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Our 53rd Year

The Role of Light in Human Health By Patricia McCormac

A nutrient, that travels at a speed of 186,000 miles a second from a source 93 million miles away, rates with food, water and air as part of the life-support system on earth.

It is light from the sun.

But light also comes from manmade sources, and therein lies a number of problems. The wrong kind of artificial light can make students irritable in school, reduce production among factory workers and make office workers sluggish. Studies show that the lack of the right kind of light can also interfere with calcium absorption in the elderly and contribute to brittle bones.

On the positive side, the right kind of light can be used to control jaundice in the newborn. It also can boost beef production: cattle that spend “longer days” under correct artificial light are 10% to 15% heavier, with no increase in food consumption.

The light that some scientists consider a “supernutrient” is Full-Spectrum light, which comes from the sun or from fluorescent bulbs of special design that simulate sunlight. (Actually, despite the designation of these artificial lights, they did not match the full spectrum of sunlight.). Incandescent bulbs and most fluorescent bulbs do not produce full-spectrum light. This may be contributing to “mal-illumination,” say photobiologists, the scientists who specialize in the study of light’s effects on living creatures. Photobiology is a relatively recent science – the American Society of Photobiology was founded in 1972. For most conventional doctors today, it’s still a bit of a far out field, though interest has been growing.

One way of rating light is by a color rendering index, the CRI. Natural outdoor light has a CRI of 100. Full-Spectrum fluorescent, 91; standard cool white fluorescent, 68; other fluorescent, 56. Under natural light or an artificial source that duplicates natural light, there is less human fatigue and stress and better visual acuity and production, studies have shown. Consider:

  • Plants grown under artificial lighting that comes close to duplicating full-spectrum sunlight can be made to flower on preset schedules by controlling day length.
  • In dairies, changing the length of light exposure from natural 9 to 12 hours of light to 16 hours of fluorescent light of the Full-Spectrum type increased the milk yield by 10% to 15%.
  • Full-Spectrum light is used to treat psoriasis, neonatal jaundice, and herpes simplex infections. Rays from sunlight stimulate the pineal gland, a pea-sized organ in the head. This gland secretes melatonin, a hormone that seems to control many bodily functions. When injected into animals, melatonin induces sleep, inhibits ovulation and modifies the secretion of other hormones. Experts say that both plastic and regular eyeglasses and contact lenses block some of the ultraviolet rays that travel through the eye to the pineal gland.
  • At the Center for Improvement of Undergraduate Education, Cornell University, Ithaca. N.Y., students working in a class with fluorescent light approximating sunlight experienced a significant increase in visual acuity and a reduction in overall fatigue, compared to performance under regular fluorescent lights.

John Ott (1909-2000), a pioneer in light and health research, warned against unhealthy effects of some kinds of light. At the time, he was rebuffed, but now there is basic research that supports his ideas. Ott said he first noticed strange happenings in living things under certain light sources when he was working on time-lapse photography for Walt Disney movies.

At the Bronx Zoo curators credit Full-Spectrum lighting with helping the tufted puffin, a shy sea bird, survive in captivity. Under the influence of “indoor sunshine,” the puffins, for the first time, laid eggs that hatched. Strange things happened in Burnett Park Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y., when sunlight-simulating lights were installed in an effort to stop vandalism. “The zoo became a veritable maternity ward,” said director Charles T. Clift. “The cougars fell in love all over again and produced their fourth litter, we collected five goose eggs. At least 8 lambs were born, and the deer population increased by 20. Big Lizzie gave birth to a bear cub. The wallaby produced a new mini-kangaroo and the chimpanzee got pregnant.”

Phillip Hughes Ph.D., a scientist at Duro-Test Corp., North Bergen, N.H., said the Syracuse zoo’s experience is just one example of the effects of natural-like light. Hughes is a vice president at Duro-Test, the firm that makes one of the most widely used Full Spectrum fluorescent lights, Vita-Lite. A specialist in neurological sciences, physiology and psychology, Hughes said, “Light is definitely a nutrient. It is essential to life and the whole endocrine system. Light has a role in triggering hormones. Vitamin D is synthesized by ultraviolet in the skin. Vitamin D receptors help proper bone development and prevent development of rickets. Vitamin D facilitates the absorption of calcium.
Under light not closely approximating the sun, one study found calcium absorption dropped off in the elderly in the indoors in winter. But those under Full-Spectrum lighting had an increase in calcium absorption.

