The wonders of light
Light is something that you probably take for granted; it’s just there. The sun rises in the morning, sets in the evening and when you don’t have the sun, you have electricity to provide light. Light is information to your body and is critically important to regulate your circadian rhythms, which is your daily biological clock that controls the release of hormones throughout the day. For example, in the morning you will release cortisol, and in the evening, you will release melatonin. Your body is designed to take light from the sun and you can use this information to optimise yourself.
The sun provides you with the full spectrum of light that you need to live a healthy life, and this includes:
- Ultraviolet light – with a wavelength between 10 to 400 nanometres, it is responsible for your summer tan and vitamin D production. Ultraviolet light is split into UV-A, UV-B and UV-C light
- Visible light – with a wavelength between 400 nanometres to 700 nanometres, it provides you with your primary source of light
- Infrared light – with a wavelength between 700 nanometres and 1 millimetre, it provides energy and warmth. Infrared light is split into near-infrared (IR-A), mid-infrared (IR-B) and far-infrared (IR-C).
Sunlight is so important, and it’s the reason why you will feel happy and full of joy when you’re sat in the park, and the sun is bathing your face, or you go for a walk and feel the warmth on your back. It’s not just the warmth that the sun gives you but it’s also triggering a series of chemical and biological processes that release your feel-good hormone, serotonin. A lack of sunshine has been linked with low levels of serotonin production in the brain which contributes to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
In addition to triggering hormone release, the sun sends a biological signal to your body to produce vitamin D sulfate. You can supplement with vitamin D, but only sunlight can produce vitamin D sulfate. If you are supplementing with vitamin D, then you need to be careful because you can build up toxic levels in your body. It’s for this reason that I only supplement vitamin D during the winter months. When your body produces vitamin D from sunlight and reaches the optimal level, it stops production.
Light acts like a drug. There, I said it.
Am I crazy?
I don’t think so.
There are many benefits associated with having sun exposure and they include:
- Improvement of skin conditions such as eczema, jaundice and psoriasis.
- Life expectancy. A study in 2016 reviewed all-cause mortality for 29,518 women and explored the differences in causes of death according to sun exposure. The study results were: ‘The mortality rate amongst avoiders of sun exposure was approximately twofold higher compared with the highest sun exposure group.’
Unfortunately, all light is not created equal, and light has positive and negative impacts on your body depending on the time of day and the types of light you are exposed to.
There was no artificial light until the light bulb was invented in 1879 and people would rise with the sun, they would wind down for bed by the light of a candle or fire, and sleep when the sun set. It’s a beautiful feeling when you step into a room full of candles because it’s relaxing and makes your body instantly loosen up. During the day, they would spend long periods of time outside soaking up the sunshine without sunscreen.
Today, it’s a completely different life; people wake up in the morning to catch the commuter train while it’s dark and they sit under artificial lights all day staring at a screen. If they are lucky, they may get a glimpse of sunlight during lunchtime, and then at night they sit in front of a TV, computer, tablet or smartphone. Is there any wonder that the rate of eye-related problems is spiralling out of control?
As technology has moved into a world of energy efficiency, the much-loved halogen lights have been replaced with LED lights. Unfortunately, indoor lighting from LEDs and screens produces too much artificial blue light. Blue light is known to cause harm by damaging the retina in your eyes and a study conducted in 20187 confirmed that blue light exposure is toxic to the eye and results in macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in the USA.
Your body wasn’t designed to process blue light after dark and LED lights contain a lot of blue light, so you’re telling your body that it’s continuously 12pm (noon) and it therefore stops production of essential hormones.
Helen Irlen is the founder of the Irlen Institute, investigating the Irlen Syndrome, and has pioneered research into the impact that light has on the body. There is too much junk light around because of modern technology, and to make it worse people are often performing more visually intensive activities under artificial lighting. White light (visible light) – comprises all the colours of the rainbow, and there are specific wavelengths visible that for some people act as static on their brains. The mind works hard to process the information from the static and it takes up a lot of energy in doing so.
This causes stress to your eyes and brain which can trigger a series of symptoms that impacts your attention, concentration and performance. It can even manifest itself as dizziness, headaches, migraines, nausea, tiredness and sleepiness.
There is a specific test that can be taken so that you can work out the frequencies of light that your body responds best to.
While in California at a conference, I took a test for basic Irlen screening. With a turquoise tint over a piece of white paper I felt it was much easier to read the text.
If you discover that you do have Irlen Syndrome, then you can buy tints for your glasses which will make working under artificial light much more comfortable. Even if people don’t have symptoms, many live their lives unaware of this, and how they interpret light and how they feel becomes their new norm. It’s not until they experience something different that they realise they have more energy.
