps levels of soft and/or low light would help speed it up. So rather than looking at it as a negative, perhaps we can use this newfound information to improve our work/school environments and make them healthier.
There is one significant detail to this bright light exposure phenomenon of which we all should take note. The researchers found that people who were exposed to the most bright light in the morning (before 12 p.m.) weighed less than those who were exposed in the afternoon/evening. The worst time to be exposed to such bright lighting is after hours. Such exposure caused higher peak glucose levels than exposure at any other time.
Over-illumination can do a lot more harm than just slow down our metabolism. It can cause hypertension over time, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and even erectile dysfunction. This is partially because it disrupts our circadian rhythms, which in turn makes our bodies think it's daytime when it's not. This is why the effects of jet lag can feel so draining — the change in light exposure stresses out our bodies.
So how do we combat this? Fortunately, the interior design community has already taken strides to rectify the problem in offices and public buildings like schools by lowering light intensity and using bulbs other than florescent. There are also ways you can (and should) lower your exposure too. Whenever possible, use natural lighting when working rather than bright, overhead lighting. Replace any florescent bulbs with soft-light bulbs, and install dimmers. Try to not work after dark for too long, but if you must, make sure to lower the brightness level on your computer screen. Most important, get outside in natural light as much as you can to give your body a break from artificial light exposure.
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