According to Dr. Hughes, “Along with food, air, and water, sunlight is a most important survival factor in human life. Solar radiation activates other important biochemical events in our bodies involved in endocrine control, timing of our biological clocks, entrainment of 24-hour circadian rhythms, immunologic responsiveness, sexual growth and development, regulation of stress and fatigue, control of viral and cold infections, and dampening of functional disorders of the nervous system.”

He said the last two or three generations are the first to have spent three-fourths of their lives under artificial light: “We do not fully know the effect.”

In the last century, the Russians conducted extensive research into the health effects of various kinds of light. Under light that is Full-Spectrum, Russian scientific reports show production goes up and absenteeism goes down. This kind of light has been mandated in many Russian workplaces. In Russian schools, it has been demonstrated, Full-Spectrum lighting or ultraviolet treatment helps academic performance, improves student behavior and lessens fatigue.

The Russians have practiced light therapy on coal miners who spend their working day out of natural light. Once a day, coal miners must disrobe and spend half an hour in natural light or under Full-Spectrum artificial lighting. Russian scientists concluded that this regimen is useful in both preventing and treating black lung disease. Hughes noted, “The Russian researchers and health specialists have documented that the body’s tolerance to environmental pollutants is increased by Full-Spectrum light, which also increases the effectiveness of immunization procedures.”

West Germany’s government restricts the use of cool white limited spectrum fluorescent bulbs in public buildings because of their distorted spectral output. Ott, the original developer of full-spectrum lighting, maintained that sodium vapor lights, once offered as the latest technological advancement, do not reproduce the full spectrum of natural light. Ott reported, “The Fort Worth, Texas school district was one of the first to install sodium vapor lighting in perhaps a dozen schools. It was one of the first to take them all out because complaints of both teachers and pupils of headaches, eyestrain and other health-related problems.”

Ott contended that another major problem with all gaseous-discharge types of lights, including the mercury vapor and limited-spectrum fluorescent light, is that they emit radiation that grossly weakens muscle strength, affecting both academic achievement and behavior. A report on the risk to health from some fluorescent lamps suggested new probes by industry and the government: “There are good reasons, in our opinion, for government agencies and industry engineers to initiate promptly laboratory research programs on the effects of the spectral characteristics of artificial lighting on animals used in research and on human beings.”

A psychiatrist who used light in his therapy was Dr. H. L. Newbold of New York.
“Before we began civilizing ourselves into semi-invalidism, we received an abundance of full-spectrum light: the kind that nature provides for us in the form of sunlight,” said Newbold, author of Mega-nutrients for Your Nerves. “What we now get is a mere fraction of the spectrum. Once we are all ensconced behind our office desks or in our living room armchairs, science efficiently furnishes us with electric light. If your company, is really up to date, you are probably working under fluorescent light, which may be an industrial engineer’s dream of perfection, but happens to be the most nutrient-deficient of all lighting devices. Even ordinary light bulbs are preferable to the total artificiality of the fluorescent environment.

Newbold used Full-Spectrum lighting in his office and had a special plastic in place of glass in his office windows to allow the ultraviolet from natural daylight to enter.
To let the ultraviolet from Full Spectrum lighting into the pathway to the brain, he suggested special lenses for spectacles and contacts for his patients. In the treatment of yellow jaundice, newborns used to get complete blood transfers. That was until a nurse noticed that a jaundiced infant seemed to be getting better on his own. The infants crib was near an open window, and natural light was streaming in. The babies near the wall and out of reach of sunbeams were not doing as well.

So light treatment was tried on babies with jaundice, and it worked. Now, about 25,000 newborns a year get the treatment. In fact, three famous babies received the treatment about 40 years ago at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York. Three of the Kienast quintuplets (the first set of quints in the U.S. conceived through the use of fertility drugs) had jaundice and they were cured by Full-Spectrum lighting. When they went home, it was to a nursery with Full-Spectrum light.