Irlen Syndrome is controversial and despite the nay-sayers there are many advocates who claim it’s made a massive difference to their lives. The Irlen Institute openly states that they see many people who have been misdiagnosed as having ADHD or dyslexia but have Irlen Syndrome.
Is ultraviolet light bad for you?
Ultraviolet light is split into three components:
- UV-A – accounts for 95% of the UV light that hits the Earth’s surface and it penetrates the deepest layers of the skin
- UV-B – cannot penetrate beyond the superficial layers of the skin
- UV-C – is the shortest wavelength of light and the most dangerous. Fortunately, UVC is filtered out by the Earth’s ozone layer, so it doesn’t reach the surface
Both UV-A and UV-B have been heavily associated with skin cancers, so it’s important to treat sunlight with the respect it deserves. However, we are bombarded with advice from the media and the medical community to bathe ourselves in sunscreen and protect our eyes from UV rays, but it’s having a detrimental impact on our biology. For example, wearing a sunscreen with a sun protection factor of thirty reduces vitamin D synthesis in the skin by more than 95%.8 Vitamin D is critically important to bone strength, increasing the immune system, regulating kidney function and regulating blood pressure.
When my clients have a basic blood panel taken, around 50% of them have low vitamin D levels. You need to ensure that you get enough exposure to direct sunlight on your skin, preferably in the early morning or late afternoon when it’s not at its strongest.
When using sunscreen, here is what to look out for:
- Look for good quality toxin-free products with a good SPF value.
- Avoid spray sunscreen because it contains harmful inhalants and doesn’t adequately cover the skin.
- Don’t believe any sunscreen that claims it can protect above SPF 50, it’s just a marketing gimmick and has been banned in Europe.
Healing power of infrared light
Infrared light has some amazing benefits but is still little known and hasn’t hit the mainstream public. There are three types of infrared light:
- Near-infrared (IR-A)
- Mid-infrared (IR-B)
- Far-infrared (IR-C)
Infrared energy is absorbed by photoreceptors in the cell, triggering a series of metabolic events, increasing blood flow and delivering oxygen and nutrients. Inflammation and pain are reduced, and rejuvenation is stimulated.
A 2018 study looked at the impact that photo biomodulation (red or near-infrared light) has on the mitochondria, which they identified as the primary site of light absorption in mammalian cells and concluded that ‘photobiomodulation has a marked effect on stem cells and this is proposed to operate via the mitochondria redox signalling’.
Infrared light does not produce heat but causes a biological reaction and can burn you if not used correctly. Therefore, please proceed with caution, don’t fall asleep with a light on your body and don’t use it on your head unless you know what you are doing.
There are many infrared devices available on the market for purchase, and each of the infrared light frequencies has varying degrees of beneficial properties. I use a light at home with wavelengths of 650 nanometres and 850 nanometres in a single unit.
Light and your day
Light impacts your circadian rhythms which trigger hormone release in your body, so you need to make sure you are getting the right kind of light at the correct time of day. The following is a guide for what light you should be looking to be exposed to and what to avoid during a twenty-four-hour cycle:
Morning – in the morning you want the brighter light to tell your body that it’s time to wake up so that your melatonin production stops and your cortisol production starts to raise your energy for the day ahead. It’s best to get this from sunlight because you also get the benefits of UV and infrared light. If it’s winter or not a sunny day, then the next best thing is white light such as a 500-watt halogen light. You can also use a device that shines bright light into your brain and I use this on dark winter mornings.
During the day – this is difficult when you can’t control the lighting in your environment, especially where there is a lot of artificial lighting. To keep your circadian rhythms in sync, go for a walk outside or set up a full-spectrum light on your desk. Another option is that when indoors you wear a pair of glasses that block out the junk light. People have reported that by wearing these glasses, they have as much as 30% more energy.
Night-time – when the sun goes down you want to block as much blue light as possible because your body still thinks it’s daytime and doesn’t switch on your melatonin production. This is the primary reason why people aren’t getting as much deep sleep anymore. Once the sun starts to set, slowly dim down your lights. At night you should:
- Switch to amber or red bulbs, which have no blue spectrum
- Wear blue-blocking glasses at night
- Stop staring at bright screens for two hours before bed
- Tape over any LEDs in your bedroom and install a blackout curtain
This blog post is based on content from my book Limitless. You can pick up a copy on paperback and Kindle here:
Nick Powell is the founder of Stronger Self and he works with entrepreneurs and senior leaders to enable them to take their personal and professional performance to the next level.
Nick’s approach uses cutting edge tools and techniques from the worlds of biohacking, productivity, anti-aging and neuroscience; harnessing the exciting intersection between biology and technology.
Nick has developed his Peak Performance Coaching Programmes to enable his clients to deliver extraordinary results across all aspects of their personal and professional lives.
He runs his Coaching sessions face to face in London & Surrey and across the World via Zoom.