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Basking in the Light v. Soaking Up the Sun

Light, specifically natural sunlight, plays a very important role in our lives. Our internal clocks are instinctively set by the sun’s progress throughout the day. When spring arrives each year, we feel a boost in energy and mood that the longer, sun-filled days provide. In moderate amounts, daily exposure to sunlight has many proven benefits, including promoting our overall well-being and good health. Unfortunately, the demands of our daily lives and the winter months in northern regions force many of us to remain indoors. According to a 2008 report by the American Physical Society, most Americans spend 90% of their days indoors without direct access to sunlight. Further, the National Institutes of Health estimates that over 36 million Americans suffer from some form of depression each year due to lack of exposure to natural daylight. In an effort to create a solution, some lamp manufacturers have begun offering Full Spectrum Lighting (FSL), which they claim simulates daylight and can therefore provide similar benefits. However, as with any technology, there are some drawbacks to this artificial light source.

Full Spectrum Lighting originated in the 1960’s when photobiologist Dr. John Nash Ott found that he was unable to grow plants under common fluorescent lamps. But when he placed the plants under a light source that simulated both the visible and invisible (infrared and ultraviolet) wavelengths of natural sunlight, the plants grew and thrived. Dr. Ott described this all encompassing light as Full Spectrum Lighting. FSL attempts to duplicate the clarity and color intensity of sunlight by producing a clear, bright white light that renders colors well.

“Full Spectrum Lighting touts many positive attributes over traditional fluorescent lighting. Some of the potential health-related benefits include reducing hyperactivity in school children, alleviating stress, decreasing blood pressure, and increasing muscle strength.”

Full Spectrum Lighting touts many positive attributes over traditional fluorescent lighting. Some of the potential health-related benefits include reducing hyperactivity in school children, alleviating stress, decreasing blood pressure, and increasing muscle strength. Certain manufacturers state that FSL facilitates the body’s production of vitamin D, which is needed for maintaining healthy bones and strengthening the immune system. One of the most popular claims associated with Full Spectrum Lighting is that it is an essential part of Light Therapy. Light Therapy (treatment characterized by repeated exposure to intense light for a specific length of time each day) has been deemed an effective treatment for people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (i.e. the “Winter Blues”), which is thought to be caused by sunlight deficiency during the winter months. But these claims of improved health should be viewed with a degree of skepticism, since some benefits have not been conclusively supported by scientific evidence. As with most health-related treatments, studies indicate that Full Spectrum Lighting may cause negative side effects in some individuals, including headaches, eye strain, and nausea. The most dramatic side effects that may occur from prolonged daily exposure to FSL are insomnia, irritability, and hypermania. (For more information on benefits and side effects, please visit the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms’ website at www.sltbr.org/sadfaq.htm.)

If Full Spectrum Lighting has the ability to provide so many benefits with only a minimal potential for side effects, you may be wondering why it’s not widely accepted as a standard in artificial lighting. The primary reason is that FSL lamps are marketed at a premium price as compared to traditional fluorescent lamps. On average, a 4’ FSL lamp can be purchased for $8.50, while a 4’ traditional cool white fluorescent lamp costs approximately $1.30. In addition, FSL lamps generally produce fewer lumens per watt than the comparable fluorescent light source. This means that more lamps are required to maintain the same illumination level, resulting in higher electricity costs. So, before deciding to purchase Full Spectrum Lighting to brighten up those dreary winter days, also consider investing in additional windows, skylights, and outdoor spaces to take advantage of the original “feel-good” source – the sun.

– Jennifer L. Harrington, PE, LC, LEED AP